Our Upper School Advanced Chamber Ensemble's annual Collage event is an evening of interactive listening, art, poetry, dance, and chamber music. The 2020 iteration, held on February 28, was centered around Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Middle and upper school music teacher Sarah Yoon first worked with students to launch Collage in 2018, and it's since become a favorite annual cross-disciplinary arts event, showcasing our students' boundless creativity and thoughtfulness.
When our students have the opportunity to perform and create, they find new ways for self-expression and self-discovery, and gain self-confidence.
Taught by faculty who are professional actors, dancers, visual artists, musicians, and writers, our fine arts curriculum and extracurriculars open doors for students who want to develop confidence and creativity in practicing an art form.
Art is woven into the very fabric of our students’ lives. Beginning School teachers integrate visual art and music throughout curriculum, and instruction becomes more formal in the Lower School. Children enjoy their weekly visits to the McCarthey Campus' beautiful art studio, where they learn technique, history, and criticism, and make 2D and 3D masterpieces under the able direction of professional artist-teacher Kathryn Czarnecki.
Learning to play Orff-Shulwerk instruments and exploring music theory, history, and performance from the talented baton of Susan Swidnicki also enthralls lower schoolers as their artistic interests begin to bloom. Stage performance starts in the Lower School, and students can develop their dramatic talents in the middle and upper schools.
Dance is everywhere—from movement exploration in the Beginning School, to impromptu playground rehearsals for the Lower School's annual Puttin’ on the Arts concert, to the Lincoln Street Campus studios where our older students develop fierce, animated choreography to express their feelings about the world they want to change.
Death of the American Teenager, an original musical about gun violence in schools, opens with some sobering statistics—like that there have been 408 school shootings in the last 10 years, or that in 2017 more school-aged children died from gunshots than did active duty police and military personnel.
For today’s students, gun-violence statistics have become too familiar. In addition to a barrage of news stories about shootings, students are reminded of gun violence during regular lockdown drills (Death of the American Teenager cites an average of 16 per school each year) and are aware of the role guns play in climbing suicide rates—in Utah, for instance, the most recent age-adjusted suicide rate is 22.7 per 100,000 people (compared to a national rate of 14.0 per 100,000). Suicide was also the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10–17 in 2018.
It’s no surprise that the stress is taking a toll on young Americans.
Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember.—Noah Schiffman, Class of 2022
“Gun violence has been affecting my life as long as I can remember,” said Rowland Hall sophomore and Death of the American Teenager cast member Noah Schiffman. Junior James Welt, another cast member, added, “It's become a huge part of a lot of my day-to-day experiences. Every time I hear running in the hallways or loud noises, I can't help but fear the worst.” Along with Noah and James, Rowland Hall senior Connor Macintosh and alumna Ella Baker-Smith ’19 were in the musical's original cast. Sophomore Amanda Green joined the cast for the 2019–2020 school year.
In recent years, concerned students have channeled their fears through action—the most famous example is probably the organization of March for Our Lives protests and chapters around the country after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018. For the Utah high school actors who make up the Youth Conservatory—a group housed under University of Utah Youth Theatre—that action was researching, writing, and choreographing Death of the American Teenager.
Originally created for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an annual open access arts festival, Death of the American Teenager was written as a reflection of America. Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood explained that the Youth Conservatory, which is made up of 20 actors from 10 Utah high schools, chose to write a musical because it’s an American art form—and that they focused the musical on gun violence because of its prevalence in America today.
“It's a topic we've all been exposed to at a super young age, and it's something that is on a lot of our minds at every second,” said James.
Research and writing began in January 2019, only seven months before the show’s summer debut in Scotland. “The writing process was an incredible experience,” said Connor. The actors spent time researching topics like the history of school shootings and lockdowns, as well as suicide statistics in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where they would be performing the musical. The subjects were heavy, and the experience was emotional. But the process was also cathartic, giving the actors the chance to examine, confront, and discuss their fears—and helping them realize they weren’t alone in those fears.
“The most important thing that came out of it was the sense that we were all there for each other and the sense that we’re all fighting this fight together,” Connor said. “We all share the same collective fear, and as scary as that fear is, it’s comforting to know that I have people around me that know exactly what we’re going through.”
The musical was cathartic for Fringe audiences too: attendees were so moved by the production that they sought out cast members to thank them and to share their own stories. Other American high school students inquired about performing it in their communities. By creatively addressing their fears through theatre—what Noah called an empathetic art form—the Youth Conservatory found themselves inspiring necessary conversation and action.
“The goal is to tell a story, yes, but also to make those watching believe it to be reality,” Noah said. “Gun violence is some people's reality, and that is not acceptable—but that won't change until everyone understands the extent of the fear those actually affected face.”
Rowland Hall theatre teacher Matt Sincell, who teaches the school’s Youth Conservatory members, agreed.
“Theatre can crack open conversation in a way that no other art form can,” he explained. “There’s something about watching live actors—it somehow becomes easier to put yourself in their place, to empathize, and it affects a person on a very visceral, kinesthetic level.”
Knowing this, Matt wanted to do something in the Youth Conservatory’s home state that would inspire more of the conversations that they started overseas—especially because he knew there was something special about this musical that the local community should experience. “It’s not a piece that’s written by adults trying to imagine what it would be like to be a student—this is written by students who have been born into this culture,” he said. “I really believed the show needed to have a life beyond the Fringe because of its message.”
Matt also felt that offering Rowland Hall’s Larimer Center for the Performing Arts to a community group—particularly one that creatively connected our students with their peers across the Wasatch Front—would be an important step in building other connections across Salt Lake’s vibrant theatre community. In many ways, bringing Death of the American Teenager to the school was a natural fit, as Rowland Hall values deep thinking and seeks to create spaces in which students can examine hard questions and safely express themselves.
“At Rowland Hall, we believe by challenging students to think deeply, they will grapple with complex issues and recognize different points of view,” explained Associate Head of School Jennifer Blake, who was part of the team that welcomed Penny and her students to campus.
On January 29, Death of the American Teenager came to Rowland Hall for two performances in the Larimer Center. Like Fringe audiences, Salt Lake attendees were deeply touched by the musical. “I was blown away by the performance, which was masterfully written with great insight and sensitivity,” said Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson.
The performers were grateful for the chance to revisit the piece and to present it not only to an audience of peers, but to the adults who care about them. Often, they explained, it can be difficult to make adults understand their very real fear around the topic of gun violence and how deeply it affects them.
“I was so glad that my school asked us to share this piece with the public and gave us an opportunity to advocate for ourselves in the most politically unbiased way—just speaking from our emotions and how we feel,” said Amanda. That message was undoubtedly received, with most audience members staying after the performances to participate in talk-backs with the actors, further emphasizing the need for conversation around this difficult subject—something that Matt greatly encourages parents and caregivers to remember when supporting their teenagers through gun-violence anxiety.
Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue.—James Welt, Class of 2021
“Talk at dinner with them, ask them questions, continue the conversation,” he encouraged. “We need to have these direct conversations.”
Above all, the actors want Death of the American Teenager to help spread among their peers the feeling of empowerment the cast experienced when confronting their fears together—and for teenagers to understand that they can help spur change by exercising their voting power.
“Sharing our stories with one another and talking through how we feel is the only way to give people the courage to get involved with this issue,” said James. “I want teenagers who watch the show to know that they have the power to be heard.”
“We can conquer gun violence if we all work together,” added Noah.
Update: Since performing at Rowland Hall, the Youth Conservatory presented a 12-minute version of Death of the American Teenager at the Musical Theatre Competitions of America in California in February 2020. It won first place in its division.
Youth Theatre Artistic Director Penny Caywood has been overwhelmed with positive comments about the show and questions about packaging it for performance at other high schools and venues around the country. She is talking with local theatre organizations about how to make this happen. We will update the Rowland Hall community on any news we receive about the future of Death of the American Teenager.
Top photo: The Death of the American Teenager cast performing on stage. Photos courtesy Connor Macintosh
Editor's note: this is one of six profiles republished from Rowland Hall's 2018–2019 Annual Report feature story, "Winged Lions on the Rise." Millennial alumni are finding their voices and already shaping their fields and communities—from physics to film, music to medical innovations, and environmental policy to conservation-minded real estate. Learn how Rowland Hall impacted them, and how they’re impacting the world. From left, Jared Ruga ’06, Claire Wang ’15, Phinehas Bynum ’08, Jeanna Tachiki Ryan ’01, Tyler Ruggles ’05, and Sarah Day ’06.
Phinehas Bynum makes “whizbangs and gizmos” to automate mundane things in his Minneapolis house. A motion sensor on his washing machine messages him when the washer stops. Between loads, he composes and plays music in his DIY home-recording studio. It’s a delightful showcase of his two biggest passions.
Phinehas—Phin, for short—holds a music and computer science degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. By day, he works for software company Jamf on a technical-implementation team that teaches and trains clients. But the renaissance man has also been a lifelong singer—performing with the likes of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a fourth grader, the renowned St. Olaf Choir as a college student, and operas around Minneapolis, including the Minnesota Opera (MNOp), since college.
You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song. And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.—Phinehas Bynum ’08
“I was just about born singing,” said Phin, whose parents prophetically gave him a name that means, among other interpretations, mouth of brass. “Every time you say ‘Phinehas’ a trumpet gets its wings,” the alum quipped. Naturally, young Phin also dabbled in reverse engineering. “Mama and Papa stepped on clock springs and screws on the daily because I took everything apart to see how it worked,” he said. “Computer science was an extension of tinkering for me because you could change how something worked just by telling it to change, no take-apart required.”
Phin has deftly balanced singing and computing, which he said similarly fulfill him. “You can make someone's day better by fixing their computer, or by singing them a song,” he said. “And both of these involve compassion, creativity, logic, and technique.” And he continues the balancing act, in part, because of Rowland Hall. “I was always encouraged to spend time doing what I was passionate about, and that goal has stuck with me,” he said. “Ultimate frisbee, robotics club, cross country, choir, jazz band—most of the things I am doing now, I was also doing in some form in high school.”
Now, Phin’s arts life is expanding. The singer made his theatrical debut in March to rave reviews. Two Minneapolis arts organizations collaborated to present Candide, a reimagining of the Leonard Bernstein operetta. Phin landed the titular role. Tickets to the five-night, 505-seat show in the heart of downtown sold out early, so the final dress rehearsal became a sixth production. Phin called the performance—his largest to date—transformative. He described his character as an optimist whose misadventures make him wiser instead of bitter. “I'd consider myself a stubborn, but quiet optimist,” Phin said. “It was core-shaking to inhabit a character who lives his optimism completely on the outside, and it challenged me to let the rest of the world, the audience, see that element of me.” His months of practice paid off. In the Star Tribune, critic Terry Blain praised Phin’s performance: “Bynum cut a convincingly boyish figure, his light tenor imparting a touchingly artless quality to songs.”
Since Candide wrapped, Phin has spent more time making his own music—an exploration of jazz, pop, and electronic. He’s recording an album, a longtime dream that combines his musical and technical pursuits. He’s also excited to sing with MNOp again. “I get to sit in a room of wonderfully passionate and diverse folks and bring feelings and ideas and notes and rhythms off a piece of paper and into reality,” he said. “It's the best.”
Phin credited Rowland Hall for a solid foundation, and expressed gratitude to teachers and administrators—particularly the late Linda Hampton, a beloved Upper School staffer who attended nearly all of his performances. “Linda called herself my ‘biggest fan,’” Phin said. “I’m blessed that my musical endeavors have always been supported by my family and friends, but Linda will always have a special place in my heart.”
Winged Lion musicians enjoyed a banner school year dotted with captivating chapel and morning-meeting performances, well-attended concerts, a visit from a Stradivarius-playing concertmaster, and glowing reviews at competitions.
Highlights for the year, according to music teachers Sarah Yoon and Jeremy Innis:
On October 16, our Advanced Chamber Ensemble (ACE) performed at Primary Children's Hospital for the third year in a row; read our November 2017 story about ACE and their volunteerism. New this year, the hospital internally televised the concert for all patients to enjoy.
On April 23, Pacific Symphony Concertmaster Dennis Kim visited Rowland Hall for a masterclass, brown-bag lunch concert, and Q&A session. Dennis worked with our musicians in small groups, giving them direct, practical pointers—particularly on playing their instruments with passion. He also shared personal anecdotes, including the story of his career and how he acquired a Stradivarius violin, one of the most celebrated and valuable instruments in the world.
On May 2, ACE and the Upper School Orchestra performed music from Schindler’s List at the Jewish Community Center for Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. “It was very powerful to be among Holocaust survivors and family members,” Sarah said.
On June 1, choir students performed Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” along with our jazz band and dance company at the Salt Lake City Pride Parade; participation was driven by middle and upper schoolers in LGBTQ+ advocacy and allyship clubs.
Sixteen Rowland Hall students competed at Regionals on March 26. From there, one choir and all eight ACE students moved onto the Utah High School Activities Association’s State Solo and Ensemble South Festival held Saturday, April 27, in Provo.
At State, all of our competing students (listed below) received a “superior” rating, the highest on a five-point scale. View a full PDF of all results.
- Cora Lopez, contralto singer, La fleur que tu m'avais jetee by Bizet
- Claire Sanderson, piano, Chopin Nocturne
- Ziteng Zeng, violin, Mozart Rondo from Serenade in D minor "Haffner"
- Jake Bleil, string bass, Koussevitzy Valse Miniature
- Augustus Hickman, violin, Bach Concerto in A minor
- Austin Topham and Zach Benton, violin and viola, Handel Halvorsen Passacaglia
- Patrick McNally and Ziteng Zeng, violin, Vivaldi Concerto in D minor
- Augustus Hickman and Atticus Hickman, violin, Bach Double Concerto
The innovative show featured large-scale murals, traveling props, a costume menagerie, every style of dance, and integrated orchestral, vocal, and jazz music.