It isn’t every day that you come across a group of teenagers with an interest in the music of Phish. Sure, The McLovins burst onto the scene in 2008—has it really been 9 & 1/2 years?—with their rendition of “You Enjoy Myself.” But even if you’re a parent trying to encourage your son or daughter to listen to music other than EDM or hip-hop or radio pop, more than likely, Phish, isn’t at the top of the list for most high schoolers. However, it might be now, after a high-school ensemble in Connecticut rode their rendition of “Divided Sky” to second place in competition following their rehearsal of the Phish song going viral earlier in the year and earned high remarks from Trey Anastasio himself.
Don Binette, a percussion instructor at Naugatuck High School since 1999—his own alma mater—and a long time Phish fan, had an idea in 2009 after being inspired by Trey Anastasio’s orchestral version of the phish song “Divided Sky.” Why not perform the piece in competitions with the winter percussion ensemble he leads and that he had been a part of as a student. Binette sent off a few emails to the Phish organization, which eventually reached Don Hart—Anastasio’s string arranger—and was given the go ahead by Phish and Hart. Presented then to the schools’ musical director at the time, it was passed on and back-pocketed by Binette. Forward to 2016 and current percussion director Dave Pelaggi reached out to fellow instructors for ideas. Binette offered “Divided Sky.” Another email dashed off to Hart, “Hey Don, it’s 7 or 8 years later and we’re about to get this off the ground…” and Hart was all in, even offering his own thoughts on how the piece could be presented by a percussion ensemble.
“We started rehearsals—not the piece—in December,” says Binette when asked about how long this ensemble has been performing the piece. “We did two pre-rehearsals to see what kids were interested so we could see how many kids we had to write the piece for. We actually started rehearsing the music in January. We missed eight rehearsals because of snow and that really set us back. But, pretty much every Tuesday and Thursday, and then we started adding in Saturday’s in February and started our competitive shows the second Saturday in March.”
Among the students that showed an interest in the winter percussion ensemble was fifteen-year-old Emily Kropo, who as a freshman played piano in the school marching band. A natural talent and dedicated student, Kropo found her way to the marimba and vibes and other instruments in the percussion orchestra. Now a sophomore, she’s the lead instrumentalist in the ensemble, leading a group of twenty fellow students—for whom percussion is not their primary instrument and from several schools in Naugatauk including middle school—in competitive performances of the piece. She nor any of her fellow bandmates had heard the song before being presented with it for the performance.
“No I hadn’t. I was very surprised, because I haven’t been in a winter ensemble before. For marching band, you usually do something that’s like … formal,” she states when asked about her thoughts upon hearing the song. “And this is formal, but it’s more like, jazz type of groove. So it’s surprising to me that we’re doing something that you can relax to and you can enjoy it while your performing it. And use your improvisation skills, like you can see where in the piece things need to be loud and things need to be soft.”
She liked the song upon first looking it up on YouTube and even checked out another Phish song. She says that elements of this performance have helped expand her knowledge of the jazz style. “So I take that criteria that we learned in the winter percussion ensemble—cause it’s kind of jazzy—and I put it into the piano playing I do for the jazz band.”
The hardest part she says is keeping the entire orchestra in rhythm and on tempo. “I guess the tough part is that I try to pulse to what the beat is and if the kids can’t get it in time or they can’t feel the beat as I feel the beat, it just throws everyone off track.” This performance is strictly done on percussion instruments and does not include a drum set drummer; Marimbas, xylophone, bells, orchestra bells, chimes, timpani, concert snares & toms & bass percussion are all utilized.
Binette notes that the competition called for different styles of music with multiple musical elements. The piece performed is supposed to have high, fast, mild tempos; soft, subtle textures, slow pieces.The student performances are judged by two judges, one judging execution & technical performance, while the other listens for interpretation of the piece; highs and lows, crescendos for impact. “Divided Sky” encapsulates all of those elements he says, all in under seven minutes, the maximum amount of time allotted for performance. “As a percussionist myself, I know that there’s different time signatures, it gives different moods. It’s almost like a fugue—a variation of a theme throughout the whole thing,” he says.
“With this show, we have a very specific purpose. As much as we are all about being competitive, we are all about competitively beating ourselves each week. We’re not necessarily looking to chase the group that’s ahead of us,’ Binette says. But competitive they were—each week improving their scores & placing second in every performance including the championship. “It’s a real dedicated group of kids,” Binette concludes. ‘Some of them are doing school sports now too. They’re going to school, doing their sports activity and heading here straight from that. I get tingles listening to them, when they hit the times and tempos right. It’s a dream come true to mix those two worlds together and to have it come out as well as it is right now.”
You can check out the video of the group rehearsing in the Naugatauk High School auditorium below, courtesy of MK Devo.
Back Row from Left to right: Bob Wilcox (instructor), Sean Doxsey (chimes), Floyd Labbe (marimba/suspended cymbal), Zachary Mathieu (concert toms/auxiliary percussion), Emily Kropo (marimba/concert tom), Ethan Dupont (congas/hi-hat/suspended cymbal), Ethan Contreras (tympani/suspended cymbal), Shane Jones (chimes/suspended cymbal), Donny Binette (instructor)
Front Row from left to right: Erin McLaughlin (instructor), Marissa Carter (vibraphone/suspended cymbal), Lindsey Schulte (vibraphone/concert tom), Vincent Biancarelli (marimba), Heylee Walker (concert snare/shaker/rain stick), Blake Andrews (concert snare/shaker/ocean drum), Melody Ky (bells/gong/tambourine), Cassidy Rosado (alto glockenspiel/tambourine), Charley Marenghi (xylophone/granite blocks/suspended cymbal), David Pelaggi (instructor)
Not pictured: Emaly Pereira (concert bass drum/suspended cymbal/triangle), Amanda Stevens (bells/crotales/wind chimes)
Band director: Robert Hughes
Our percussion arranger: Dave Dion]