Withrow Fine Arts Continue to Flourish

by Christy McTigue Backley ’66

“Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger” is a catchphrase dear to the hearts of Withrow alumni. We all feel it, that warm nostalgia triggered by a name, a song, a photo of our beautiful campus, but few of us act on it. A notable exception is Zach Riggins, class of ’72, photo above. He came away from his 25-year reunion with an inkling of an idea — an idea that percolated over the years and finally grew into a full-fledged plan to return Withrow to its glory days (and rightful position, many would say) as Cincinnati Public Schools’ leader in fine arts.

 Since his high school trumpet-playing days, Zach has been a performer, director, producer, and technician. Lighting is a specialty, and in addition to managing his own enterprise, he taught courses in cinema lighting at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Step one in his plan was to bring back the once-annual musical tradition that showcased Withrow’s talented students from 1930-1984, first as the Withrow Minstrels and then as The Sounds of Withrow. His production, Withrow Sounds Again, was planned initially to be a band fundraiser and a kickoff to the school’s centennial celebration.

In the fall of 2016, Zach began soliciting his industry contacts, and within two years he was receiving donations of money and equipment from community organizations, alumni, and businesses. His conversations with CPS intrigued Dr. Isidore Rudnik, Fine Arts Superintendent, and resulted in $50,000 from CPS. The renaissance had begun. Withrow Sounds Again debuted on May 9, 2019.

By 2016, music classes had all but disappeared from the curriculum. There were few instruments, and those that remained required extensive reconditioning. There was no choral music program. But things began to look up. By 2019, 70 students were enrolled in three periods of beginning band. Despite shutdowns caused by Covid, there are now 85 students participating in beginning and intermediate band classes. Laura Omaits and John Beasley are full-time instrumental music teachers.

Through the Carlson-Bierne scholarship, students from CCM provide additional, targeted instruction to strings players, who are showing tremendous progress. Other paid instructors are teaching students to play different instruments from the percussion, brass, and woodwind families, including oboe, bassoon, and baritone sax.

“We have some outstanding players,” says Zach, “including a sax player who likely will go pro. In addition to improving their skill, these young players are all developing a competitive spirit. They all want to be the best. They come into the room and can’t wait to get their horns out and start playing.”

It’s not only instrumental music that’s staging a comeback – so is the choir. From teacher Haley Walls students learn music theory as well as how to sing in a group.

Maybe one of the most exciting innovations is the media production class. Since 2019, students of English teacher Diane Roland, photo at left, have been learning to write scripts and perform dramatic readings and plays, including Frankenstein and Dracula. They have also learned about costuming, makeup, and sound effects. It was her idea to move the program forward by combining the dramatic and technical aspects – lighting, sound, and video —to develop a class that augments reading, writing, and organizational skills. Zach has created a curriculum that gives students practical knowledge in an in-demand field by focusing on cinematic principle and video production. A re-discovered set of 14 cameras allows students to take their own videos and download them to a computer to edit. CPS provided funding for a 4K camera, tripod, and light kit — to be used for the “big stuff.” Recently, a friend and former colleague who teaches at Cincinnati State saw Zach’s post asking for donations and provided cameras, sound equipment, and a handicam. Now, three teams of students can work on separate programs simultaneously.

The combined drama/media class of 25 wrote, performed, and filmed Christmas and Black History programs, and is currently working on a production of Much Ado about Nothing for a Cincinnati Shakespeare Company high school competition. “I love having a project,” says Ms. Roland, “and we’re especially having fun with Shakespeare.”

These successes bode well for the future of fine arts program at Withrow, but the program needs help to thrive and grow. “The quality of musicality is still here,” says Zach. “Now it needs nurturing and support.”

What Withrow needs now:
Tubas, baritone horns, French horns, trombones and bass trombones, alto saxophones, tenor saxophones, piccolos, flutes, clarinets, bass clarinets, bassoons and grip equipment. HELP the Fine Arts Programs by DONATING NOW.

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