A Song About a Chelmsford School’s Best Friend
CHELMSFORD -- Ever since teacher Tom Gallagher first brought his service dog to work, Romer has been a beloved member of the McCarthy Middle School community.
So when band co-director Allison Lacasse was approached by composer friend Zachary Friedland to commission a piece of music for the band, Romer seemed to be the perfect fit for the song.
Friedland, who had recently signed on with Woodson Percussion & Publishing, LLC, needed to write a middle-school level piece and knew Lacasse, a fellow University of Rhode Island alum, worked with the age group.
“If we get the opportunity to commission a piece and it’s something that is educationally within what we’re trying to teach them and can bring the community together, we usually jump at something like that,” said McCarthy band co-director Sean Wright.
The official commission for the song, titled “Release!,” was $800. It was paid with money from fundraisers aimed at supporting the band.
Lacasse said they could have opted for a free version, but went for a paid commission for a couple reasons. One was to support a young composer just starting out in his career, and the other was so the piece, when published, will have an inscription describing the commissioning band and subject, she said.
“We wanted to make it something that, when any band that purchases this in the future, they would know that it came from Chelmsford and it was about Romer,” she said.
Gallagher, who has been in a wheelchair since a 2011 freak accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, got Romer in 2015.
Lacasse and Wright are both close with Gallagher and they knew how big of a role Romer played in Gallagher’s transition back to work after the accident -- and the impact the lovable golden Labrador retriever has had on the whole school community.
“Romer has provided support to the entire school,” Wright said. “A lot of the kids, regardless of grade, know who he is.”
Many kids go to visit Romer during lunch, and find he provides therapeutic relief that gets them through anxiety or other tough times they might be experiencing, Wright said.
When Wright and Lacasse started a lobby band, in which students volunteer to come in early on Fridays to play for other kids as they arrive to school, Gallagher came with Romer, and they gave Romer a maraca so he could participate.
Gallagher, an eighth grade math teacher, said he was taken aback when he found out the band commissioned a song about his dog.
“You don’t realize the effects of an animal such as Romer, what he can do outside of just being a service dog for me, how he has affected the population here at the school,” Gallagher said. “It was an amazing kind of, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this is how they feel about Romer.’ They put him obviously close to their heart.”
Current eighth graders are the first group of students to be with Romer their whole four years at McCarthy, and they’ve done a wonderful job of passing down the rules of how to behave with a service dog, Gallagher said. He said the kids know when they can come see Romer and that they can’t pet him while he’s working. It also helps that Romer is very good at switching back and forth between play and work, Gallagher said.
“It’s a service dog you can actually interact with,” said Sean McNulty, 13, who plays baritone horn. “Most of them, they’re strict on duty all the time, so it’s kind of nice to see that, (especially) on a bad day.”
“I think it’s really cool, sometimes you just see him in the hallway, and you get to smile at him and he’s just so cute,” said Brinley Williamson, 12, a clarinet player.
The two seventh graders are excited to be a part of the first group to ever perform the piece. The debut performance will be at the band’s Spring Concert, scheduled for May 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center at Chelmsford High School.
Sean and Brinley are happy Romer will join them on stage, and Brinley said she feels the piece really captured Romer’s personality.
Friedland said he hasn’t had a chance to meet Romer yet, but he knows well the love of a canine friend. He grew up having his own dog, Lasso, a Lhasa Apso-terrier mix whose company he enjoyed for 15 years.
“It definitely was really easy to relate to just the joy that they bring into your life on a daily basis without even trying,” said Friedland, of Richmond, R.I.
He said he tried to capture that joy and excitement in his composition, which includes a programmatic representation of a game of fetch. Knowing Romer has been trained to hold a maraca in his mouth, Friedland made sure the instrument was a prominent part of the percussion.
Friedland said he’s had the opportunity to write songs for a number of college, high school and semi-professional bands, and he’s used nature for inspiration on a number of occasions -- but this was the first time a specific animal was at the center of a piece.
As the performance draws closer, he said he hopes he has opportunities to do some Skype video rehearsals with the students, so he can hear them and they can ask him questions.
“My hope is that through interacting with me, some of them might say, ‘This was fun,’ and maybe some of them will write their own piece of music, and stimulate the creative process,” Friedland said. “When they do that, they get better at their instrument, and everything works together to improve their musicianship.”
Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.