A Nevada high school choir director’s insights from a night on stage with the Rolling Stones.
Last spring, Kim Barclay-Ritzer, choral director at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada, received an unexpected and somewhat perplexing message on Facebook: A woman from London who claimed to be with the Rolling Stones was asking if her groups would be interested in performing with the legendary rock n’ roll band. The Green Valley choral groups have a long history of success and reputation for quality. Unbeknownst to Barclay-Ritzer, she and her students had been recommended to the Rolling Stones management, who were busy booking choral groups to participate onstage for the performance of the Stones’ classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” as a part of the “50 and Counting” world tour, celebrating the band’s 50th year of existence.
After realizing that the inquiry wasn’t a hoax, Barclay-Ritzer quickly accepted the offer, and some two weeks later, found herself on stage at the sold out 16,800-seat MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, conducting 24 of her high school students as they accompanied the Rolling Stones.
Choral Director recently caught up with the educator, who provided an exclusive look into how this experience came together and its impact on the Green Valley High School choral program.
Choral Director: Hi Kim! So you are asked to perform, and after realizing the offer is for real, you accept. How did you decide which of your students would sing on stage?
KBR: I was allowed to have 24 students sing. My chamber group has 40 students. So to make the decision of who would go, I took my 24 kids that were selected for the Nevada All-State Choir. They happened to all be in my Madrigal Singers group. So they emailed us the music, we signed the contract, and we started rehearsing. The funny thing was that a lot of the kids didn’t really know who the Rolling Stones were.
CD: What about you – are you a fan?
KBR: Yes, absolutely – so I was really excited. And when I told the kids, you could see the blank look on their faces, until I said, “You know Mick Jagger, ‘Moves Like Jagger’?” And then they were like, “Ooh!” It was more their parents who were going crazy. I’m sure the kids went online to listen to recordings of the Stones and then they started getting into it.
The piece that we sang on is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which starts out with choir a cappella. We found out about this at the end of April, and then our concert date was May 11, so we had to work quickly. We had news stations coming and the local paper calling. The kids got to be interviewed, and it was a really great experience. As far as I know, we’re the only high school group that has been asked to sing with them – it’s been all college and professional groups, otherwise.
KBR: When we got to the arena, it was one of those cases of “hurry up and wait.” We arrived early, and then we sat around and waited. We rehearsed with the conductor, and then we sat around and waited. We did a sound check without them, and then finally later in the afternoon we were able to do a sound check with the band. They were the nicest people.
We split the choir in half, so there were 12 kids on each side of the stage. I was conducting on one side and one of my former students, who now conducts at a junior high school that feeds into my program, conducted on the other side. It was pretty cool to be able to bring one of my former students in.
Mick Jagger came over to both sides and thanked the kids for being there, and Keith Richards was waving at them and thanking them. They were just very nice, very accommodating. Then we had to wait until the show started, and we weren’t on until the first encore. So we didn’t go on until about 10:15 pm at night, and we’d been there since 1pm in the afternoon.
CD: When did it really sink in that the kids were going to be onstage with perhaps the biggest rock and roll band of all time?
KBR: When one of the local television stations came into our school to do a story, I think that’s when the kids realized that this was a pretty big deal. But when we got to the MGM and went out for the sound check, without the band even being there, just walking out into this arena that seats 25,000 people, that was so impressive. The kids were looking out, and they all have mics and ear buds so they can hear themselves, – and then when they finally walked out with the Stones for the dress rehearsal, that was it. And then they were giddy, all the way through. When they got out on stage for the show, the lights were out. You could hear the audience screaming – it was so loud, it was overwhelming. My back was to the crowd, but when the lights went up, I could see it through my kids’ eyes – they were huge. I know they were just like, “Oh my god!”
So we started the song, and then Mick came out. He uses the whole stage, so he’d walk past the kids while they were singing, and they really took it in stride. It was such a great experience for them. Even though that was months ago at this point, I still think we have a little bit of a high from the experience.
CD: So what do you think the after-effects are of an experience like that?
KBR: I know that the kids were glad that they knew how to sight-read, that they had the skills to be able to learn the music. We couldn’t have learned it that fast if they didn’t have those basic skills in place. And I think that’s really important, that you can just pick up a piece of music and go, and the students saw how important it was in that situation.
CD: So it was a validation of your process?
KBR: Yeah, that’s exactly what we do! We also talked about stage presence and what it’s like to be an entertainer. I’ve talked about this before in class, but to be out there and see Mick Jagger work the stage and the crowd, and see people go crazy over his moves and the way he does things… and they got to see how things are put together in a professional performance, wearing ear buds and doing all of these things that we don’t normally do.
CD: – and seeing all of the people behind the scenes.
KBR: Right, it was a huge crew of people that make the show happen. The crew would come up to us and introduce themselves. You always talk to the students about what it’s like to be professional, and we try to be as professional as we can at our concerts and even in the school, but this was a huge lesson on professionalism and how the real world works when it comes to performance.
The outpouring from our community was incredible. Not even parents, just people in the community would send emails to the school or to our principal congratulating us, saying that this was a huge honor and they were so proud of us. That outpouring helped the kids realize that while we often think that we’re in our own little world, there’s so much more to it. The community really opened up and we talked about how important it is to have good standing in the community and that people respect you, that that’s how you act all of the time. This was a huge lesson for them.
CD: How did the gig with the Stones impact subsequent performances?
KBR: We work really hard with stage presence, but I noticed a whole lot more presence on stage after that show, especially from the kids that were able to participate. They really got out there and worked it. And I also noticed a number of audience members who I had never seen before – community members and even parents who heard about us. It opened us up to a whole new audience, which was really cool.
CD: As an educator, what are your takeaways from that experience?
KBR: I am going to continue to emphasize sight-reading, because I think it’s really important. Another thing I learned was that you have to be willing to be flexible – to change up really quickly. When the conductor came in, he said, “Oh no, we’ve cut these bars out” and “We’re singing a different chord here.” The kids had to change it on the spot, and I had to change it in my head, because we were conducting with no music. I learned that you have to be ready for change, no matter how well you know the music. You have to know it so well that you can be able to flip it around if you have to.
It’s also really important to make an example and let people know that there are good kids out there. During our performances, I tell audiences that our kids aren’t the ones you see in the newspaper because they only show the kids who are doing everything wrong, whereas our kids are the ones who are doing everything right. We need to celebrate that, and this was a great way to do that.