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Students Share the Music

Woodson student organizes Hurricane Katrina benefit concerts.

Ann Marie White cannot imagine a life without music. So when she heard about Hancock High School in Kiln, Miss., whose entire music department was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, she stepped in to help.

"I was thinking about ways to fund raise, and a concert seemed like the coolest way to do that," said Ann Marie, 16, a junior at W.T. Woodson High School. She assembled a group of friends from the choral department, gathered a repertoire of songs, and organized two choral benefit concerts to raise money for the Hancock music department. The first will be Thursday, Dec. 22 in the Woodson auditorium, and the second will be Friday, Jan. 6. Both performances will begin at 7:30 p.m.

"Personally, I’m really excited," said Ann Marie. The first concert will feature holiday songs, including a version of "We Need a Little Christmas," reworked to incorporate Chanukah lyrics. The bill for the second concert will include pop and Broadway hits, said Ann Marie.

THE PROJECT began during the summer as a way to fulfill service hours, said Ann Marie. But as the months went by, it became something bigger. Originally, she said, she wanted to work with D.C. public schools, but had difficulty getting in contact with them. Then, in September, Hurricane Katrina came to the Gulf Coast. When Ann Marie e-mailed some of the schools affected by the disaster, she said, she received a much better response.

"The band director sent a list of instruments and equipment they had lost," said Ann Marie. "Lists and lists of instruments: chairs, cases, music."

"Ann Marie has always been service-minded," said mother Kathy White. Aside from arranging the concerts, said White, Ann Marie has also volunteered at Mantua Elementary School and tutored students at St. Leo’s Catholic School, where White works as a music teacher.

"She loves music and always wants to share it with people," said White. "She put the idea out to her friends and immediately got a great response."

The concerts are entirely student-run. "All I’ve done is secure the performance space and deal with the activities office and administration," said Woodson choral director Michael Erlich. The Woodson choral department has 300 students in it, and so student-run concerts like this allow for more individual freedom, he said.

Classmate and fellow singer Virginia Buescher, who will perform operatic duet 'Flower Duet' from 'Lakme' by Leo Delibes, agreed. "Usually, we don't get to sing solos like that in chorus," she said.

"These kids spend … so much time in my classroom being directed by me and guided by me that it’s really wonderful when they strike out on their own," said Erlich. One of the goals of his own teaching, he said, is to make the students independent.

"[Ann Marie] came up with the concerts on her own," he said. "It makes me very proud."

MUSIC IS A priority for Ann Marie, who besides singing has also played the piano since she was 3 and the oboe since sixth grade.

"A lot of people say music is an outlet, they could never do it as a profession," she said. "I say the opposite. Music is the most important thing."

"[The choral department] is a place where kids can gain confidence, where they might not have that chance otherwise," said Erlich. A choir or band provides a place for students to belong and to work as part of a team, he said.

Many music students feel the same way Ann Marie does, said White. "You get kids going and they love being a part of it," she said. "A lot of times that’s the one activity a student feels really comfortable in. If they’re not into sports, maybe music is their thing, and to have it taken away is pretty hard."

This is why raising funds for Hancock is important to Ann Marie. "I know that if I can’t play my instrument for even a couple days, I go crazy," she said. Hopefully, said Ann Marie, the benefit concerts will be the beginning of a longer partnership with Hancock, and possibly with other schools. After the concerts, she plans to have bake sales and sing-a-thons to raise more funds for the school. Another project, somewhat more challenging, will be to gather old instruments to ship down to the Gulf Coast.

"A lot of people I know have instruments just sitting around the house, and if we could get them down there, it would be good," she said.

White also hopes the concerts might serve as inspiration to other schools. "They could then do a concert at Fairfax or Madison and pick another school district to help out," she said.