It is often said that music is a universal language, and that the power of music can break down boundaries, be they geographic, political, socioeconomic, or more. Since 2016, a group of Rhode Island high school music programs have put that philosophy into action with a program called Meet in the Middle. It began with a question posed in conversation between two veteran music educators.
Barbara Hughes has taught at Barrington (Rhode Island) High School for over 30 years. Barrington is an affluent community south of Providence, and the high school is a National Blue Ribbon School; people move into the community because of the quality of the schools. Approximately 100 students are involved in the Barrington High band program, which consists of two sections of band class that meet daily for 55 minutes. There is also an auditioned jazz ensemble that meets every day.
A few years back, while cleaning up after a Rhode Island All-State concert, Hughes struck up a conversation with Regina McAdam, Director of Choruses at North Smithfield (Rhode Island) High School. During this conversation, the question of why students from the city schools in Rhode Island do not participate in the All-State festivals was raised. Out of this conversation was born Meet in the Middle, which began as a concert that combined the choirs from North Smithfield, Barrington, and two schools from Providence, Mount Pleasant and Central.
Danielle Trial Lucini has taught at Mount Pleasant High School for the past six years. Mount Pleasant is located in Providence, just outside the heart of city. Lucini describes the student body at Mount Pleasant as, “Many students are new to the country and trying to get a grasp on learning a new language and culture as well as getting acclimated to a new school and learn the content.” Approximately 94% of students receive free or reduced lunch, and weekend food for families is provided from the school pantry. Many families live at or below the poverty line, and a small percentage of students are homeless.
The band program at Mount Pleasant is typically around 35-40 students. Of those, only three to five students enter freshman year already playing an instrument. Mount Pleasant offers a Beginning Band, Concert (Advanced) Band, and Chorus. Music education students from neighboring Rhode Island College volunteer in the program, giving lessons and small group instructions during class. There are few after-school commitments for the Mount Pleasant band because many students have jobs to support their families, or watch younger siblings while their parents work.
The first year, Meet in the Middle involved chorus and band collaborating on a holiday concert at Providence College. Hughes and Lucini jointly selected the music for the program. Lucini states, “We generally try to find pieces that will challenge both groups, even though her [Hughes’s] students are more advanced than mine.” Approximately 20 advanced members of the Mount Pleasant program participate in Meet in the Middle. For Lucini, a challenge in selecting literature is making sure that the lower parts, such as second and third clarinet and trumpet parts are accessible to her students. The two schools rehearse independently, and then combine at either school for three two-hour rehearsals. Barrington students also make teaching videos to share with their Mount Pleasant peers. According to Hughes, “When my students make teaching videos they become invested in the project and are responsible for a high level of preparation. It also opens a line of communication between the students.”
The experience of going to each other’s campus has proven valuable to students at both schools states, “When we travel to Mount Pleasant, my students experience the challenge of the city school environment, and that reinforces an appreciation for what they have, but we also see the similarities between the students. They take pride in their music program and love making music just like we do. We all share the same goal of making music and my students are amazed by the Mount Pleasant students’ enthusiasm and dedication.” Lucini recalls that the first time her Mount Pleasant students rehearsed at Barrington, they thought it was a private school, because of how it compared to their own campus. Her students can easily see the socioeconomic and cultural differences between the two schools. “However,” Lucini states, “the great thing about this program is that, regardless of these differences, the students are able to come together, form friendships, and make beautiful music.”
The response to Meet in the Middle has been overwhelmingly positive. Lucini recalls that her students were hesitant at first, but warmed up to the idea after the first rehearsal. It is now something Mount Pleasant band students look forward to, so much so that they will ask Lucini the first week of classes when Meet in the Middle will be. Lucini reports that since participating in Meet in the Middle, there are more Mount Pleasant students interested in participating in Solo and Ensemble festivals and auditioning for Rhode Island All-State. The latter is especially noteworthy, as it was the lack of participation in All-State by urban schools that was the original impetus for Meet in the Middle.
Administrators at both Barrington and Mount Pleasant have been supportive of Meet in the Middle. Hughes reports that her principal was excited to have students from Mount Pleasant share the stage at Barrington’s concert. Lucini has said her principal at Mount Pleasant would like to see Meet in the Middle happen more than once a year. She explains, “Many often think the worst of my school and my students, and this program is one of many that helps to change those opinions and helps get my students out into the public in a positive light.”
Have there been any drawbacks to Meet in the Middle? None that outweigh the positives, according to Hughes and Lucini. Hughes observes, “Any drawbacks are irrelevant in comparison to the positives of collaboration and making music with our urban friends.” Lucini remembers a moment from the final rehearsal of the first year of collaboration that justifies the importance of the experience for both programs. She and Hughes were giving instructions on the plan for lunch on the day of the performance. Barrington students were told to bring bag lunches, while Mount Pleasant students were told their school cafeteria would provide them with theirs. At first, some of the Barrington students did not understand why Mount Pleasant were being provided their own lunches. There followed a discussion on the need for free lunch, which was an eye-opening fact for some Barrington students.
In April 2019, the Meet in the Middle program took another step forward, when the combined Barrington and Mount Pleasant High School bands performed at the Rhode Island Music Educators Association High School Concert Band Festival. For Lucini, this was the first time her students had ever participated in an adjudicated festival, and they gained much from the experience. With Meet in the Middle now in its fourth year, both Lucini and Hughes have continued goals for the program. Hughes states, “We are looking for long lasting and systemic change perhaps through a consistent mentor/lesson program and with valuable performing experiences.” Hughes would like for Meet in the Middle to perform for a larger audience, and to see more Rhode Island schools become involved. Lucini has said that there will be four choruses combining for adjudication this year, and the two bands will again go to festival.
For those interested in trying a program such as Meet in the Middle in their community, the following quote from Lucini provides perhaps the greatest justification for undertaking the project:
“A few years ago, one of my seniors told me that she wished people would start to realize ‘We aren’t bad kids. We’re underprivileged. We want to come to school. We want to learn because most of us don’t want to be at home. We need an outlet and a place to express our creativity. Being underprivileged doesn’t make us bad. It just means that we need more opportunities to express ourselves and succeed.’ ”
For music students at Mount Pleasant High School, Meet in the Middle has provided that opportunity, while for the students at Barrington High, it has been an opportunity to engage with students from different cultural and socioeconomic statuses. Ensemble music-making fosters the opportunity to create community, be it a high school marching band, a weekend Honor Band festival, or in the case of Meet in the Middle, students from vastly different schools in the same state. Despite the differences between Barrington and Mount Pleasant High Schools, the students in Meet in the Middle are equals in creating their ensemble. As Lucini says, “My students start at a significant disadvantage in so many aspects of their lives. Meet in the Middle helps to level the playing field for a short period of time and allows them to simply experience the joys of making music. I would hope that other schools would follow suit to offer their students those same experiences.”