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junior high
The author, second from left, front row, in ninth grade chorus at Millburn Junior High. GWEN OREL/STAFF

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

junior high
GWEN OREL

Program Notes: In the theater, program notes are inserts into a program that provide further background on the play. In this series, I comment on what I’m writing about, what I’m thinking, and what’s in the paper at the time.

When I hear “You’re Never Fully Dressed (Without a Smile)” from “Annie,” I want to dance.

Not only because the number is catchy.

I want to dance because we danced to it when we performed it with Ninth Grade Girls Ensemble. And I still know the steps. Some of the things you learn at that age never leave you.

When I think of junior high, I think of the concerts first.

When my stand partner Joe Marley was bored in orchestra, he would start up the theme to “Spiderman.”

My father would run down the aisle to get a good picture of me in the orchestra or chorus. Other dads did too. It was embarrassing, but not really. Singing and playing with classmates, for classmates and parents, was a highlight of the year.

I was really happy, teasing a French teacher, diagramming sentences, learning to draw with perspective.

But, I didn’t think so at the time.

Some kids at 13 look like young adults.

Others, like me, look like children.

When I was in eighth grade, my feet were their full size, but the rest of me was a foot shorter than my full height.

I felt like a letter “L.”

For a solid year I thought I was an Autumn and wore beige and brown to match my freckles. Basically, I blended in to the wall.

In the cafeteria one day, Moina Campbell threw butter at me.

I had a few good friends, though. Eve, Margaret and Tammy all sang in chorus with me. Sometimes, walking home, we’d sing in harmony.

I liked everyone in orchestra, too.

Later on, I played in competitive orchestras. Competitions for orchestra and voice definitely have a place, but getting in to those groups, rehearsing and performing in them, adds a layer of anxiety to music. That can spur you on to practice, and better heights.

But there’s a lot to be said for playing for the fun of it.

But in school, chorus and orchestra were just places to be with people I liked, working on something together.

In the school orchestra, not everyone was serious, or even took lessons. In junior high chorus, it didn’t matter if you could belt or not, as much as it did to get a good part in the play, and it didn’t really matter if you had the kind of strong pipes that would merit a place in High School Chorale or Millburnettes (yes to the latter, no to the former, for me). Blending was what mattered, and singing on key.

Blending in to the wall — not good.

Blending in with chorus — excellent.

Helping to lead a section, keeping it in tune — star quality.

During junior high concerts, the conductor and director looked at us expectantly before we began. The lights were on us.

You don’t have a lot of power at 13, but onstage it’s different. It’s not you alone. It’s you and the other kids. You and your friends. You and teachers.

You and your family. I think I mentioned that I was short. I should have added, “and not very good at or interested in sports.” I would have been cut from the Hogwarts Quidditch team.

But in the orchestra, and in chorus, I was varsity. Teamwork, as Glenfield Instrumental Music Director Jonathan Ward says, is what you learn from music.

Maybe that’s why I remember the concerts first.

That, and the steps to “Annie.”

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