By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 9, 2020
ATLANTA—Ben Wulkan plays on stage with his guitar so often that little fazes him while playing under the bright lights.
That is until he and three other seniors at St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, broke from tradition for their final Christmas concert performance. They intended to wow the audience at the risk of blundering.
They took on one of the most challenging pieces in the holiday songbook. For hours after school the foursome practiced the overture from “The Nutcracker.” The piece demands precise timing between the musicians.
Tim Brosnan, who teamed up with Wulkan on the piece, said he was simply trying to get through the performance without any fatal flaws.
“Your hand just felt like it was flying,” said Brosnan.
Wulkan, 18, faced an unusual emotion after the audience applause died.
“It’s weird to have to say goodbye to a song,” said Wulkan. “It was a moment when you unleashed all we had learned.”
The other senior guitarists were Amelia Temme and Brianna Harris.
The young adults developed their talents at St. Pius X High School, ending in the advanced classical guitar class.
For the teenager who delighted bar crowds playing rock songs with his guitar behind his head, Wulkan leaves the program with a foundation of music theory and appreciation for the finer things as a musician.
“It’s like learning the instrument again, to be honest. It is so different,” he said.
Program attracts different types of musicians
The award-winning guitar program has been around for about 20 years at the school. Guitar instructor, Brion Kennedy, inherited what he sees as a dream position.
“Guitar is really great because you can make it sound like another instrument. You can be a ton of different instruments,” said Kennedy. “You can be a piano. You can be a saxophone. You can be a guitar.”
Kennedy played guitar in all types of bands starting in high school. At the University of Georgia, he switched majors from business to guitar with a goal of becoming a teacher. He has been in front of the classroom, guitar strap on his shoulder, for about 10 years.
Kennedy, 35, served for a time as the guitar leader of the Georgia Music Educators Association. He saw how guitar instruction is healthy at middle schools, but the programs begin to wither at the high school level. He knows of only a handful of programs similar to St. Pius, where he is the chair of the fine arts department.
Students with guitar interest are too often funneled into either band or orchestra, which doesn’t appeal to them, he said. “We get the people who wouldn’t necessarily pick up an instrument.”
Classroom collaboration leads to festivals
Maggie Geeslin, 19, and Grace Repasky, 19, entertain throngs of dancing fans. The college students spent much of 2019 touring, with shows in Texas and Colorado to California. Their band Lunar Vacation attracts some 134,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.
Their success came out of the guitar class. As part of a group of young women, the then tenth-grade musicians won a school competition. Kennedy encouraged them to use their summer break to form a band.
“He really, really cared about his kids,” said Repasky.
“He lit the fire,” said Geeslin. “We couldn’t even dream this.”
Lunar Vacation, which calls its music “pool rock,” is a four-member band of St. Pius graduates. Repasky and Geeslin knew each other in guitar class and graduated in 2018. The keyboard player is Matteo De Lurgio and the band’s drummer is Connor Dowd. They were in the St. Pius marching band.
Geeslin and Repasky met recently at a Little Five Points coffee shop to talk about the guitar program, sipping cappuccino and latte along with muffins.
Geeslin took up the guitar after seeing Pius students play a Pearl Jam song at an open house.
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever to learn that song in school,” she said.
Geeslin credits the program for exposing students to a range of music, from punk to hip-hop.
Repasky is the group’s songwriter and singer. She learned the craft of writing from the program. It’s about “having an ear for different parts of the music,” she said.
Before graduation, Lunar Vacation performed around Atlanta as their parents drove them to venues. They toured across the country in 2019 and will be on stage at Atlanta’s 2020 Shaky Knees concert. Between university classes, they spend time in the studio in the hopes of recording an album by the fall.
Showcasing students’ skills, winning awards
Kennedy teaches about 100 students from the introduction to the advanced class, where the focus is classical playing. One of his adaptations is to broaden the guitar genre.
“We do everything from Bach to rock,” he said. “It’s very rare for high school kids to listen to classical guitar.”
Students showcase their talents off campus. They perform at Atlanta colleges and universities. They dressed as farm animals when they entertained at a DeKalb County school for students with special needs. At high school competitions, the program has earned top marks year after year.
Brosnan, 18, picked up the guitar in middle school at St. Jude the Apostle School. The chance to take guitar was the deciding factor in selecting St. Pius X, said Brosnan, who has been accepted to the University of Delaware. He would like to take what he learned in the class to explore music management as a career choice, he said.
Brosnan balanced playing guitar with his three years on the school’s varsity lacrosse team. In fact, they complemented each other. The physical intensity at an early morning lacrosse practice followed by the mental challenge of guitar class was “the best way to start the school day,” he said.
For Wulkan, he committed to attend St. Pius X High School only after he discovered the guitar program. He said he likely would have stopped playing music otherwise.
“It’s not musicianship, it’s a guitar thing. It’s all or nothing,” he said.
Looking ahead, Wulkan will be playing with Lunar Vacation at upcoming shows. He was recently accepted to New York University.
Kennedy’s goal is to be a guide as students deepen their talents, giving them the freedom to teach their peers and develop their skills as musicians and leaders.
Kennedy said his classroom is a place to appreciate music and shape students with skills they need after high school, working together and achieving goals.