Aspen music teacher ready to take final bow
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Randi Kelly has worked at her dream job, as music teacher for the Aspen Community School, for 25 years, and retirement is in sight. So her final bow – the all-school show “Troy,” the 25th school production with Kelly as musical director – is a big deal. She is savoring it.
“Knowing it’s my last one, I’m loving it,” Kelly said, shortly after a morning-long dress rehearsal at the Wheeler Opera House. “I’m living every minute of it. This is the biggest bunch of minutes I’ll be living this year.”
Of course, she could probably say the same thing each year – that the weeks and days leading up to the school musical take on a heightened quality. Come April, each year for some four decades, the Aspen Community School breaks from its usual day-to-day routine, and goes into musical mode. The play involves every student, every teacher, every parent and even participants from outside the school community. Virtually all focus is given over to the theater.
“It’s absolutely the peak of the year for me. And for everyone,” the 64-year-old Kelly said. “With that much energy going into one creative process, we think every child grows – emotionally, musically, dramatically. Try-out day is a major tradition – everyone’s prepared, and that starts it. Try-out day comes, and everyone knows – we’re doing the play. Then that last week at the Wheeler, that’s a big one. They get in there and they know it’s big-time.”
Growing up, in Miami and North Carolina, Kelly had a different perspective on what represented the big time. She wanted to be a rock singer. But after an acquaintance, Janis Joplin, decided to spend two weeks of recuperation time in Kelly’s house in Miami, around 1970 – a year before Joplin would die – Kelly had second thoughts about the rock life.
“It showed me, if I was going to go in that direction, it probably wouldn’t include family and kids, the direction I wanted to go,” Kelly said. “I was in awe of it. But I was destined for something else.”
Kelly came face to face, briefly, with that destiny in 1979, while living in Aspen. Her son, Demian, attended second grade at the Aspen Community School, and Kelly boldly stepped into a role as the school’s music teacher.
“I thought, I’ve always been a musician; I can sing songs with kids,” she said. “But there was more to it than that. It scared … me. In those days, the school was a pretty wild place for an unseasoned teacher like me. But I wanted to be there so bad – the place, the beauty of the campus. I loved alternative education.”
Kelly was committed enough that she headed to North Carolina, to go back to school and eventually earn degrees in music education and vocal pedagogy. But the time away stretched to seven years, long enough for Kelly to forget her ultimate goal of returning to Aspen. Her son reminded her.
“He said, ‘What about the community school? What about the dream? This place is so redneck,'” she recalled. “He was right, and that was it.”
Back in Aspen, armed with the proper degrees, Kelly knocked again at the door of the Community School. But the administration advised her to settle in Aspen for a while before taking the job. After a year of waitressing at the Hotel Jerome, she eased into the music teacher position. The terms of employment were unsteady: in some years, there was enough money for Kelly to teach music full-time; other years, she chipped in teaching other subjects. Finally in 1995, when the school received its charter, she became the full-time music teacher.
Kelly has been guided by a progressive approach called Orff-Schulwerk, which incorporates movement, rhythm, percussion, drama and singing into a bundle of music education. Another focus has been the guitar; the Community School’s well-established program counts more than 40 pickers, and among those to come out of the program is Obadiah Jones, guitarist of the prominent local rock band, Slightly White.
But the main event for Kelly, and for the school, is the annual musical. As highlights, Kelly remembers the first year she returned to the school, in 1987, when the production was “Into the Mountains,” a take-off on Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” (The Community School musicals these days are always original works. Lou Rae Doyle, the language arts teacher and director of the musicals, writes the script and lyrics; Kelly, along with local musicians, write the music.) Another favorite memory was “Just So Stories,” based on the writing of Rudyard Kipling, which had all the students playing animals, and involved the boys working with a drum master for a month.
Kelly favors dramas to lighter comedies, so is pleased to be bidding farewell with “Troy,” the story of the Trojan War of the 12th century B.C., packed with swords, battles, an abundance of heroes, and one very large horse. As has become custom, the production turned the Wheeler Opera House into a staging ground of costumes, singing voices, drama, history and coordination of schedules.
“We kind of turn into a theater arts school for the month of April,” Kelly said. “The preparation becomes our curriculum. Academics don’t go out the window. It’s all related to history or language arts. The kids are studying more Greek history than is in the play.”
In 1994, Kelly took a sabbatical to travel with a boyfriend, a gypsy-type musician. The two traveled through Central America, and also spent time in Europe and in various parts of the U.S., playing street music. That cured her of the latent desire to be a rocker. “It wasn’t so much the rock star – it was just getting to play in a real setting,” she said. “Street music took care of all of that.”
Which made it possible to be fully satisfied teaching music to schoolkids, and helping put together 25 spring musicals.
“Every year, the musical is the biggest challenge. And the biggest success,” Kelly said. “And my boss, the principal, said, If your biggest challenge is your biggest success, they you’re doing it right. Your reaching to your highest level of teaching excellence.”
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