By Melissa Shaw
A Southborough mother and writer has transformed the unexpected death of a 12-year-old into a book detailing the true story of how the bond between a music teacher and his students helped them grieve and grow following the loss of their friend.
Author Meredith O’Brien’s seventh-grade son was a member of the town’s Trottier Middle School Big Band in January 2012 when his friend and fellow band member, Eric Green, unexpectedly passed away in his sleep due to an undiagnosed heart condition.
“The way Eric passed away I think really affected people,” O’Brien says. “Twelve hours before he passed away he was playing in a basketball game in the middle school; he seemed like a picture of health.”
The circumstances of his death — sudden and in the safety of his own bed — “unmoored” the children and their parents, and hit the small Central Massachusetts town (population 9,900) hard, O’Brien remembers: “For all of the parents and the kids, they would say, ‘Could that happen to me?’ If this could happen to someone who seemed totally healthy, could this happen to anybody else?”
Five months later, O’Brien and her fellow band parents sat in an auditorium at the school’s Jazz Night as the Big Band performed a song for the first time since Green’s death, another trumpet player filling in on a solo that had been known as “Eric’s part.”
“The parents in the audience, we’re all crying, but the kids up there — they range in age from 11-14 — they played so well and so strong,” O’Brien says. “The whole weekend after that performance I wondered, How did the kids get through this? I couldn’t imagine putting myself in that position, and then I realized it was Mr. Clark.”
Professional trombonist and music educator Jamie Clark has been leading the school’s ensembles (concert band, jazz band, and orchestra) to countless performances and numerous awards since 2002. If you’ve been in a band, you could match him with his instrument in a heartbeat thanks to his trademark engaging Low Brass personality: outgoing, animated, and vibrant. Physically a cross between TV host/actor James Corden and Star Wars creator George Lucas, it’s obvious Clark is deeply invested in his students and can read them as easily as sheet music.
Before a recent band competition in front of an auditorium of spectators and judges, Clark strolled across the stage in front of his students with an easy smile as they waited for the event to begin, eyes tight, lips set in a firm line, fingers fidgeting with instrument valves, keys, or slides. He adjusted microphones to just the right spot in front of instruments, offered last-minute instructions, and joked with the band. Or he tried to; he quietly did about 3 minutes of standup for them after picking up a pencil decorated with pumpkins and explained the sport of pumpkin hurling — anything to get them to relax and loosen up before it was time to play.
Clark walked over to the pianist and asked him to play a note. He did. “Do you like how that sounds?” Clark asked.
“Yeah,” came the quiet reply.
Clark adjusted a dial on the keyboard: “How about now?”
The child hit the note again, distinctly different. “Yes,” the pianist smiled, shoulders noticeably more relaxed.
“He’s kind of this larger-than-life persona,” O’Brien says. “If I created a fictional character like Mr. Clark, people would say, ‘No, he’s not believable.’” Anyone who had a favorite band teacher growing up could easily see him or her in Mr. Clark, and vice versa.
O’Brien’s epiphany on Jazz Night led her to shadowing Clark and his band for the year following Green’s death, resulting in the recently released Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears, and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room. Her goal: to see how music — and Clark — helped these children process their grief and move on. Middle school years are all about emotion. Grief is emotion. Music is emotion. How would they all combine?
“[I wanted to] see how these kids go through the next year of mourning,” she says. “It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of little kids, and it would also be a glimpse into the magic of Mr. Clark. I didn’t know exactly how he got the kids to perform the way they did. I didn’t know what went on in the band room.”
It was a tall order on several fronts, especially since O’Brien never played an instrument and had no musical background.
“I would be constantly writing down, ‘What’s fortissimo?’ ‘What’s this?’” she says. “I didn’t realize how much information they learned, it is like a foreign language.”
With permission granted from the school and Clark, O’Brien set off to sit in on a year of 7 a.m. rehearsals in the band room, performances, and competition. But the toughest approval to get was from her son, the band’s drummer.
“He’s very quiet, and the idea of possibly shining a spotlight on him made him say, ‘Wait, you’re going to ruin the whole dynamic. You’re going to be embarrassing me,’” O’Brien remembers. “Once he realized I was just sitting there and saying nothing, he seemed OK. I think I blended in. I sat off to the side; I had my notebook. The kids treated me like I was part of the band.”
The book follows the band members and Clark through the 2012-2013 school year, all leading up to a year-end memorial service, at which the group would play a brand-new, professionally composed jazz piece commissioned in Green’s memory.
“Kaleidoscope,” created by composer Erik Morales, is described as an “incredibly unique” and complicated swing number that proved difficult for the young musicians, thanks to scheduling and emotions.
“The students didn’t get [the sheet music] until late in the year,” O’Brien recalls. “All the kids I talked to said they were so afraid of making a mistake — a mistake equaled disrespecting his memory. Two weeks before the Eric Green Ceremony I was listening to them saying, They are never going to master Kaleidoscope. I was so worried. I asked Mr. Clark, ‘How do you think they’re going to do? This seems very precarious.’ His answer: ‘They just have to.’ It surprised me how things just shifted; I don’t know what that magic shift was, and then they got it. I don’t understand how they go from shambles to kicking it.”
After successfully debuting the song at Green’s memorial, O’Brien describes the children’s sense of relief as “palpable.”
“Afterwards, they were in the cafeteria, acting like kids, they seemed happy,” she recalls. “They seemed, like, ‘We did it. We’ve honored him,’ almost giving themselves permission to move on. But that whole fear of disrespecting him, I felt, hung over them the whole year.
“It’s not just mastering the notes on the page,” she continues. “I think one of the things Mr. Clark focused on is how can they safely process their emotions through the music because he would try to make the band room a place of openness, of safety. Where, if they were playing a ballad and it’s really emotional, it’s OK to be emotional here and to express it in the notes. That’s a really hard thing to communicate to anybody, never mind children who are going through the rockiness of adolescence.”
Eric Green’s mother, Suzy, echoed that sentiment: “Our community is blessed to have educators like Jamie Clark, in addition to the Trottier Middle School administrators, who were open and compassionate with the students as they worked through the strong emotions of grief. As I experienced, grieving and healing are not necessarily linear processes. A person tries to make each day or each month a little better than the one before, but an event or memory can sometimes impart an overwhelming sense of sorrow or loss that one feels like they have made no movement forward at all. It is helpful to have someone that can be trusted to listen, empathize, and not dismiss feelings of sorrow.”
Over that year, O’Brien interviewed band members twice (with their parents’ permission), and Clark and others multiple times over the three years it took to complete the book. Getting it published before the students graduated high school last month was important; it would have been Eric Green’s graduation day, too.
“He’s still very much present with them,” O’Brien reports, noting the Trottier Big Band still plays the songs commissioned in Green’s memory and classmates continue to wear the green rubber bracelets distributed after his death.
Published in May, the book has been well-received by the community, former Big Band members, and the subject himself: “I have read the book and I love it!” Clark says. “Reading it was an emotional experience, as I relived all the events covered in the book. I am incredibly proud of how the students (specifically) and the community (as a whole) rallied to support each other in that difficult time. I’m honored to have been a part of it. I hope that it helps others who are grieving and offers some guidance for the caretakers of children who have suffered a loss."
How One Music Teacher Helped Middle School Musicians Grieve, Grow
By Melissa Shaw