is the grass any bluer...

is the grass any bluer...
on the other side?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Many Musical Hats of FDHS' Jessica Greene

Jessica Greene -- Her thoughts on being the voice of a new high school's singing students, and Kentucky Conservatory Theatre's musical mahareeshi.
" 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 Greene

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 passion of a lover, 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 Summerfest and Winterfest (Sweeney Todd is in rehearsal as we speak) 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.

"Dee Mason-Walker, Director of Choirs and Director of Bands at East Jessamine High School describes his relationship with Greene in glowing terms. "I met Jessica at an event recruiting teachers in Kentucky. She recruited both William and I to teach in Jessamine County."  As director of both band and choirs at East Jessamine High School, Mason-Walker has also benefited from and been delighted to work alongside Greene in several shows. "We have done Jesus Christ Superstar and Dreamgirls together, and hopefully many more! Jessica is the greatest! She was my mentor last year during KTIP, which is a first year internship program for new teachers in Kentucky. She was always available anytime I had questions. Jessica is so kind, hospitable, generous, and loving. She always has the best interest 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!"

Natalie Cummins, an expert props mistress who stage manages Studio Players, BCTC plays, and countless other presentations, speaks to Greene's multi-faceted talents as a director and stage manager.
"I love Jessica and cannot think of a better person to promote. 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. I admire her solid and immediate grasp of the material and her ability to explain nuances to cast in clear language. She's an excellent artist AND teacher. As a stage manager, I greatly appreciate
her organization and her explanations. 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. He, too, gives her high marks for musicality and communication. "I don't have enough command of the language to do this justice, but I'll give it a shot. I've worked directly with Jessica on our production of CLUE The Musical at Studio Players, worked closely with her on the Board of Directors at Studio Players, and have seen her in action as a director, an instructor, an actress, vocalist, instrumentalist, administrator. I've never come away feeling anything less than impressed, and I think she always leaves a place in better shape then when she arrived. She is a leader and a collaborator, a teacher and a student, she works in macro and micro, she knows when to push and when to pull back, when to nurture, and when to challenge. 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. She could be an intimidating presence if she wanted to, but I think she's too considerate, too kind, and too intelligent to have to resort to that. Still, her reputation precedes her, it is massive, and fully earned. I'm fortunate to have spent some time in her orbit, and we're all fortunate to have her here."

Coming from a musical family, Greene tells me that her parents both "sing very well and Dad dabbles with piano." Her siblings sing and play various instruments and have performed duets with her as well, in church and at home. 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 I did venture into theatre and got to play little orphan Molly in "Annie" in middle school. I thought it was so cool that I had the first line in the show... "Momma, momma,

"In high school (in Goodlettsville, Tennessee), I split my time between violin and piano lessons at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music as part of the pre-college training program. 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 Lauren 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."
"Senior year of high school, our show choir theme was 'Dance,' and the ballad was 'Cheek to Cheek.' The rules stated, as long as you were part of show choir, even in the band, you could audition for a vocal solo. I really wanted that 'cheek to cheek' solo, and I worked harder than I ever prepped for any piano jury or any chair challenge in orchestra. After three rounds of auditions, with choreography, I got the solo! 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."

How did we get so lucky, as to have such a talented musician teaching in our midst? Jessica explains, "I came to the Bluegrass to attend Berea College, where I studied vocal music education and worked as the choral librarian. I 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, I went to EKU and earned my Master's in choral conducting. During this time, my Berea Theatre Professor, Deborah Martin, asked me to serve as musical director for a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and 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, AthensWest and now Frederick Douglass High School.

Greene is excited about the second half of her Frederick Douglass High School inaugural school year as Frederick Douglass High School's Director of Choral Activities and VPA teacher (Visual and Performing Arts). "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 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. In addition, I also will be serving as musical director for the spring musical," she adds.

Greene is associate artistic director at Kentucky Conservatory Theatre and works with KCT's executive director Wesley Nelson to develop ideas for shows, marketing Outreach and educational opportunities, and we present those ideas to the board for a vote. As a member of the working board, I also work to secure sponsorship and performance opportunities for the company and the actors who call us family. The current setup has Wes and I working as a team to direct productions and I absolutely love collaborating with him, however, we're looking forward to bringing in other directors in the future."
Because this past summer's offering filled Woodland Park with enthusiastic crowds, I asked what it was like to bring the Wiz full circle and produce it for Summerfest. Greene sincerely explains how special that production was to her. "This production brought an amazing amount of talent and diversity to the stage into the audience. Every night from the Bandstand, I could look out over Woodland Park at the diversity that is Lexington. It was a show that everyone could enjoy and a show with the relatable message. to my knowledge, The Wiz had not been presented in this area. As a woman of color, the show is so important to me because it allows a platform for actors of color that doesn't include the stereotypical subservient roles. A leading lady of color is a brown girl's dream as a performer. To see that role come to life was inspiring and completely fulfilling on the other side, to be able to bring diversity to a show that is traditionally all one race, was also fulfilling in a different way. Theater becomes a much more enriching experience when we bring together actors and creative team members from different backgrounds and experiences and I think theatrically what we saw was a collaboration of diversely talented minds to create the final product and make the production as popular as successful as it was this past summer."
Greene is eager to talk about Sweeney Todd which production has a dual benefit for our community.

 "Sweeney Todd is in rehearsal for Winterfest 2018. Our in-kind sponsor, Frederick Douglass High School, allows us to rehearse at the school in return KCT offers internship opportunities to students of Frederick Douglass High School. Students helped run the audition process where we had over 75 of the most talented local performers to 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. There is a fire in these actors as they arrive to rehearsal well-studied and ready to make music and develop their characters with a guidance of Wes and myself! It's going to be an amazing production and another great night of up close, modern dinner theater with a surprise pre-show!

Not sure what the plot of Sweeney Todd? No problem, Greene summarizes, "Sweeney Todd: most people think the production is about a man who kills people and a woman who puts those people into pies. It is, but it's also about so much more! I've always thought about this show is a deeper study of Revenge versus the idea of redemption. Our production will explore that concept a little further through the lense of lust and how the Lust For Revenge keeps swinging from his true redemption which in this case would have been restoration. With a small cast, every role is a
standout role. We have cast members who have done several shows with KCT and a few who are making their KCT Debut with this production, but they are all talented and dedicated to their craft and this story."

Greene adds that she is still finishing projects as new ones are beginning. "I am wrapping up American Idiot at Berea College. They asked me to be the alumni director as part of their 125th anniversary of theater. It's been so fantastic to come back to my alma mater to encourage and support the current students so they can one day take my place.
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. As we continue to expose our students to the Arts and new authentic ways, we hope to continue recruiting students for our ensembles and programs, but above all, we want to encourage our students to appreciate the Arts in a way they may not have before.

What she is most proud of regarding the opening of the new high school's performances? Greene emphasizes she is most proud of the student leadership. " 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 and it's excellence. They signed up for student leadership positions such as president, vice president, communication and section leaders and they voted on their leaders. 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?. It is important as an educator to always evaluate your Effectiveness and take student feedback as an opportunity to grow and not as an attack on your ability. Different students need different things and I want to make sure my learning environment is student-focused. This week, the a capella 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."

"In my Visual and Performing Arts classes, I am most proud of the students willingness to try new things. Learning about other cultures in this day and age can open the floor to controversial ideals and stereotypes. After building an environment of trust and establishing the expectation for respect, we have been able to introduce new cultures and speak openly about what makes us different and what makes us the same while using respectful descriptions of the culture they are exploring. Watching my students practice Mudras (hand signs) from Indian culture and decorate sugar skulls to honor a lost loved one as part of the Dia de los Muertos celebration in Mexican culture, has been enlightening and has allowed my students from within those cultures to have a sense of belonging and the opportunity to share new things with me and their classmates.

Musical plans:  "The drama department has already presented produced 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 we will be doing some musical theatre workshop's to assess our options for the spring musical. Our students are shining on stage and off stage as they learn to work Tech, running crew and front of house!"

When asked why parents should be happy that their kids are in her music program, 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. Those who are seriously interested in the Arts, I want to prepare them for the next stage, whether it be an audition, a performance or a collegic theory exam I want them to have the tools to succeed in life, on and off the stage."


Married to Stephen Greene, Jessica is blessed with a life helper who has never missed any of her performances and also teaches (math) at FDHS. Steve actually mentioned her name during his interview with Principal Diaz. "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 2 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 9th year in a row! Our 5-year anniversary is in March and he has always been so supportive of my passion for the arts. 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 adopts 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 the in whatever field they choose to explore.

This is Greene's year-in-review, which demonstrates just how busy this dynamic young lady's life transpires over the seasons:
"I usually book a show about a year in advance because I want to make sure I can do my research and prepare myself for their production. I am currently booked until July 2018 and have started thinking about Winterfest 2019. Here's a look at my past year:
December 2016 -- Berea College Christmas Special "Light" with CBS: Assistant Director
January 2017 - Began with Dreamgirls with KCT at the Grand Reserve as Music Director
February 2017 - The Rocky Horror Show at EKU, Vocal Director
March 2017 - The Drowsy Chaperone at SCAPA Lafayette at the Opera House, Vocal Director
April 2017 - Willy Wonka at West Jessamine High School as producer
May 2017 - The Broadway Live announcement at the Opera House (where I got to sing Motown tunes!)
June 2017 - Italy tour with the EKU A Cappella Ensemble, EKos
July 2017 - The Wiz with KCT Summerfest in Woodland Park as Music Director AND the 25th        Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Studio Players as Vocal Director
August 2017 - Reprised the role of Hairspray's Motor Mouth Maybelle at Leed's Center for the Arts
September/October 2017 - Focus on Frederick Douglass High School
November 2017 - American Idiot at Berea College as Director
December 2017 - My first full choir concert at FDHS!
Looking ahead Sweeney Todd at KCT Winterfest in January, KMEA Assessment for the FDHS Choir in March; The Christians with AthensWest as Music Director and Singing In The Rain with SCAPA as Vocal Director; in May we present the Spring Musical; and then begin plans on Summerfest!
I have loved finding out more about Jessica -- hope you have enjoyed it too. 
Parents and students of Frederick Douglass High School can rest assured their choral department is in good hands!  Go see FDHS shows and support this school arts program for happy holidays!

peace, kjt

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