BY KIM THOMAS
To be a choral director takes more than a music degree. It takes an unusually talented leader to lead a choir. It requires the patience of a teacher, the precision of a timekeeper, and pride of a performer to present master works by dozens of voices, all at different stages of maturity.
At Frederick Douglass High School, the director of choral activities is Jessica Greene, who fits all those descriptions and more. She can be seen managing the stage at Studio Players, directing the musical components of Kentucky Conservatory Theater’s Summerfest and Winterfest (Sweeney Todd) and her alma mater, Berea College just finished American Idiot, which she also directed. She is involved in nearly every musical production in town and lauded by the best in the business.
Natalie Cummins, a props mistress who stage manages Studio Players, BCTC plays, and countless other presentations, says, “I’ve worked with her steadily since she was music director on Spamalot in 2015, the year I was production manager at Summerfest. Since that time, we’ve worked together on probably half a dozen shows with Summerfest, Winterfest, and The Rep. She’s an excellent artist AND teacher. Her consistency and high standards inspire all of us to achieve more.”
Lexington’s popular lead actor and director Bob Singleton has also worked with Greene at Studio Players and has “seen her in action as a director, an instructor, an actress, vocalist, instrumentalist, administrator,” describing her as a “leader and a collaborator, a teacher and a student,” adding, “she works in macro and micro, she knows when to push and when to pull back, when to nurture, and when to challenge.” He says, “I don’t know if there has ever been a detail that has slipped by her. Her work ethic and work load is legendary. She is fearless. I’m fortunate to have spent some time in her orbit, and we’re all fortunate to have her here.”
Dee Mason-Walker, Director of Choirs and Director of Bands at East Jessamine High School met Greene at an event recruiting teachers in Kentucky, and they’ve worked together on several shows. She says, “Jessica was my mentor last year during KTIP, which is a first year internship program for new teachers in Kentucky. She always has the best interests of those around her in mind — she is what I call a servant leader. Her students are very lucky to have her. She will always give her best to them and expect the best from them. She is going to do great things at Douglass and I can’t wait to see them happen!”
Married to Stephen Greene, Jessica Greene is blessed with a life helper who has never missed any of her performances and also teaches (math) at FDHS.
She says, “My husband was very excited about the vision of FDHS, so when the position opened up, I knew I had to go for it. When I interviewed for the position, I remember wondering if it would be too difficult to return to the classroom after two years as a district arts coordinator. I knew my passion for student learning and the arts was so strong that I would fall back into the routine, and my arts administration knowledge was strong enough to develop an effective curriculum for the Douglass population. I also knew that the opportunity to establish an arts program was a once-in-a-lifetime dream. The cherry on top is getting to work with my husband for the ninth year in a row!”
Greene is excited about the second half of her Frederick Douglass High School inaugural school year as the Director of Choral Activities and VPA teacher (Visual and Performing Arts). She says, “My main focus is to ensure that the choral program is built for the diverse population of Frederick Douglass High School and to encourage students to be life-long appreciators and lovers of music, whether it becomes their career or not. For VPA I am developing a curriculum with a focus on global competency through the study of music, dance, theater and visual art. We are studying the things that connect our world and our experiences. We study Visual and Performing Arts to remember where we’ve been and to know where we are going.”
She says, “At FDHS, we want to make sure our students are exposed to diverse, high-quality live performances and art exhibits. The UK Jazz Ensemble came to FDHS last week and performed a free concert for our Arts students and due to our amazing facility, we were able to open the opportunity to other students in the building. My VPA students were tasked with the assignment to write a review on the performance, and also complete an assignment on dynamics that happened to coincide with the unit we were working on. Our band students were able to see the next level of band opportunity available to them through a collegiate program. Having live performance opportunities for students in the Arts or otherwise, allows the information to become real and tangible.”
“Growth comes with hard work… I push students to step outside of the comfort zone and to not allow the expectations of others to define their potential in life.”— Jessica Greene, Frederick Douglass High School
She is proud of the student leadership, saying, “I love to allow students to take charge of their learning. We spent the first two months of school developing the culture of the classroom. This included classroom expectations, rehearsal technique and building a mission and goals. As the students started to realize that this was their program, they started to take ownership [of it] and its excellence.” The students signed up for student leadership positions and voted. Now, “the leadership team meets once a week to discuss how rehearsals are going and what they can do to grow the program. Then the president sits down with me and tells me how students are feeling and always asks, ‘what can I do better?’ This week, the a cappella ensemble, the North Stars, began learning how to run a student-led rehearsal. We had to first create an environment of trust that would be conducive to peers leading peers. There will be mistakes, but greater learning comes from the ownership in student leadership.”
Greene is eager to talk about Kentucky Conservatory Theater’s Sweeney Todd which is in rehearsal for KCT’s Winterfest 2018. Frederick Douglass High School is an in-kind sponsor, allowing KCT to rehearse at the school, and in return KCT offers internship opportunities to students of FDHS. She elaborates on the win-win, “Students helped run the audition process where we had over 75 of the most talented local performers attend! FDHS students have also been shadowing our stage manager and directors and will have the opportunity to work backstage and with the crew during the production that runs January 18th through 28th at the Grand Reserve. The cast of 12 is also a diverse team who will take on the lead roles and the ensemble parts, much like our production of My Fair Lady two years ago.”
FDHS drama department has already presented its first show, a very successful rendition of “All I ever really need to know I learned from being a zombie,” and they even competed at KTYA. They are rehearsing for their next production, Crazy Town, and she says, “Our students are shining on stage and off stage as they learn to work tech, running crew and front of house.”
Greene explains she is offering more than the musical nuts-and-bolts of singing. “I am not just teaching songs or the elements of Visual and Performing Arts. I am teaching students the importance of creative expression and the importance of collaboration. A student who is a creative thinker can solve any problem that presents itself and through collaboration and appreciation for others from different backgrounds and experiences, they can find a solution that is best for everyone. If we think about our world today, it is a fast-paced, ever-changing society…which means, we are preparing students for careers that do not yet exist. Therefore, it is important to teach students that characteristics and basic skills that are necessary for whatever future they build for themselves. The ability to work in a team to achieve a common goal, to think critically about an issue and approach the solution in different ways and to effectively communicate with words, facial expressions and body language will take them far in life. Whether they want to pursue a career or degree in the Arts or not, it is always my goal to teach all students those basic principles…I want them to have the tools to succeed in life, on and off the stage.”
Coming from a musical family, Jessica says that throughout her mom’s pregnancy, her mother prayed her child would be a musician. “Her prayers definitely proved strong and I sang more than I talked, which is a lot. I started playing the piano at 7 and added the violin in the 5th grade. I can remember wanting to sing the role of ‘Mary’ in the elementary Christmas program and not getting the role. Instead, I was given the role of the donkey in ‘The Friendly Beasts.’ I sang, ‘I said the donkey shaggy and brown, I carried his mother up and down…’ Even in elementary school I thought…why am I singing about the role I wanted?”
She stayed in choir through middle school while taking private piano lessons and studying the Suzuki method for violin but she did venture into theatre and got to play little orphan Molly in Annie in middle school.
In high school, she split time between violin and piano lessons at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music as part of the pre-college training program. She admits, “There were times when the extensive training became overwhelming, and I told my mother weekly through tears that I was quitting. She would always respond with a kind but firm, ‘No, you’re not!’ She knew that I loved music and that there was value in the training even when I couldn’t see the benefit. I am so thankful for my mother’s wisdom!”
In school, she played piano for show choir and the musicals (Little Shop of Horrors, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Once Upon a Mattress). “Our choir always performed ‘Joyful Joyful’ from Sister Act II, and I was determined to sing that Lauryn Hill solo! I never got that solo, but I learned to accompany the song really well. I felt as if I was always going to be the person behind the piano and never in the spotlight.”
To earn the “Cheek to Cheek” solo as a senior in high school, she says, “I worked harder than I ever prepped for any piano jury or any chair challenge in orchestra….We traveled our competition show to Branson, Missouri and I stepped from behind the piano and sang that solo on the big stage and those lyrics rang true: ‘Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.’ I walked away with new confidence and the award for ‘best female vocalist.’ The award affirmed what I had already realized: Growth comes with hard work, and no one can put you into a box. I use my personal experience to guide my focus on teaching and learning. I push students to step outside of the comfort zone and to not allow the expectations of others to define their potential in life.”
Jessica and Stephen Greene will celebrate their anniversary in March and she says, “he understands what tech week really means and he understands why I push myself so hard to create meaningful art and memorable opportunities for my students and anyone with whom I collaborate. He is starting to discover his passion for technical theatre and is getting to explore that talent even more at FDHS with the brand new auditorium! My EKU ensemble calls him travel dad, and each cast I work with knows that they can count on him to provide snacks, water bottles and erasers for music scores. Our students adopt us as Momma Greene and Uncle Steve and they add to our family every semester. We love taking care of our ‘kids’ and supporting, mentoring and encouraging them in whatever field they choose to explore.”
Parents and students of Frederick Douglass High School can rest assured their choral department is in good hands.
Jessica Greene Bio
Greene came to the Bluegrass to attend Berea College, where she studied vocal music education and worked as the choral librarian. She did a few shows at the Berea Theatre program and also served as musical director for a student-led production of The Wiz.
After Berea, she went to EKU for a Master’s in choral conducting. Berea Theatre Professor, Deborah Martin, asked her to serve as musical director for a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Greene says, “it opened a floodgate of opportunities. EKU heard I directed for a Collegiate program and Homer Tracey asked me to be the musical director for Beauty and the Beast as part of my graduate assistantship hours. The father of a cast member of Beauty and the Beast was Scott Halverson Turner, who happened to be the current president of Studio Players and he spoke to me after the show about possibly directing the summer show at Studio players, The Marvelous Wonderettes. Seven years later, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Berea College, EKU, Studio players, Actors Guild of Lexington, Woodford Theatre, The Rep, Kentucky Conservatory Theater, Leed’s Center for the Arts, East and West Jessamine High School, Scott County High School, SCAPA Bluegrass and Lafayette, The Lyric Theatre, Athens West and now Frederick Douglass High School.”
This article also appears on page 7 of the March 2018 printed edition of the Hamburg Journal.
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