WesTiz School coffeehouse highlights student musicians

Lynn Christoffers

A standing-room-only crowd gathered for a coffeehouse at the West Tisbury School on Friday night.

Students, their families, and friends came together in the cafeteria, bringing cookies and brownies to share as they socialized before the music began.

Jeremy Berlin, the coffeehouse’s organizer and emcee, gathered the names of children who wanted to perform. In one corner of the room, in front of the windows, a string of lights hung over a piano, speakers, and a couple of microphones, creating a stage.

A musician and a parent at the West Tisbury school, Mr. Berlin started the coffeehouse, “in 2008 or thereabouts,” he said. “My initial motivation was that my son played piano and I wanted him to have a place to perform. He’s since quit, but I kept going. Some kids come back year after year. It’s a really wonderful community event.”

The students’ performances reflect varying levels of experience, and expertise, but the audience is there to support all of them. “Some kids have no problem with going up with their instrument and just playing,” Mr. Berlin said, “but some are reluctant. They get through that, and get the feeling of what it is to perform and be warmly received.”

“Quite often, parents get frustrated with their kids not practicing,” says Eric Johnson, who helps organize the coffeehouse. “Events like this give kids a goal to prepare for, other than just their lessons. It completes the circle of instruction, practice, and performance.”

Mr. Johnson’s daughter, Phoebe, and her friend Bella Giordano sat together at a table, waiting for the show to begin. “The first time I did it I was really nervous,” Bella said, “but this time I’m not so nervous.” She wore a classic plaid and velvet dress, ready to charm the audience with her rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Phoebe figured that it was her second or third time playing there.

Across the room, Bella’s mother, Mary Giordano, was talking with another parent, Ann Bresnick. “It’s wonderful,” said Ms. Giordano, “It’s a great group. The kids are really talented, they really put it out there.”

It was 7:20 by the time Mr. Berlin stepped up to the microphone to introduce the first act. As he spoke, the audience of parents, friends, and fellow students settled into their seats or leaned against the walls. Others sat on the floor around the edge of the stage area. The young musicians ranged in age from eight to thirteen, and a cast of parents and music teachers provided accompaniment.

Owen Bresnick opened the show with a medley of short piano pieces, then Katie Morse played “Are You Sleeping” and “Old MacDonald.” Owen joined her at the piano and they played “On the Carousel” together. A friend hugged Katie as she rejoined the audience.

Next, fifth-graders Caroline Woodard and Amanda Pachico sang a duet version of “Speak Now” by Taylor Swift. They had planned to be accompanied by an Ipod, but when the equipment didn’t work as expected, they bravely went on to sing a cappella. Nic Andre and his piano teacher, Lisa Rohn, played a four-hand piano piece with a steady, smooth melody.

Madeline Tully, a diminutive eight-year-old third-grader, sang “Babyface,” accompanied by Mr. Berlin. Her face was just visible above the heads of the children sitting in front of her, but her clear, expressive voice carried smoothly out to fill the room. Her father, Steve Tully, played saxophone in the jazz quartet that closed the show.

Violet Cabot played “Racoon vs. Possum and Friends” on the piano. She hesitated partway through, looking to the audience for support, then went on to play a second piece more confidently.

Zefi Thompson played “Lightly Row” on the violin. Next, Bella Giordano sang, accompanied by her father, Charlie Giordano, on violin and Mr. Berlin at the piano. After the song, one of Bella’s friends gave her a congratulatory hug, and her mother kissed her on the cheek.

Phoebe Johnson played “Minuet 2,” by Bach, accompanied by her father on guitar. Next, four middle school boys, Silas Berlin, Peter Engley, Nick Bonneau, and Axel Cooperrider ambled up to the microphones to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” James Kelleher, who is in sixth grade, took the stage next to play a round on the guitar with Mr. Johnson.

While introducing the last of the musicians, Mr. Berlin thanked the audience. “This is by far the largest number of people we’ve had at this event,” he said. “We hope to have more performers at the next Coffeehouse in April. Especially some of the older, middle school kids who I see carrying instruments around!”

Darby Patterson, another talented singer with a stage presence that would be the envy of many full-grown musicians, sang “Gonna Get Over You,” accompanied by her father, Geoff Patterson, on piano.

As Mr. Berlin was getting ready to introduce the final act, he and Mr. Johnson conferred briefly. Mr. Johnson and his daughters, Sydney and Phoebe, took the stage. “We’re going to dedicate this song to our grandfather, who’s in the hospital in Florida,” said Sydney. She sang “Fix You,” by Coldplay, swaying slightly, channeling all of her energy into her voice. In the audience, a few people held up camera phones to record the family’s performance. Her sister, Phoebe, played violin, and Mr. Johnson played guitar. He remained on stage for a jazz quartet with Mr. Berlin on piano and fifth-grader Nic Andre and Steve Tully, both on sax.

Bella Giordano added a postscript, inspired by the Johnsons’ performance. “It’s not just about yourself,” she said, “it’s also about others.”

Mr. Johnson said that Bella’s comment made him think about the importance of other people in a different way. “When kids perform in front of other people, they realize how much energy it gives them, that they’re doing this to share music with other people,” he said.

Music played and congratulations shared, the organizers disassembled the stage as the audience headed for home. “The evening was just amazing,” said Donna Lowell-Bettencourt, the school’s acting principal. “It was foot-tapping, ear-to-ear smiling, and pure joy to watch the students share their musical passion and talent. They all were really wonderful.”