Caribbean Connection, From the Bay to the Blue Ridge

Island Students Learn Songwriting from a Master at St. John School of the Arts

Living on St. John has some serious perks — see our stunning beaches, miles of lush hiking trails and perfect sailing — but arts education for children, that’s an entirely different matter.

A little white building perched on a hill in Cruz Bay, however, has been filling that gap for more than 25 years. Founded in 1980 by former New York City girl turned St. John business pioneer and arts lover Ruth “Sis” Frank and Rudy Wells, St. John School of the Arts has brought many exciting programs to the island for children, from piano instruction to video production.

Most recently, St. John School of the Arts may just have tapped the next Irving Berlin or Otis Redding.

Thanks to a lasting impression by SJSA co-founder Ruth “Sis” Frank and continued excellence at SJSA, island sixth, seventh and eighth grade students have been learning the finer points of songwriting and music composition.

More than a decade ago in New York City, Frank – who has since passed away – met an attorney named Peter Strauss. Strauss was the man responsible for overseeing the trust for the famed lyricist Irving Caesar, who penned “Tea for Two.”

Sis Frank’s meeting with Attorney Strauss obviously left lasting impression on the New York attorney, SJSA Executive Director Kim Wild explained.

“Most of Irving Caesar’s money went to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers [ASCAP] and the ASCAP Foundation,” said Wild. “But $100,000 of it came back to us at SJSA and that’s when we did the renovations to the school on the outside.”

Thanks to that $100,000 donation to SJSA, the school was able to  upgrade its facilities which boast a beautiful performance space now called The Ruth “Sis” Frank Performance Hall.

Attorney Strauss, however, was finished supporting SJSA.

“Peter once again has been watching us and, seeing all the great things we’ve been doing, he arranged for a meeting for me at the ASCAP Foundation,” Kim Wild said. “I went up there this summer we discussed a Songwriting Composition Class for SJSA.”

After going through the formal grant process successfully, SJSA launched its first Songwriting and Composition Class this January. Each week throughout the semester, sixth, seventh and eighth grade students spent about an hour with SJSA instructor Luba Dolgpolsky, a singer, songwriter and pianist and local musician Laurie Keefe.

Last week, students got an extra treat in the form of an artist in residence. Professional musician and songwriter Terre Roche, who has been an active performance and recording artist since the mid-1970s, spent a week of intensive training with the students in late March.

“Part of the grant includes an artist in residence, a professional musician who comes down from the states and gives a more intensive songwriting composition study,” said the SJSA Executive Director. “Terre has so much experience in the music industry and is so talented, the week has been amazing.”

For the artist in residence portion of the class, JESS students spent time with Roche writing their own songs and performing impressive renditions of other songs in three part harmonies with percussion accompaniment.

Roche was more than impressed with the talked students from the local high school, Julius E. Sprauve School, she explained.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I came down, partly because I haven’t done this kind of thing before,” she said. “I mainly teach adults. I was really blown away by the natural musical talent in all three of the classes I worked with from the Sprauve School. The kids loved to sing and they came up with great ideas for their songs.”

Teaching is a perfect fit for Roche, who has spent plenty of time on the road and is now ready to share those experiences with others.

“I came to teaching after having had a career in music, so for me, teaching is very fresh,” said the singer and songwriter. “At this point in my life I have a lot of ideas about music and songwriting but I don’t really have the urge to be a singer-songwriter anymore.”

Roche, who has toured with Paul Simon and others, learned a few new things herself for her recent gig a SJSA, she added.

“When I took the job at the St. John School of the Arts I immersed myself in the music that 12 year olds are listening to,” she said. “I found there are lots of really great songs full of energy among the modern repertoire kids are listening to,” said Roche. “I sort of took a course in it before I came down to teach the class. So, in a sense, I was a student too, just maybe an older one who was there to lead the way.”

Looking back upon her intensive week with the St. John students, Roche hoped more than anything that the kids had fun.

“I hope the students had fun,” she said. “If I can connect up with my true nature I’m happy. That’s what music is for. I hated music class when I was in middle school. It was boring. That’s because I didn’t connect up with my true nature in those classes. I wasn’t interested in what a whole note was.

“I became very interested in that sort of thing later in life, but an introductory music class has to be fun first,” said Roche. “Each of the three classes I taught on St. John had distinctly different personalities. The first class wrote a beautiful song about the rain. One of the guys in the class has a real talent for rap and he improvised a remarkable, heartfelt rap on the spot for their song.”

“The next class wrote a song about the wind called ‘El Viento Viejo,’” Roche said. “It had a chorus which was sung as a round. One of the girls wrote a really funny verse about a guy getting his weave blown off in the wind. The third class wrote a song about food. They were a remarkable ensemble in that they couldn’t stop singing songs. The trick with them was to get them to stay with an idea and not just sing halves of songs. At one point they all spontaneously erupted in the Tire Kingdom commercial. It sounded great so I suggested we put it into their song, which we did.”

For Roche, the true beauty in life, whether on St. John or in the middle of New York City, is all about finding your own voice which is definitely set to music.

“Coming home from St. John yesterday, I had this experience: I took a cab from the airport and the driver, who was from Bangladesh told me he loved to sing in his cab, but that no one except his wife liked his singing,” she said. “I asked him if he’d sing something for me and he did. He had that great Indian type of singing with the curlycue notes. I thought he sounded beautiful. Can you imagine a man who loves to sing in his cab not singing because other people don’t like it? That’s criminal!”

“I say, the more different sounding voices, the better,” she said. “If I hear one more person who’s trying to sound like somebody else, I’m going to jump out the window.”

As for her time at SJSA, Roche now counts herself among the art school’s many fans supporters

“All in all, I loved the experience of teaching songwriting at the St. John School of the Arts,” said Roche. “What a cool institution it is, with a very talented faculty. The work they’re doing providing arts education on St. John is very important. Music and art has been taken out of school systems all around the country. It’s a real shame and a slap in the face to the generations coming up. I’m honored to be part of the effort to reverse that decision.”

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Written by: Jaime Elliott

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