The amazing Jeanie Cunningham '75 gives back to TASIS
Posted 10/18/2015 03:00PM

Following a tour de force performance at Expo Milano 2015 on October 10, distinguished musician and TASIS alumna Jeanie Cunningham ’75, whose incredible life and career can be read about here, visited campus for a few days and graciously shared her energy and talent with several music classes. In the video below, she can be seen helping students in Ms. Samantha Forrest’s Choir class prepare to sing “We are Family” at the Family Weekend assembly.



Two students in the class, senior Marianne Tissot and sophomore Ivan Semashev, shared their thoughts on what it was like to meet and work with Ms. Cunningham.



I had seen her perform at the Expo a couple days before she joined our choir class and was captivated by her voice. It has a raspy tone, which reminds me of Janis Joplin’s gritty, rock voice. When I looked her up online, I was amazed when I read that she had previously toured with Lionel Richie and had worked closely with Tina Turner. When she came into our Choir class, I was so excited! She was incredibly energetic and pitched in ideas and advice on how we could sing certain songs. It was such an honor to be able to sing with her.

Marianne Tissot ’16

 


Well, I could honestly write a whole essay about the experience of meeting Jeanie Cunningham. Now, what was it like? Strangely enough, it did not feel weird. I WAS being a little nervous talking to her after what I saw at the Expo. (By the way, Ms. Jeanie, stunning performance, truly). But it felt really nice talking to her.

I was actually in two of the classes she visited: Music Theatre Arts and the Choir class. And the visits were really different from each other. In the Music Theatre class she told us a lot about the theory of songwriting. It wasn't really a theory, I guess, more of the basic idea. She told us what she does when she has to write a song, and she also told us a whole lot of interesting stories about herself, some of which I found fascinating. In the Choir class, we were rehearsing a song for the assembly and she was acting like an advisor-musician figure. She brought in a lot of ideas and just got us really excited with her amazing flow of energy and ideas. We come into the class and the next thing you know we are dancing while singing harmonies.

To sum it all up, it was a truly amazing experience for me. I said that I felt nervous talking to her. That was only true for a first couple of seconds really. The best part of meeting Ms. Jeanie was the reminder that all the celebrities are also people. Just like us. They aren't at this unreachable state. I imagine that if I could only spend a little bit more time with Jeanie, I could probably talk with her for a really long time. Because she is an exceptionally amazing person and it is a little hard for me to realize that I had a chance to talk with her and, maybe, even call her my friend.

Ivan Semashev ’18

 


Ms. Cunningham also visited Ms. Melody Tibbits’s Elementary School music class, where she read Los Diggities By Name, a children’s book she wrote, and then sang the story with students. Afterward she posted the following video on her YouTube account:



 

I was reminded once again how fortunate, blessed, and privileged I was to be there—both as a student and as an alumna. One doesn’t really “get” how amazing an education at TASIS is until years later. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. As long as I breathe, I will long to give back to TASIS all that has been given to me.

 

Following her visit to TASIS, we caught up with Ms. Cunningham and asked her the following questions:

How did it feel to return to TASIS?

Returning to TASIS is always a joy. I was there in 2010 and greatly impressed with how the campus had grown since 1975. I practically needed a GPS to find my way around! But the main buildings and campus were all still there and brought back many, many fond memories. Seeing it again this time was both inspiring and reassuring—it was so great to see Mrs. Fleming’s vision in even greater glory than ever before.

Back in ’74-’75, we students adored Mrs. Fleming; she was like “Auntie Mame”–lots of fun—and she knew all of our names, backgrounds, etc. to such a degree that we all felt very important and special to her. This time, in looking out over the campus, it felt wonderful to see that such a magnificent lady had not only planted a seed but grown a mighty forest, and her legacy continues in even greater degree today. One can’t help but look at her example and wonder how else to contribute to the world—she set the standard very high with her own life. Would that any of us could do for so many others what she managed to do in a relatively short time…

What made you decide to visit classes in addition to your performances at the Expo?

I was asked to—and if I hadn’t been asked, I would’ve probably begged to anyway! My recollections of TASIS were that, of all the schools I had attended prior to TASIS (as the daughter of a USMC Officer, we were transferred every 8-11 months, so I had already attended nine different schools), TASIS was my favorite because of the teachers. They were generally pretty young but so knowledgeable and passionate about what they taught. Their passion was contagious. Ms. [Cynthia] Whisenant’s passion for the English language laid the groundwork for my passion to write. Mr. [James] Logan’s passion for world religions and philosophies laid the groundwork for my passion for theology. Mr. [John] Watson’s passion for geology makes me “squeal in delight” even today whenever I see an alluvial fan. So I guess part of me wanted to see if the same traditions of excellence had carried over into the 21st century. They have, and I got to see that when visiting Ms. Forrest’s and Ms. Tibbits’ classes. We didn’t have a full music program in 1975. It was joyous to see the excellent one there now!

In what ways is today’s music program different from the one you encountered in your days at TASIS?

There was a music program at TASIS back in 1974-75, but it paled in comparison to what it is today. It was taught by Sue Blessing (our Headmaster Kenneth Blessing's wife). I had signed up for it, but after the second class, Sue and I both agreed that I should drop the class–namely because I couldn't read music and it was very frustrating to me. In fact, I was dead last in the class as far as reading ability–and she felt that learning it at that stage and pace would work against my natural musical instincts. She and I later went on to become "jamming buddies"–she played flute and I played guitar. I taught her a form of improvisation, and she taught me things like rests, what the word "syncopation" meant, etc. We actually performed for the school together a few times.

So there was a music program that I believe consisted of Sue Blessing teaching music basics. There wasn't a choir or band, however. Just the music basics class. That's why it seemed so strange that I should win the music award for class of '75. She gave a speech before announcing the winner, discussing how the winner didn't actually read music but was able to compose and perform it, etc. By the end of the speech, everyone knew of course who she was talking about.

How would you describe the experience of working with TASIS students in the classroom?

Exquisite. What great kids in all the classes I got to participate in this time! I felt very reassured that all the students who attend TASIS will be of great benefit to this planet—and will be highly equipped and ready to handle all the myriad challenges facing the 21st century.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I was reminded once again how fortunate, blessed, and privileged I was to be there—both as a student and as an alumna. One doesn’t really “get” how amazing an education at TASIS is until years later. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. As long as I breathe, I will long to give back to TASIS all that has been given to me.

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