It is a weekday just like any other. At 2 in the afternoon, the Collegiate Upper School Commons is scattered with students; some intently hunched over their laptops or poring over books, others chatting quietly, their hushed voices a soothing baseline hum. And then, from a corner of the Commons, like the sound of a gentle rain, comes the pitter pat of snaps and claps followed by a chorus of young voices, their music, as it travels the hallways, a tranquil soundtrack to every student’s afternoon.
Such is the nature of fine arts at Collegiate’s Upper School. From the walls that lead into Matt Webber’s vocal music room and line the Commons burst the vivid colors of artwork produced by Marilen Morales’s drawing and painting students. Displayed throughout the building are the works of Amy Cunningham’s photography students and Megan St. Clair’s printmaking, fiber arts, and sculpture pupils. During any given school day, if one isn’t overhearing the dulcet tones of one of Matt Webber’s vocal music groups, there is likely a happy clamor of instrumental music emanating from Troy Fischer and Sam Hake’s band room.
Our Upper School boasts 14 visual arts classes, 2 choirs and 5 instrumental music groups performing collectively over 70 times a year, and a fine arts faculty team that together support two major theater productions annually. As a testament to the appeal of recently expanded course offerings, 60% of this year’s seniors have completed 3 years in a fine arts class. Our upperclassman choir, Madrigals, has traveled to Italy, Paris, and New York, and every Upper School fine arts student is invited to attend the annual ISAS festival, a three day long opportunity to share their creativity with like minded young people from 40 Southwestern schools. Last year’s musical, Legally Blonde, earned WCS 2 Jester Award nominations and 12 regional honors. During the 2021-22 school year, our Marching Spartans and Drumline were both awarded coveted “I” ratings. Eighteen of our band musicians were named All-District and 10 were further honored as All-State. Forty two of Collegiate visual arts students were presented with Scholastic Art Awards, five of them earning Gold Keys and 10 earning Silver Keys. These are impressive and exciting facts and statistics, but they are actually not at all at the heart of why we continue to foster fine arts at Collegiate. There are other far more compelling reasons.
Over the course of 15 years, Troy Fischer and Sam Hake have expanded our instrumental music program in every way possible. Since 2008, when Mr. Fischer and Mr. Hake first came on board to lead only 20 players, our band program has grown to consistently engage 50 students a year for the past 10 years. But if you are familiar with our Upper School “Band Fam”, you’ll know the headline is not the numbers – it’s the vibe. Current senior AJ Nagabhushan has been a band member since 5th grade and credits Band’s warm, friendly environment and emphasis on collaboration with both expanding her social circle and laying the foundations of her closest friendships. Mr. Fischer affirms this sentiment saying, “Outside of learning individual notes and rhythms, students must learn how to work towards a common goal, learning flexibility, compassion, and support for others. . .teamwork, respect. When all of that is in sync, the beauty of the music being performed can be an overwhelmingly positive aspect of their lives.” There is no doubt that our music program produces not only talented musicians, many of whom are performing at levels that render them highly desirable college applicants, but also authentically engaged community members who are comfortable bridging differences through music.
Rose Cunningham, a WCS alumna and “lifer” would agree. Currently a senior focusing on photography and writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she remembers her time as a fine arts student at Collegiate as formative. She recalls the breadth of visual arts classes offered as eye-opening, each new medium offering an opportunity to experiment creatively and take risks from which one could learn and grow. What she learned from her time studying the visual arts in our Upper School went far beyond the artistic skill so clearly on display in her current photographic works. “I appreciate so much that I had an intellectually challenging education that also fostered creativity. Art teaches kids to be cultural producers, as they are asked to think about current events or politics and consider art as a means of not necessarily solving the problems, but bravely asking the questions.” Marilen Morales, having taught 2D art at the Upper School for 13 years while building out a now robust digital art program, concurs: “A strong arts program provides meaningful opportunities for kids to use their imagination, to showcase their talents, to be known. . .and to be challenged.” It is this critical feature of the arts, that one's work will ultimately be displayed, discussed, and perhaps even judged, that can help its students develop the kind of independence, confidence, and conviction useful in every facet of life.
Let us return to Matt Webber’s vocal music room. And let’s really think about what’s going on in there. This is high school. The ups and downs are pronounced and come a mile a minute; one is not always in the mood to sing. But every day, that’s what our Dynamics and Madrigals do. The room’s atmosphere will often shift briskly back and forth from that of intense concentration as the group learns a new harmony to jubilant celebration as a practiced song suddenly surpasses expectation. It is a place where senior Ovi Davis, a seasoned photographer but newcomer to vocal music, says “I can break out of my shell and recharge my energy.” Long time choir and musical cast member Shelby Lair, who will be performing as Sandy in Grease this November 10-12th, feels the same way. “People sometimes say to me, ‘How do you do that? How do you get up and sing in front of all those people?’ I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re nervous in the beginning. But then it just becomes. . .fun.” For many students, art can be not only an outlet but also a restorative, their fulfillment from its daily practice showing just as much on their faces as on the canvas or stage, its comfort seen in their eyes as much as it is heard ringing through our halls.
Through the years, WCS has been home to courageous fine arts instructors who founded the programs we continue to grow today. From Gary Buettgenbach’s profound impact on our visual arts offerings to the world class Collegiate choirs that thrived under James Ockerman, our school has been the frequent beneficiary of faculty with vision. Today, this legacy holds strong. Sam Hake, in his first year as Fine Arts Director, hopes that during his tenure the Fine Arts Department will continue to present students with new ideas and classes while always upholding the standards of its past. In keeping with this goal, Collegiate will be instituting its first ever Fine Arts Hall of Fame. Its aim will be to recognize alumni and esteemed former faculty’s commitment to the growth and development of our WCS Fine Arts Department. For it is so often in celebrating the achievements of those who have come before us that we are spurred to follow our own daring dreams. And while not every Collegiate fine arts student will pursue art as a vocation, there will come a time for each one, in whatever walk of life they choose, to push past fatigue and pick up the brush, to quell their fear to take the stage, and to seek joy as they lift up their voice.