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Upton Trio wraps up 28th year with KCSD

Will also perform Monday at TenEleven Galleria

Posted: May 18, 2017 1:30 p.m.
Updated: May 19, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Provided by the KCSD/

Upton Trio pianist and managing artistic director Billy Shepherd and composer and violinist Mary Lee Kinosian with 4th Grade students from Wateree Elementary School and Blaney Elementary School following a recent performance of “The American Story.” The student are (from left) Jacob Downer, Taki Watson, Abbie Robinson, Katherine Belton-Alford, Mercedes Ines, Collen Ashley, Ava Greenway and Taylor Bright.

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For two years shy of 30 years, pianist Billy Shepherd, composer and violinist Mary Lee Kinosian and cellist Dusan Vukajlovic have shared their love of classical music with students in the Kershaw County School District (KCSD). During the past 28 years, the three musicians -- collectively known as The Upton Trio -- have entertained and helped educate hundreds of students by combining music, visuals and storytelling.

Recently, Shepherd, KCSD Executive Director K-12 Instruction Dr. Alisa Taylor and KCSD Coordinator for Early Childhood Education Pam Whitehead talked about what the unique partnership has done in recent years and hopes to do in the future.

“We throw out the curriculum to them (the trio) and they match the music to the content we’ve chosen,” Taylor said.

The programs has Whitehead as narrator, using slides, and The Upton Trio’s music to tell stories. Those stories, in turn, serve as review for whatever the students have been studying.

“There are four to five (musical) pieces with content in between and slides throughout,” Taylor said.

“After the content, we take about the inspiration for the pieces being played,” Shepherd said. “For example, this year, students were studying about the (1920s) Depression, so we had a ‘tragic’ composition.”

But that wasn’t the only tune Kinosian had composed for that set of programs. That time period was also known as “The Roaring 20s,” and Kinosian came up with more upbeat music. Whitehead created slides that included images of “flappers” -- a generation of young women who, among other things, danced to jazz music of the day.

“In previous years, we’ve focused on the Amazon and how it’s been hurt by mining,” Taylor said.

For the 2017-18 school year, The Upton Trio and the district are thinking of what Shepherd called “The Triumph of Engineering.”

The partnership between the musicians and educators isn’t all entertainment. According to Shepherd, about seven or eight years ago, an assessment was added to the program to measure its benefits. During the 2015-16 school year, the trio worked with the district on a program entitled “Equine Romance: The History of the Horse Industry in South Carolina.” Before each performance at each school, students attending a performance were assessed on their knowledge of the equine industry. The same students were reassessed afterward. In each case, according to documents supplied by the district and Shepherd, the percentage of students scoring at 80 percent or higher jumped significantly.

At Camden High School, for example, only 33 percent of 46 students met an 80 percent or higher assessment before watching the equine performance. Afterward, 96 percent of those same students assessed at 80 percent or higher. At Doby’s Mill Elementary School, 101 students were assessed. Before the performance, only 45 percent scored 80 percent or better; afterwards, 90 percent did.

On top of that, students and teachers said they enjoyed and learned from the experience.

“I could imagine the horses running when they played the music and could see them chasing each other over the steeplechase jumps,” wrote one 4th Grader. “I liked the piano and the violin the best.”

A 3rd Grader wrote, “It was beautiful to see the horses run while the music played. I learned a lot about horse racing.”

And a 5th Grade teacher in Camden said it was the best performance they’d ever seen.

“The story was excellent and the music was inspiring. The match between the music and the story in each movement was extraordinary,” the teacher wrote. “I think the kids enjoyed the performance and learned many interesting facts about their own town and the horse industry.”

Shepherd said each year working with the district starts with the question, “What are your needs?”

“We invite the administrators to offer their thoughts and then we finally come up with a subject to address in the program,” he said.

During the school year that is ending, The Upton Trio has offered, “The American Story,” which included the sections on the 1920s. In a December 2016 letter to supporters of the trio, Shepherd said social studies receives less instructional time than math or reading on the elementary school level.

“The challenge is compounded by a current state legislative ‘civics’ requirement to graduate high school. In our school district, U.S. History is 10 points lower than algebra, English and biology,” Shepherd wrote. “Ninth grade end-of-course results reveal our 7th and 8th grades are 25-30 percent below expectation. Thirty percent of KCSD middle and high school students are not meeting standards for social studies.”

Shepherd went on to write that, as part of the trio’s mission -- set by founder Sylvia “Sibby” Upton Wood in 1989 -- he and his fellow musicians would “introduce a magnificent art form and simultaneously … create an enduring awareness of U.S. history.”

“Part of Sibby’s wisdom and foresight is that she wanted classical music in schools,” Shepherd said. “She commissioned us to expose statistically underserved students to classical music. This has grown into something very useful. The emotional involvement of each child excites them enough -- it clarifies, and they understand.”

Taylor said The Upton Trio’s programs provide a different way for students to fell, see and hear the subject matter they’ve been studying.

“It’s a great avenue to lock in those standards we’re trying to teach,” she said.

Other parts of “The American Story” the trio has performed with Whitehead’s assistance include:

• “Genesis,” which evokes people coming on small ships -- including slaves -- to America.

• “Cry in the Wilderness,” which Shepherd described as a “cry to God asking ‘when is this extreme struggle going to end,’” and includes Blues-based music “with lots of longing for freedom and peace.”

• Muddy Waters,” a reel dance about the Mississippi River, which Shepherd referred to as the “first interstate highway,” feeding commerce from New Orleans to Chicago. “It’s a story about a the son of a steamship captain waiting for his father to return and the boat coming around the bend,” he said.

• “Consequences,” focusing on the U.S.’s history of war, including the Civil War.

“It opens with Dusan on cello, with a sad story to tell; it’s a deep, tragic, crying melody,” Shepherd said. “Then Mary Lee takes up with the story with the violin and it becomes more exciting, energetic with Blues and jazz. There’s a cello and piano duet in the middle -- a compassionate expression about trying to avoid war. Is it necessary? What have we done? We’ve still destroyed each other.”

Whitehead said the story moves through to America’s other struggles before achieving the major accomplishment of landing men on the moon. She said one of the important things about “The American Story” is using pictures of those who actually lived through these events.

“We never really thought before about history through the eyes of the people through these portraits,” she said.

The program’s climax is called “The Future is Today.”

“We’re still growing into our own potential -- the premise that was written into the Declaration of Independence,” Whitehead said. “We tell the students: ‘Now it’s your turn; what are you going to do to bring America to better places?’”

The Upton Trio and Whitehead brought that story to more than 1,000 students at Lugoff-Elgin High School on May 12.

The trio will also perform at TenEleven Galleria on Broad Street in Camden at 7 p.m. Monday. The concert, which will be preceded by cocktails and heavy hors d’oeuvres at 6 p.m., will include “The American Story,” “Trio in C Major, K. 548” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Mendhelson’s “Trio No. 2, Opus 66.”

The concert is hosted by Salud! Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Lounge. Admission is $50 per seat and can be purchased at the door or reserved by calling (803) 425-4343 or via PayPal on the trio’s website, www.uptontrio.com.

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