Every student who participates in Peddie's music program can benefit from the experience in unique ways.
Carrying a large brass instrument around a 250-acre campus is no easy feat for a busy teenager. So Manya Kaushik ’21 keeps an extra tuba in her dorm room, in addition to the one she stores in the Swig Arts Center.
Kaushik learned to play the tuba two years ago when Peddie Arts Department Chair Alan Michaels needed to fill an empty seat in the Chamber Orchestra.
“I was thinking about trying the trumpet, but Mr. Michaels needed a tuba player,” Kaushik recalled.
Kaushik came to Peddie already a piano, alto and tenor saxophone player. But learning a brass instrument, which requires a different mouth technique, was a new challenge for the sophomore.
“I spent most of that spring learning how to play. And Paige would help me because she plays trumpet,” Kaushik said.
“Paige” is standout trumpet player and percussionist Paige Pakenas ’21, a fellow member of Peddie’s jazz ensemble and Chamber Orchestra. The pair attributes their willingness to take on new challenges, and their friendship, to Peddie’s music program. For both, being involved in music has been the highlight of their high school experience.
A music-rich curriculum
While most students who sing or play an instrument in high school won’t become professional musicians, Peddie can claim several music sensations as former students, including Chris Tomson ’02 of Vampire Weekend; Matt Burr ’99, founder of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and rising singer-songwriter Daniel Breland ’13. Yet every student who participates in the music program at Peddie can benefit from the experience in unique ways.
There’s also a heap of scientific research that shows a music-rich education improves students’ academic performance. Over the past 20 years, several large-scale studies have found that music training can lead to improvements in cognitive skills, resulting in better educational outcomes, including greater achievement in math and English and increased average SAT scores.
Michaels believes that music can set students up for success in all subject areas. “They learn that the more time they devote to practicing, the more progress they’re going to make. They learn discipline and structure and how to devote time to a project over a long period. Ensemble play teaches students how to collaborate and participate in a group.”
Peddie’s Associate Head of School Catherine Rodrigue agrees. “I think there’s no question that music taps into parts of the brain that make kids more creative, strong, abstract thinkers. And the more we can do that when they’re young, the better position they’re going to be in for whatever they face later in life.”
At Peddie, first-year students take three terms of foundation courses to introduce them to music, theater and visual arts. During the remainder of their time at Peddie, they take two arts electives. Rodrigue called the curriculum “substantive,” and Michaels noted that “most students are taking well beyond the minimal arts requirements.”
Students who want to continue their music studies outside the classroom can join a host of choral and instrumental ensembles, take private lessons, join the pit orchestra for school musicals and perform at school and community events.
“I don’t know of many schools that have that strong of an emphasis on the arts,” Rodrigue said.
On the outside, looking in
Paige Pakenas ’21 said she had trouble coming out of her shell freshman year. But during spring term, she played trumpet in a life-changing chapel improv performance.
“I just started doing this dance, and everybody was cheering,” she recalled. “The special thing about Peddie is that when you do performances, everybody is genuinely interested in supporting you and interested in what you are playing.
“That performance was a turningpoint. Before that, I felt like I was on the outside, looking in. From that moment on, I felt involved. I 100% gained confidence, and that transcended into the classroom, sports, ability to meet new people, everything.”
Though Pakenas won’t be majoring in music in college, “it will definitely be a part of my college experience,” she said.
Former Peddie orchestra concertmaster Mia Huang ’20 remembers playing at New Falcon Music Chapel, a tradition started by Michaels whereby new students perform on the chapel stage for the entire school. “It was at the beginning of the year, maybe September or October, and I didn’t really know anyone. I went on stage and saw a whole audience of unfamiliar faces. When I started playing, my bow was completely shaking, and my legs were shaking as well.”
Performing in front of the school makes you a lot more confident. Because if you can perform on stage in front of the entire school, you can do anything.”
Huang, who is dual majoring in psychology and violin performance at Northwestern University, said she improved her musical skills at Peddie by regularly performing in front of the same audience until it felt like she was performing in front of a big family. “They would always clap really loud,” she remembered.
Country-hip-hop songwriter/producer and performer Daniel Breland ’13 (aka “Breland”) recalled the time in 2012 when a community meeting performance with roommate Nathan Tempo ’13 went awry:
“Nathan had programmed a big electronic dance drop on his computer,” he told a group of Peddie students last fall. “During dress rehearsal, it was all smooth. But in the moment, for whatever reason, as Nathan was about to play, his computer completely crashed, and I didn’t know what to do, and so we just ran off the stage,” he said, chuckling.
Along with the embarrassment, Breland also remembered the reaction from his teachers and peers.
“Everybody afterward was like, ‘Oh, that was a really great performance. Keep your head up.’ Nine times out of 10, that type of performance where you are embarrassed and run off the stage, I think most people would be making fun of you. But [at Peddie], I always felt supported and loved.”
Dan Funderbirk ’19 loves music, but he doubted for a long time if he could pursue it as a profession.
“I didn’t know if I was good enough. I always kind of doubted myself in some way,” Funderbirk said from his dorm room at Berklee College of Music, where he is focusing on songwriting and sound design.
The talented trumpeter said that Peddie helped him grow as an instrumentalist. During high school, he was involved in "every ensemble you can name.”
“Being part of the Peddie music department put me in places where I had opportunities to perform,” he said. “That gave me the confidence that I needed to know, ‘Okay, this is something I can do.’”
“Before Peddie, I had only looked at music as a side hobby,” said Ethan Govea ’19, a music major at Drew University. Govea plays bass for Drew’s jazz ensemble, directs the school’s male a capella group and plays in the orchestra for school theater productions. He played bass and percussion at Peddie and starred as Tevye in the school’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Both Funderbirk and Govea said the Peddie music program gave them the self-assuredness to pursue a career in music.
“None of the musical pathways I have taken leading up to today would have been possible without Peddie,” Govea declared.
“The Peddie music program pointed me in the right direction,” said Funderbirk. “It allowed me to figure out exactly what I wanted and allowed me the space and creative discretion to hone in on my skills. And figure out what path I want to take.”
Breland credits Peddie as where he “found himself musically.”
He reminisced, “Over those four years, I found myself feeling confident and comfortable to try things out musically.
“It was the independence at Peddie that I had — to be able to explore things — that pushed me further down that path,” he added.
Classical music singer Lindsay Kartoz ’21 said that the Peddie music program allowed her to explore her passion, including taking a songwriters workshop at New York University and auditing an online music theory course for Berklee College of Music. Recently, Kartoz decided to pursue a career in music education.
“I realized that I’m an excellent teacher,” she said while touring colleges this spring. “It brings me joy to see people understand something new, the same way that singing and choir bring me joy.”
Michaels responded, “Lindsay decided, ‘Hey, this is what does it for me. This is what I want to do. I want to become a music educator. As her teacher, it was heartwarming to hear that.”
A second home
It’s not uncommon to hear Peddie’s current and former music students talk about the friendships they developed with their fellow high school musicians.
Mia Huang remembers when Binglun Shao ’18 took the violin section out for ice cream. Manya Kaushik and Paige Pakenas became close friends after meeting in orchestra. Ethan Govea developed “everlasting friendships” with fellow Peddie musicians. Chris Tomson told a virtual student audience in December that “some of my closest friends are still former Peddie students.”
As crucial as these friendships are, having a central location on campus to practice — and bond — has been equally vital to Peddie musicians. For some students, the Swig Arts Center has served as a second home.
“During lunch, breaks, at night, it’s the automatic place for my friends and me to go,” said Pakenas. “We just jam or plan a performance.”
“I would camp in Swig if I could,” said Binglun Shao, who plays violin in the Princeton University Orchestra. “It was where I found comfort, whether among the people there or just being in the space.”
“I opened my college acceptance letter there,” she added.
“Even though I slept in the dorms, I lived in the arts center,” remembered Govea. “It was a great place to learn, grow and master our craft.”
“Swig was definitely a second home for me,” said Funderbirk. “To the point that by the time I got to senior year, I would be over there during study hall. Even if it was to do homework, I would sit somewhere in Swig and just exist.”
It kind of takes over you
There’s long been recognition at Peddie of the importance of a music-rich education. Nearly one-quarter of Peddie students are involved in some kind of musical performance activity. More than 100 students are involved in orchestra alone.
“There’s no question that music plays an important part in our school culture,” said Rodrigue. “Kids will support different athletic teams, but they will also support the arts, to the same degree, with the same level of enthusiasm as they do the athletic pursuits.” The Freshman Musical, a long-standing and beloved school tradition and often the first performance on a Peddie stage for students, is always performed in front of a standing-room-only crowd of upperclassmen.
“I’ve had a lot of students tell me that they don’t feel whole without music,” said Michaels. “I get it. When you’re working on a piece of music, and it gets to a performance-ready level, it becomes physical, emotional, mental. It kind of takes over you.”
Shao, Peddie’s 2018 valedictorian, was so appreciative of Peddie’s music program that she spoke about it during her commencement speech:
“Playing music is how I learned to learn, how to focus and how to push through the lack of motivation from time to time,” she said. “Music has transformed the way I encounter, experience and navigate.”
I think there's no question that music taps into parts of the brain that make kids more creative, strong, abstract thinkers.”