Blair’s Director of Vocal Music Ryan Manni sat in the music room of the Armstrong-Hipkins Center for the Arts after wrapping up a day of teaching, his fingers resting on the piano. As he looked around the room, he felt satisfied with the transformation. The risers, long a staple of many music rooms, had been removed to allow students more movement in the room. As he reflected on the day’s classes, Mr. Manni saw evidence that his plan was working. The removal of the risers meant students were moving more. They were experimenting with their musicianship and building new connections with one another. Most importantly, he thought, he saw students singing with an abundance of joy.
A summa cum laude graduate of Westminster Choir College, Mr. Manni came to Blair in 2016 and brought rich musical experience with him. He had studied with leading choral conductors and was a member of the Grammy-nominated Westminster Williamson Voices and Symphonic Choir. He had performed on some of the world’s great stages, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and participated as a full conductor at the Choral Institute at Oxford. He felt excited at the prospect of directing Blair’s fours singing groups—the Singers, Sopralti, Treble Choir, Blairitones and Chamber Choir—and prepared to step into the role of teacher of Blair’s AP music theory and digital music classes. What Mr. Manni did not expect, he says, was to be given such broad support to develop the School’s musical programs. “This position has been a dream come true to me,” he explains. “I’ve had pedagogical autonomy to create a program and to work in a place that supports the choices I make. They give me a wide berth to choose what we can do.”
A Vision Takes Root
Changing the physical layout of the music room has been just a small part of Mr. Manni’s expansive vision for the vocal program at Blair; he has no shortage of ideas to spur his students’ growth. Mr. Manni broke the choir into high and low voice ensembles, for example, giving vocalists the option to work in more groups and be challenged. Shortly after he assumed his new role as Director of Vocal Music, he also created the position of student conductor, giving students leadership opportunities.
“I have a student-centered teaching philosophy,” he explains. “The students are in partnership with me, and it’s really important to give them ownership over their work. As part of that, students elect their own student conductor.” Blair’s vocalists, Mr. Manni notes, have consistently recognized great musicianship in the students they have chosen to lead. This year, the Singers chose Sadie Donnelly ’22 to lead “Over the Rainbow” during the seniors’ final performance, the Spring Concert.
With the support of the administration, Mr. Manni also established a digital music program at the School, hoping to challenge students, both technically and conceptually, to create, record and produce their own music. One of the course’s first digital music graduates, Wils Acker ’19, Mr. Manni proudly relays, just released his first professionally produced album. Growing each year, digital music has become one of the performing arts department’s more popular courses as students escape to the School’s recording studio and use software such as Logic ProX to produce professional-quality recordings. “We have a professional recording studio,” Mr. Manni notes with a wide smile. “And our students create amazing music in it. How many high schools can say that?”
Oh, the Places You’ll Go
As for where he sees the music program going, Mr. Manni would like to focus on the Singers in the upcoming academic year. Long the centerpiece of the vocal music program, the Singers hold a special place in Mr. Manni’s heart. “Choir is what I love to do, and COVID really affected us,” he reflects. “We found ways to make music during the pandemic, but I would like to focus on getting us back to where we were.”
In the past, the Singers have taken an international tour every three years, so that at least once in their Blair career, vocalists get the benefit of performing on an international stage. In 2018, Blair musicians performed in England, traveling to Oxford, Cambridge, Ely and London, creating harmonies in ancient cathedrals and studying under Oxford University professor Dr. James Whitbourn, who is also a Grammy-nominated composer and conductor. In between those international concerts, Blair’s vocalists have traditionally enjoyed performances in metropolitan venues in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Boston.
Mr. Manni is excited to announce that, during the 2022-2023 year, the Singers, as well as musicians from Blair’s orchestras and bands, will return to form—and Europe. With an itinerary that includes England and France, Mr. Manni notes, “I’m really looking forward to gracing those stages again, making music that is impactful to the audience and meaningful to us.”
Many Hats & Talents
A Renaissance man, Mr. Manni wears many hats at Blair: He is a choir conductor, digital music producer and band accompanist. Whether serving his students as travel agent, music theory guru or directing them in the techniques that make vocal performances stand out, Mr. Manni finds his simple role of teacher is the one that brings him the most satisfaction. “My goal as a teacher is to serve the students,” he says. “I’m here to help them meet their goals.”
And his students appreciate that. While there is no doubt that Mr. Manni’s creative vision is inextricably linked to the growth of Blair’s music programs, soprano Nikki Kirkwood ’22 feels that it is Mr. Manni’s infectious energy, and his ability to make students feel seen and supported, that she will remember most from her four years in Blair’s vocal program. That and how, when he takes to the podium, Mr. Manni uses his whole carriage to communicate. “Some conductors use their hands, but Mr. Manni uses his whole body. He’ll stand on one leg when the music swells, and when the music gets louder, his foot comes up,” she says. “You can just see that he feels the music and loves what he does. And when he says ‘Amen, friends’? That’s his special way of saying we did that very well.”
Seated behind his piano, reflecting at the end of a long day on how the vocal program has grown since he joined the faculty in 2016, Mr. Manni appears thoughtful. While the physical transformation of the music room has brought benefits, he says, it is the transformation of students that stands out most to him. “My most beautiful moment of teaching so far took place when we were working on a difficult piece for an upcoming concert. A student-conductor took the chamber choir off into a corner and got the piece ready. It was a full circle moment.” That transformation—of his students coming into their own—is what inspires Mr. Manni and gives him joy. Looking up, he smiles and adds, “Can I get an Amen?”