Tyson School students perform musical tribute to the King of Pop

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EAST ORANGE, NJ — The stage of Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts’ 800-seat auditorium was recently graced by Michael Jackson, dubbed the “King of Pop” … well, sort of. 

“Every year we celebrate an African American artist for Black History Month (in February). In previous years we celebrated the likes of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. This year the concert was a tribute to Michael Jackson,” high school choir director and vocal music teacher Terrance Bell said in a May press release. “I felt his legacy, the quality and quantity of his music would resonate with the community. He had a lot of hit records. I also felt the quality of his music would be a great music education for our students involved in the program. I realized that generally, the kids had heard 90 percent of the songs in passing, like an old school song, or heard the songs in movies, but they never really knew it was Michael Jackson. They didn’t associate the music with Michael Jackson. And, I knew parents would enjoy the music of the past.”

COVID-19 restrictions, however, made pulling the show together very challenging. 

“This year was the most chaotic year to organize a show,” Bell said. “Usually we have a four-month window. Getting clearance took time as protocols had to be determined and established. Essentially, I had about a month to prepare. It was extremely stressful. The behind-the-scenes work was overwhelming, working day and night.”

The work included meeting with the musicians, creating a vision board, creating a production plan, designing marketing pieces with a graphic designer, working with the lighting and sound crew, introducing music to the choir, collaborating with the dance department, and working closely with the elementary school choir. These efforts required numerous meetings and follow-up. 

“I wanted to make sure their work lined up with my vision,” Bell said about collaborating with other departments. “I had to lay out a vision for each song, including the costume design. It was also important to work closely with the solo performers.

“The most difficult part is to get a solo performer to be an entertainer and not just a vocalist,” Bell continued. “Inexperienced singers are usually comfortable standing on stage and singing. This mindset wouldn’t work if you’re representing the King of Pop and entertaining 800 people. They have to know how to work the stage, sing to each section of the audience, know how to walk side to side and entertain everybody that is there.”

Bell oversaw approximately 260 students from grades four through 12 who were involved in the production. 

“I take very seriously the responsibility that is bestowed upon me to mentor and guide the lives of children,” Bell said. “My band and choir teachers in high school and college saved my life. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those two teachers. They impacted my life. I know the power of inspiration and motivation, especially in our urban community where kids are already struggling with difficulties. I take seriously that God placed me in their lives to be their motivation. I take seriously the importance of not only bringing out their passion but to be a positive role model and to push them to greatness.”

The ticket money raised by these productions will fund upcoming choir competitions for students. 

“The choir is pretty active; they do at least four competitions a year,” Bell said. “We try to raise enough money where parents don’t have to pay for anything.”

Photos Courtesy of Mirvetk Tonuzi