Pingry students in all three divisions paused on January 12 and 13 to honor Dr. King's memory.
In particular, Drama Department Chair, Mr. Al Romano, was an influential figure in her development, and not simply on the stage. “He was like a dad to me throughout high school,” said Jazmin. “He emphasized the role that drama skills play in life overall. As a result, my acting self and my school self always felt very integrated.” She recalled a particularly tough day early in high school, when she had a lot on her plate. She sought him out for comfort. “He sat down with me and helped me map out a schedule for the rest of the week to get organized. That’s the kind of teacher he is.”
Jazmin’s other memorable roles while at Pingry: In eighth grade, she stretched herself as an actor to play the crooked old miser Fagin in Oliver Twist. She surprised her mom with a solo show-opener, singing All That Jazz in an end-of-summer concert for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center Young Artist Summer Intensive, a prestigious program to which she was twice accepted. And, her senior year, she played Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, a show that will forever stand out in her mind.
“Realizing that that was the last time I would perform on Pingry’s stage was hard,” she recalls. “Macrae Theater had been my home since sixth grade. All my memories—fall plays, musicals, drama classes, set work—were in that space. That was home for me.”
But, when he arrived, he took a dance class with Mrs. Wheeler and discovered an interest in movement (later, in high school, he even started a dance group with three of his friends called “The Pingry Academiks”). A drama class with Mrs. Romankow and performances with friends during Multicultural Day Assemblies sparked a love for performing. Then, he took a poetry class with Dr. Dineen and developed an interest in performance poetry. And conversations with his track coach and English teacher, Mr. Shilts, led to a curiosity in film. By the time he graduated, his passions were numerous.
“I was a definitely all over the place at Pingry, and even in college,” he says (he graduated from Trinity College in 2014 with a degree in fine arts, focused on illustration and film studies). “But the freedom to explore, to experiment, is really what Pingry afforded me. I didn’t want to do just one thing; I wanted to bring together different styles and types of art and find a way to make it all work in harmony.”
Now, as a multimedia artist pursuing an MFA in graphic novels and comics at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, he is doing just that.
His advice to current Pingry artists? “Be hungry—make the most of the faculty and resources while you're at Pingry, because you won't find their quality and personal investment even at many colleges and universities. It's a top-tier institution; the space and freedom is there for you to not simply create an opportunity, but blaze new paths. The sky is your limit."
Fast forward to her senior year and she had fulfilled her high school dream—landing the lead, Sally Bowles, in Cabaret. But in those intervening years, she faced her fair share of rejection from roles she pined for and other endeavors (like Student Body President). They were all tough experiences, she says, but prepared her well for the college application process, and life. “I really learned to take rejection as a means to work harder, congratulate the winner, and move on. Other peoples’ successes are not your failures. That lesson has helped me a lot,” she says.
A four-year member of the Balladeers and co-president of Pingry’s Student Activity Council (SAC) her senior year (a club that presents sketches and performances during Morning Meetings), Erin is now immersed in her craft on a much larger stage. “I want to be a Tina Fey, a Stephen Colbert, a Jimmy Fallon,” she muses. “I want to hold a clipboard on the Saturday Night Live set. There are so many moving parts to a good performance, and that’s what I loved on a smaller scale about SAC at Pingry—people working together, coming together, sometimes last-minute, to create something really terrific."
During his senior year at Pingry, he was tapped to perform as Keith Urban’s keyboardist during the American Country Music Awards. Just after graduation, he joined guitar virtuoso Steve Vai on an international concert tour that took him to Australia, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Thailand, all before he turned 19. And, during his sophomore year at USC’s Thornton School of Music, where he has been taught by music masters Patrice Rushen, Smokey Robinson, and John Fogerty, he appeared as a student musician on two episodes of the hit show Glee.
A classically trained pianist since the first grade, Michael’s attention turned to the keyboard during his freshman year at Pingry. It didn’t take him long to scout out a local mentor, who happened to be Billy Joel’s band member. By some standards, he has already lived a lifetime of success since his Pingry graduation, but that hasn’t clouded his high school memories.
“Mr. McAnally [Middle and Upper School music teacher and Director of the Jazz Band] played a big part in fostering my overall curiosity, introducing me to new kinds of music and playing that I hadn’t yet explored,” he says. “I remember jazz band my freshman year he introduced us to Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett. We had to play a couple of pieces by Pat—I remember Five-Five-Seven being particularly challenging. But it was a lot of fun.”
Music education aside, Michael also recalls the impact of Mrs. Grant’s creative writing class his junior year, where he dove into various forms of written art, including short stories and poetry. “It was a very eye-opening and inspirational class,” he remembers. “Lyrics play an enormous role in music, and that class really got me thinking about the ways in which people communicate and how emotion is conveyed. It opened the door for me in terms of my ability to write lyrics.”
With plans to graduate a semester early in order to join another world tour, his music career is really just beginning.
His advice for Pingry students? “Work hard at what you’re doing but don’t be afraid to take in everything, even classes that don’t seem immediately relevant to your interests. There’s just so much to learn.”
The decision was a wrenching one. A talented runner, who competed for Big Blue cross country and track all four years (except track her senior year), she assumed college recruitment was in the cards, even speaking to NYU’s coach, who was interested in her. She also happens to come from a family of runners. Both of her parents are former professional distance runners (her father, Gerry Vanasse, is Pingry Middle School’s Director of Athletics).
But, as the injuries piled up, she realized, “Mentally, running just wasn’t fun anymore. I was spending more and more time away from the team recovering, and always participated in the musicals to fill the gap. Until my freshman year, when I first tried out, I really didn’t know what musical theater was.” Slowly but surely, her interests evolved. By her senior year, she had decided: ‘”I don’t think I want to run; I want to try something different,’” she recalls saying to herself.
What happened when she told Mr. Winston—vocal director of Pingry’s a cappella group, the Balladeers, and Glee Club, both of which Camille was involved in—of her decision to pursue her musical interests in college? “His immediate response was, ‘Let me help you with your audition tapes.’ He played such a pivotal role in my decision to follow this route. He pushed and supported me the perfect amount, and helped me to believe that I could go further.”
The recipient of Pingry’s top music honor, the Madeline Bristol Wild Music Prize, Camille is now happy immersed in the New Studio on Broadway program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Still, she returns to campus on occasion to ask Mr. Winston for his feedback on new pieces. “Without him, I wouldn’t have had the courage to break boundaries and immerse myself in the unknown.”
In 2014, Brian auditioned and was selected to the competitive Paper Mill Playhouse Broadway Show Choir. Just a year earlier, however, as a freshman, when he tried out for Pingry’s a cappella group, the Buttondowns (which he knew he wanted to be part of ever since he heard them perform on Accepted Students Day), he didn’t make the cut. He wasn’t deterred. “I was disappointed, but I knew that I had to improve,” he recalls. “I began vocal lessons, I practiced constantly, and by my sophomore year I made it, which gave me courage to try out for the musical. With Dr. Moore’s guidance in music theory, and Mrs. Romankow and Mr. Romano’s dramatic teaching, I have really grown as an artist at Pingry.”
A "graduate" of three Pingry musicals and three plays, he has told many stories to many different audiences. Now, a performer at Franklin & Marshall College, where he is planning to double major in music and physics, he continues to pursue both his artistic and academic passions. Perhaps not obvious to most, but he sees a poetic parallel between the two disciplines. “Outside of music, [physics teacher] Mr. Burns was one of my closest teachers,” he says. “He really helped me to consider the “why” of physics problems—the underlying math—which is similar to understanding why my character is doing what it’s doing when I perform.”
Physics and music might be on opposite sides of the academic spectrum, but for Brian, thanks to lessons learned at Pingry, they are perfectly, harmoniously, aligned.