OBHS Music Students Inspired by Composer
Award-winning composer Mr. Omar Thomas speaks to music students at Oyster Bay High School. Alongside him is Oyster Bay High School music teacher Mr. Matthew Sisia.
Music students at Oyster Bay High School gained first-hand knowledge of music composition when award-winning composer Mr. Omar Thomas, of the Peabody Conservatory of Music at John Hopkins University, visited the school as part of a Visiting Musician series.
Students studied and performed his piece, “Of Our New Day Begun,” written in honor of nine victims who lost their lives to a senseless act of violence while worshipping in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In describing how he composed the piece, Mr. Thomas said his aim was to interpret his feelings of pain and anger while conveying the moving displays of grace and forgiveness that the victim’s families demonstrated.
“I first heard the piece at the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) winter conference in Rochester and immediately wanted our students to study and perform it,” said Oyster Bay High School music teacher Mr. Matthew Sisia.
Under Mr. Sisia’s baton, the Oyster Bay High School Wind Ensemble performed the piece in early spring at the high school’s Cavalcade of Bands and again at the Long Island Wind Ensemble at Commack Middle School, April 13, which featured wind ensembles from area school districts.
“I reached out to Mr. Thomas with the idea to combine many students, wind ensembles from Brentwood High School, Baldwin High School, Uniondale High School, and Oyster Bay High School, and he thought it was perfect,” Mr. Sisia said.
Mr. Thomas visited Oyster Bay High School between those two performances, providing students with the opportunity to expand their knowledge and appreciation of the composing process.
“[Composing is] kind of like opening a puzzle box and dumping all the pieces out and then assembling the pieces; that’s kind of how it works out for me,” Mr. Thomas said.
Referring to his compositions, as “children,” he explained the emotional toll associated with composing a tragedy and shared his delight with how well his music has been received by the public.
“I think the visit from Mr. Thomas invigorated the students and opened their eyes to what is possible and what music can do to move and heal people,” Mr. Sisia said. “They loved interacting with him. He was charismatic, close in age to them and just an incredible musician. I hope the students will think differently about all of their music as a result of his visit.”
Senior Hannah Lopes, who plays the flute in wind ensemble, said, “Mr. Thomas’ music is a real message of resilience.”
Fellow flutist Jessica Layne said she found his music “spiritual and inspirational.”
“Parents were moved by our performance and you could feel how passionate Mr. Thomas is about his piece and about composing,” she said.
According to Mr. Sisia, Oyster Bay High School has a long history of bringing in visiting composers.
“I believe strongly in getting to understand the creative process of a composer; of course, you don't know if you've interpreted their music correctly until you get a chance to ask him or her,” Mr. Sisia said. “Performing a piece for the composer is a daunting task because the composer knows every note, every nuance, of the piece, and if we have not studied the piece thoroughly or performed it musically, the composer is going to let you know that. There's quite a bit of pressure associated with it!”
Mr. Sisia noted that District administrators are “extremely supportive” of the Visiting Musician series at Oyster Bay High School.
“They help in any way possible and even attended our performance in Commack on a Saturday night. That doesn't happen in a lot of school districts,” he said. “We are very thankful for their continued support.”
Oyster Bay High School music students gather around Mr. Thomas after his presentation to ask further questions about composing.
Pictured from left are Oyster Bay School brass instructor Mr. Mark Brenner, Oyster Bay High School music teacher Mr. Michael Giannetta, Mr. Sisia, Mr. Thomas and K-12 Fine and Performing Arts Supervisor Mr. Anthony Femino.