By Paula Katinas
FRESH MEADOWS — In an era when arts education often falls prey to budget cuts, St. Francis Preparatory School marches to the beat of a different drummer.
The school places an emphasis on music education and the result is a high level of student participation coupled with a growing reputation as an arts center, according to school administrators.
St. Francis Prep, located at 6100 Francis Lewis Blvd., has an enrollment of 2,400. Approximately 1,000 students, nearly half the population, play in an orchestra, sing in a chorus or study music. The school has several orchestras and bands, including a chamber music orchestra, a jazz band, and two percussion groups. For singers, there is a concert chorus, a prep chorus, and a chamber music choir.
There are seven music teachers on staff. In addition to performance classes, there are two music theory courses and classes in music history and technology.
Senior Anthony Pace, the student body president, plays clarinet in the concert band.
He derives many benefits from being part of the music program, he said. “It gives you a chance to take a pause from life’s craziness and focus on something else. It’s an amazing feeling. It balances me academically and spiritually,” he said.
Music can help a student in other subjects, according to Pace. “Music and math go hand in hand,” he said. “But aside from that, there are other things. It keeps you alert. When you’re playing a concert, you have to pay attention. You have to know when your part is coming.”
St. Francis Prep has eight studios for students seeking to perfect their skills. “You can record yourself playing and play it back to see how you sound,” Pace said.
“We also have classes for beginners,” said Dr. Robert Corbino, chairman of the Music Department. “They can learn to play an instrument for the first time. How fast they move up is up to them.”
The school takes particular pride in newcomers, according to Principal Patrick McLaughlin. “We’re so proud of these kids who came to us and never played the violin before. To see them grow as musicians is wonderful,” he said.
The benefits of a music program include teamwork and a sense of belonging, McLaughlin said. “It unifies the kids,” he said. “I’ve seen kids in the orchestra sitting in the cafeteria with kids on the football team.”
Robert Johnston, chamber orchestra director, said students learn valuable lessons they can take with them into the future. “They learn discipline. If you play an instrument, you have to practice. They learn teamwork. They learn problem-solving skills. Not every kid is an athlete. For them, the band is their team,” he said.
“There is a social aspect to it, too,” Corbino said. “There are lots of friendships formed. The students get to travel. We’ve done three trips to England and Italy. And they’re not just sightseeing trips. The students get to perform.”
Closer to home, students get the chance to perform at six concerts throughout the school year, although the coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellations of many of these events.
In the past, St. Francis Prep has performed for Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict.
Remote learning brought on by coronavirus has forced adjustments. Practices have been hard to organize since some students do not have instruments at home. Teachers said they are eager to resume once the crisis ends.
Corbino, who has been at the school for 44 years, is credited by Johnston with being the architect behind the music program.
“There was a music program when he came here. But he expanded it. He wanted to bring music to as many kids as possible,” Johnston said.
Corbino said that when he arrived at St. Francis Prep, band was an extra-curricular activity but not part of the academic curriculum. Corbino decided to change. One of the first things he did was start a jazz ensemble.
“The best part is the kids. And the teachers give everything they have to make something succeed,” Corbino said.
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