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‘An American Elegy’
Decatur High School band commemorates national school shooting victims
May 17, 2018
On Tuesday, April 20, 1999, two students walked into Columbine High School, killed 15 people, injured 21 others and later killed themselves.
As a middle school student in 1999, current Decatur band teacher Robert Truan was stunned by Columbine, a tragic and seemingly anomalous event. At the time, Truan had no idea that in the next 18+ years, history would continue to repeat itself time and time again.
“I grew up in a conservative community so things like that never happened,” Truan said. “Guns were still prevalent in our community because a lot of my friends [hunted] and used guns for recreation. It wasn’t a big deal.”
Truan’s community was familiar with tragedy, but never at this scale.
“When I was in sixth grade, our class lost one of our friends,” Truan said. “We were all devastated and we were all good friends with her. At the time, our student body had already been experiencing our friend’s [death]. With the situation happening at [Columbine], we all took it really, really seriously. It was hard to imagine that ever happening at my school.”
Following the Columbine shooting, Truan’s middle school participated in a moment of silence to commemorate the victims and students attended an assembly where adults talked to them about bullying.
The two student shooters at Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were allegedly a part of a group called the Trench Coat Mafia, often sporting black trench coats, full black attire and baggy clothing, according to the 1999 Columbine Task Force investigation.
“Everybody kind of judged that group of students at my school after it happened,” Truan said. “They would bully them more because they were like ‘look what your type of people do.’”
This baggy clothing inspired dramatic adaptations in school systems across the nation.
As he entered high school, the small Augusta suburb of Evans began to transform before Truan’s very eyes.
“Everybody was fighting about what to do moving forward,” he said. “Of course everybody remembered the students who died but this situation was so different because it had never happened on this scale before. The government and everybody started changing all of the rules because of it. By the time I got in high school, my experience was way different than my brother’s experience who was four years older than me. The rules were ridiculous and they obviously didn’t work.”
Truan could no longer enter his high school without first passing through a metal detector. He could no longer get into his school or walk throughout the halls without his neon-yellow student ID and lanyard. His untucked sweatshirt could no longer go unnoticed, and was rewarded with detention.
“The crackdown of rules was not something I appreciated at the time,” he said. “School became less about learning and more about procedure. They went that route and then they realized they didn’t have enough money to support the [system].”
The rules enforced by the government played an insignificant role in ensuring the safety of students and instilling hope and resilience in Truan’s eyes.
So he turned to the arts.
“Music is the magic of the world,” he said. “When a mother first gives birth and sings to her baby they make that connection intimately just because it’s tonal. Tones and music are intrinsic to who we are as humans and you make connections with other people intimately through it. That’s what music does.”
The hope that Truan missed at school was later found in pieces like “An American Elegy.” American composer Frank Ticheli created the piece in order to provide hope not only for students living in the Columbine era, but for students in need of hope now.
“It was terribly sad and at the time it seemed like it would be a single event in our history,” Ticheli said. “We thought this would be just an aberration, not a new trend of violence. My first reaction was just the sadness of it all and how unique it seemed to me in history.”
A month after the shooting, students at Columbine High School asked Ticheli to commission a piece to commemorate the victims lost, and he knew he couldn’t say no.
Ticheli flew to Colorado to meet the students and gained their perspective on their vision for the piece.
“They didn’t want to tell me what to write but they didn’t want me to write something that reminded them of the gunshots and the loud percussion and all of that,” Ticheli said. “I didn’t want to do that either. They told me that and I decided that I’m just going to write a piece about hope, period. Nothing more than that. I just tried to offer an expression, a heartfelt expression of hope.”
He decided that he wanted to include Columbine’s alma mater so that the piece would always have a part of the school in it.
“I asked for their alma mater and I found out they didn’t have one,” he said. “They didn’t have a school song. So I wrote one as a gift. Fortunately for me, they said that they would adopt it as their new school song. They still sing it.”
Later, in a dream, Ticheli envisioned the main theme, the initial harmony and the first eight bars of the piece. The rest quickly followed.
“Music takes ideas and feelings to places that words can’t really touch,” he said. “There is a sadness in there and there is hope so that it’s not just naive hope. It’s not positivity; it’s sad and it acknowledges the sadness and yet there is a hopeful strain in there and a hopeful bit of DNA incorporated into that sadness and words can’t exactly describe that. It’s just there.”
“People were moved by it and there were tears and there were smiles and there was a lot of gratitude,” Ticheli said. “People thank me a lot. When I wrote An American Elegy, I thought that would be a momentary event in our history, but now people keep using it for the next shooting and the next shooting and the next and I’m honored by that but I’m also sad that the situation requires that.”
Students and bands all around the country have used the piece to commemorate lives lost, and Ticheli hopes that the message it conveys is their main focus.
“Don’t just play the notes on the page, but play what they mean and what they represent and try to bring that out in their playing,” he said. “The world doesn’t need any more technically perfect performances that are boring. We would much rather have performances that are flawed but that are passionate. Because that’s all that’s really important at the end of the day.”
Ticheli hoped that the piece could “serve as one reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how intimately connected we all are as human beings.”
This certainly resonates with listeners around the world.
In his first year of teaching at Decatur, Truan had his students play “An American Elegy” at the Large Group Performance Evaluation (LGPE) competition.
“It is just so beautiful,” Truan said. “I knew I wanted them to play it so that they understand the magnitude of it. At the very end, the last time he states the melody is in this really loud full band moment and instead of coming back to where the listener expects, he puts in a deceptive cadence and this makes it super chilling and beautiful at the same time. He manipulates it at the very end in a way that is so surprising and it really captures the spirit of hope that he’s trying to convey.”
Senior Shai Smith was one of the first Decatur students to play “An American Elegy,” three years ago in her freshman year.
“When we first started playing it in band back then, Mr. Truan had us read the program notes so we knew a little bit about the song, but freshman year, we were really far removed from the whole situation,” Smith said. “[Now], one of my favorite parts of the [piece] is the offstage trumpet solo. When it’s played really far away, the emotion that you feel is almost like longing and you hear it and you want more. It brings out a lot of emotion in general and is a heavier sadness. That part really means a lot.”
Now, following the Parkland shooting and the countless other tragedies of this era, Truan decided to play An American Elegy once again in the band’s spring concert on May 1.
“I remember I heard about [Parkland] my first reaction was just disbelief,” Smith said. “The kids that were the victims at that school are my age and that could’ve so easily been us. That aspect made me connect with [the piece] more. Playing it this time is definitely very different. I definitely think [Truan] picked the piece because of the Parkland shooting situation and all of the recent tragedies that have been happening.”
Though this year’s spring concert had no particular theme, Truan included Ticheli’s other piece, Rest, which was also written to commemorate a life lost.
“What’s important is what people get out of it,” Truan said. “I want people to listen to it and make their own meaning to where the world is going to be better in the end. I want to present art historically significant to modern times. History is basically a wheel and we just go through the same things over and over and over again. I want to have hope for American culture. I want to have hope for humanity.”
From “An American Elegy” to “Shine,” a song written by Parkland students to commemorate the lives of their friends, a wave of music has been used in times of tragedy.
On June 1, history will repeat itself once again when Ticheli flies to Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“They’ve invited me to go there and conduct,” he said. “I was going to do “An American Elegy,” but then I decided that everyone is doing that right now and in the memory of these kids why don’t we do something different? So I’m going to conduct Rest for concert band which is similarly optimistic but with the sadness as well.”
For students like Smith, the arts have played an important role in her activism.
“I think using the arts to speak about current events is really special because to me a lot of people can connect through music,” she said. “Writing speeches and essays and poetry is great and that can be really beautiful and deep and moving but only a very specific group of people can relate to that based on language. Music really is the universal language. I think using that as a political voice is really special to unify people and broadcast ideas and beliefs to a lot more people than you could through writing or other forms.”
As a composer, music is vital to the very fabric of Ticheli’s being.
“Art is as important as anything that we have in human existence,” he said. “The arts can provide a kind of magic, wisdom and beauty that transcends politics and transcends words and for that reason they are extremely important. They may be even more important after times of tragedy because they help us find not just solace but help us find wisdom amidst the tragedy. They can certainly help us all heal.”
Contact the writer, Isis Amusa, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ticheli photo courtesy of Charlie Grosso, all other photos by Isis Amusa.