In this building, we’re surrounded by art all day long—in classrooms, offices, and studios; in the hallways, even in the bathrooms. The lunchroom doubles during non-meal hours as practice space, and sometimes performance space, for actors as well as for the chorus, chorale, orchestra, and jazz band.
You will take at least one course in the studio or performing arts every semester you are at Commonwealth: it’s a graduation requirement. Many students take more, curious to explore a couple of new or familiar mediums and techniques at the same time.
It’s both fun and challenging to involve yourself in wholly creative processes. It’s no surprise that Commonwealth artists regularly win awards in all categories of the yearly competitions sponsored by The Boston Globe’s regional and national Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
Beyond our walls, the Boston area offers an extraordinary wealth of museums and galleries, theaters, concert halls, and other music venues. As a Commonwealth student, you’ll be perfectly placed to take full advantage of remarkable opportunities—on class trips, with friends, or by yourself. Regularly, our Impromptu Day sweeps the whole school off to a theatrical or musical performance; on Museum Day we fan out in small groups throughout the city and beyond to visit an eclectic array of exhibits. During Project Week and summer break, our artists find rewarding internships with local painters, photographers, and musicians in local museums, galleries, and studios, or teaching art in grade schools and community centers.
We enjoy sharing our art with each other and our community. Each spring, our visual artists choose favorite pieces to exhibit in the annual school art show, while performers present a series of concerts, recitals, and plays throughout the year.
- Chamber Music
- Jazz Ensemble
- The Artist's Book
- Drawing and Painting
- Life Drawing
This course, for ninth graders only, offers basic training: body awareness, relaxation, and development of story and monologue. The techniques we use, from the LeCoq School in Paris, are steeped in the physical style of theatre. In acting, your body is your tool—gestures say so much! We use mask training to awaken your body skills: How do I stand and walk? Who am I? Where is my weight? With your most expressive element—your face—covered, you develop your weaker tool—your body—and build physical courage, grace, and ease. Using minimal tools, you will learn to convey emotions, content, and the physical universe around you.
Students say..."I have a really strong sense of movement and my own body and the power of movement when I'm building a character.”
Acting Advanced (Acting 2, 3, 4)
The next three years of acting are open to a blend of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We investigate classical and contemporary drama, tragedy, comedy, Shakespeare, Chekhov, and original scenes. Continuing body awareness exercises, we study style and different worlds—the worlds of dream, combat, confrontation, clowning, and commedia dell’arte, a form of Italian masked improvisation. You cultivate voice, grace, timing, rhythm, and responsiveness to an audience. In addition, if part of class is doing, an equal part is watching—heightening your awareness of one another’s work and giving feedback. You develop an eye for directing: within classes and performances, advanced students often lead warm-ups and actor training.
Students say..."One of the best times for me was the day I directed a scene from scratch by myself—the only scene where Liz’s character let loose and got angry. It was a vital scene for the character to win sympathy, and the way Liz ultimately played it, I knew, came in large part from my direction. This was thrilling for me.”
The mixture of strict discipline and freedom to experiment with different styles of dance appeals a great deal to Commonwealth dancers. So does the possibility of doing considerable individual and group choreography and performing in the dance concert held at the end of most years. Most students take dance for sports credit, but you may get the instructor’s permission to take an additional period of dance a week; we then call it Advanced Dance, and it carries an art credit.
Students say..."Our spring concert was a compilation of each student’s personal choreography with a finale choreographed by our teacher, Jackie. Many of us collaborated on dances and also embarked on solo dances. We felt pretty confident, though to be honest, just before curtain time we got quite nervous. We remembered what Jackie had taught us, looked beyond the faces of the people in the front rows, and danced on. At the end, we were rewarded with a long standing ovation!”
This forty-five-voice choir welcomes all students and teachers. Our eclectic repertoire ranges from Bach to gospel. Although the ability to read music is not necessary to join, you must love music and be open to taking risks and putting in your full effort. You learn vocal technique and musicianship skills: how to breathe, to listen critically, to manipulate different languages, to sing phrases—not just notes—and how to work responsibly as part of a larger whole. We have many opportunities for performance; in our fall and spring concerts we perform with the orchestra, student soloists, and the occasional guest professional musician.
Students say..."Mr. Hodgkins [the music director] holds the chorus and orchestra to the same professional standard he maintains for his adult choirs. It’s incredible how far this allows the performance ensembles to get with pieces that many of us initially think are over our heads.”
A twelve- to fifteen-voice auditioned group. We focus on expressive and precise performances primarily of a cappella works from the Renaissance to the present day, including cantatas, motets, madrigals, and jazz. These different styles require an exacting sense of pitch as well as vocal prowess, a keen ear, and advanced musical maturity. The ensemble comes to sing and breathe as one, while you each develop the poise and independence necessary to perform collectively before an audience.
Students say..."Looking out into the crowd, I wonder: ‘Who are all these people? What does the music mean to them? If each of our brains hears, or at least interprets music differently, then how amazing is it that we can gather together to enjoy it!’”
A Haydn string quartet, a Rachmaninoff sonata for cello and piano, a wind quintet—music making doesn’t get more intense and intimate than it does in these forms, where you are responsible not only for a demanding part of your own but also to a tightly knit ensemble. Matched with other students at your level, and based on your interests, you work toward performing a piece that pushes you to grow as a musician.
Students say..."My interest in chamber music spilled over into Project Week, when I worked with a classmate to compose a duet for piano and cello. A duet turned out to be the right choice, as it was essential to be able to hear the music as it would sound on the instruments through every step of the composition process. Even though in the end, my friend would have liked a more minimalist piece, while I wanted more of a real melody and climax, we were both proud of what we had written, practiced, and performed.”
Open to all instruments, vocalists, and levels of skill. Learning and practicing leads us to a spirited concert in the spring. We play material drawn from all decades of jazz, including compositions by Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, and John Scofield, to name a few. We also, of course, choose material based on how many of us there are in any given year and what instruments we play. Jazz ensemble members should be able to read music, although pieces are also taught by ear. Participation in the jazz theory classes is recommended but not required.
Students say..."I’m amazed at Mark White's ability to assemble a jumble of instruments and distinctly Commonwealthian personalities into a functioning band. This weird, miraculous hodgepodge places serious-minded jazz players alongside bassoonists, metal drummers, and classically trained pianists, and somehow it all hangs together. For many students, the jazz program is a first taste of the joys of collaborative music making, of the trust and enthusiasm and exchange of ideas that form an improvising band.”
A small chamber orchestra whose overarching goal for players of varying experience and ability is to create a cohesive and musically expressive ensemble. You study classical music from the baroque to the contemporary era. In the fall, we prepare a major piece, such as the Vivaldi Gloria or a Bach cantata, to perform in collaboration with the Chorus. In the spring we undertake a broader range of works. Our orchestra has premiered five student compositions over the last nine years. With teamwork, intensive rehearsing, and dedicated individual preparation, you will grow individually as a musician and be an integral part of a larger experience that is uniquely rewarding for performers and audience alike.
Students say..."Commonwealth turned me into a musical performer, and it wasn’t until I played here for the first time that I felt I had really given my whole self to this school. At the same time, I realized that the music does not have to be about me. I enjoy performing, but sometimes it’s just about sharing something beautiful, no matter who is playing.”
What is an artist’s book? It is a book in the sense that it tells a story. But it’s a story that viewers can touch and walk around. You figure out a way to express a concept or a narrative in a three- dimensional, concrete way. It’s the ultimate visual mixed-media creation.
We learn skills that turn up more traditionally in a mixed-media course. We experiment with printing techniques, Photoshop, paint, and, yes, bookbinding. We do often use paper—of interesting varieties and often in new ways; rarely, we’ll incorporate a few words. Otherwise you’re free to experiment with just about any form you can conceive of and any material you can manipulate in order to convey your message.
Students say..."None of our ‘books’ looked anything like books, and no two were at all alike. Jean [the teacher] would propose a very open theme, like “texture” or “crossing borders.” Since she had already taught us a huge number of handcraft techniques (from drilling to dyeing), and since we had access to a huge array of media (from wax to wire), the only thing limiting us was our imagination.”
You’re guided by demonstrations and literal hands-on individual instruction as we study and experiment with the properties of clay. We have eight wheels in the studio, along with ample table space and elbow room for our small classes. Throwing may look easy, but your first pot may well end up looking like a mushy Frisbee. Don’t be discouraged! With concentration and practice, you will end up making bowls, plates, and perhaps a teapot that you will be proud of.
You can make such functional items, of course, but you may be tempted to try sculpture. Once your work is bisque fired, you will learn to decorate the surface using oxides, engobe, or glaze pencils. Glazes offer a complicated but fascinating opportunity to investigate texture and color.
Students say..."It astonished me to see how many uses people can find for the materials in the studio. One of my friends modeled a circuit in clay to explain a physics problem he was thinking about. Another hand-built an elephant. Other kids in the class made pots, pitchers, teapots, and ramen bowls. Someone made a bathtub!”
Drawing and Painting 1
As an observer and a draftsman in this class, you learn to articulate your goals as a picture maker. How do you go about achieving them? You develop technical skills, of course, and learn to use a variety of media effectively and expressively. Many of you will start the year with still-life arrangements, using pencil and dry media. Soon you will be choosing your own subjects and deciding on the length of your projects. By late fall or winter, most of you will be working with paint, studying color mixing and color relationships. Through both close looking and discussion of your compositions, you’ll become aware of the different ways you, personally, respond to visual stimuli. You work hard; your confidence builds; your artistic vision broadens; you tackle work of increasing complexity. You develop your own style.
Students say..."I am concentrating purely on the physical part of what the difference is between what I see with my eyes and what I see on the paper. I think I should try less to copy but more to ‘describe’ the image that my eye sees. I want my drawing to be a suggestion of an actual object and to look at it as only tones, values, and colors. Then I’ll fill in the rest by drawing it the way I think it should be.”
Drawing and Painting Advanced
Having established a strong base of skills—both technical and observational—you are ready to take artistic risks and enter untested ground. In drawing, that might mean a life-size self- portrait rendered in pastel on toned paper—a work where color relationship is as important to you as the features of the face. In painting you might undertake a vision of a magical landscape described in detail in a book you love. There are no limits. If an idea is worth exploring, you will get the time, materials, and support you need to see it through.
Students say..."Paint and palette knife allow me to become fully immersed in what I create in a process that is wholly physical. Sometimes I can work so intensely that I don’t see the entire effect until I pull myself out of and away from my painting. But this is all pure joy to me. When I paint I feel I’m working without effort.”
A strong case can be made that everyone should learn to draw the human figure. For the eager draftsman, regardless of experience, there is no more compelling subject. You draw from a nude model for a double period each week, choosing from among a wide variety of dry media (pencil, charcoal, chalk, Conté crayon, and more). Throughout the year, as you learn to pay meticulous attention to anatomical relationships, proportion, gesture, and light, you will come to develop your own style. A separate period once a week is devoted to anatomy: you study and sketch different sections of a skeleton. This class has no prerequisite other than a lively interest in drawing, hard-to-satisfy curiosity, and the willingness to work hard.
Students say..."In that sunny fourth-floor studio, I learned to draw, I learned to talk, and I learned to think about art.”
We start with traditional film-based photography—the basic functions of a 35mm manual camera, how to use its settings creatively, and how to develop your black-and-white film in the darkroom. Your efforts there teach you to recognize and produce prints with good tonal range, strong compositions, and expressive qualities. We take time as well to learn how to bleach and tone prints. It’s important to develop an observant eye and be able to make a well-crafted print first, so that you can judiciously navigate the overload of artistic choices that digital photography and Photoshop will dangle so enticingly in front of you next year. During second semester, you create your own pinhole camera, making your exposures on paper negatives. These we scan and use to introduce you to Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Over the year, through books and the Internet, you gain a quick history of photography as we study the work of a range of photographers. All along the way, you are invited to share and discuss your prints.
Students say..."Rusty, our teacher, would examine each shot and tell me what spoke to him and what did not. By showing me how particular photographs were expressive, he allowed me to discover what well-composed images have in common. This way, any developments in my style were organic and uniquely mine.”
You now have many photographic choices—from continuing to refine black-and-white darkroom procedures to exploring the many aspects of digital photography with Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. You finally get your hands on digital imaging software, scanners, and large-format printers. You can also work with alternative printing techniques, including cyanotype, Van Dyke Brown, Polaroid transfers, and photo etching. As you make the acquaintance of the wide variety of approaches to photography, and as you experiment with them, you will define your own photographic interests and vision.
Students say..."Taking pictures of strangers outside, you have to be quick, and often the image doesn’t come out the way you’d expect. But that’s part of the fun. In one of my shots, a woman sitting outside a deli with her kids and dog caught me as I was stealthily trying to photograph them. I feel sort of sheepish when I see her staring accusingly at me, but at the same time, I think her gaze and protective position are what make the photograph work.”
From the outset, we combine observation and hands-on work. We study both traditional and contemporary printmaking methods, examining a wide selection of master prints created through the centuries. At the same time, you familiarize yourself with the requisite tools as you make monoprints, linoleum cuts (both monochromatic and color), and intaglio prints. You get to try out and discover your favorites among a number of techniques: line etching, aquatint, soft ground, spit biting and open biting, hand coloring, and collograph. While you work and experiment, you concentrate on refining your drawing and composition skills. You’ll soon find yourself developing your own visual vocabulary.
Students say...."We started off with simple monoprints, learning the different textures we could get simply by pressing paper against ink in various ways. After printing successfully in one technique, we graduated to the next. In this way, we made linoleum cuts, drypoint prints, and, eventually, etchings. Printmaking is a slow process. I’m the kind of person who likes to do things quickly, so printmaking proved to be a much-needed lesson in the worth of slowing down and planning things out thoroughly.”
After you’ve learned your way comfortably around the print studio, you’re ready to explore in greater depth the techniques that intrigue you the most. We also now begin to see what happens when you combine techniques. We try mixing traditional and modern (or unconventional) approaches and incorporating innovative elements into the prints we create. You learn as well to manipulate computer imaging software, scanners, printers, and photo etching techniques. The unexpected is always welcome in the print room!
Students say..."Rusty never let me rest on my laurels. He told me where I could make a print better, but he also, always, told me what he loved about it. I never once felt discouraged. I could throw myself into something that mattered to no one but me.”