FALL RIVER — A year ago, on her birthday, Samantha Ellis started taking music lessons at the Fall River Academy of the Arts on Main Street South. On this year’s birthday, when she turns 12, she will perform on stage at graceland in Memphis.
She is one of 23 members of the Fall River School of Music who will travel south to give a recital April 7 at the Graceland Theatre, home of rock and roll king Elvis Presley.
The academy is on the second floor above TJ’s music on South Main Street, and on Tuesday the students turned the space into a nightclub, hosting a dry run of their Graceland performances for each other and parents. Samantha led the house band, singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, with her older brother Karl on rhythm guitar – and TJ’s and Fall River Arts Academy owner Todd Salpietro on drums. Afterwards, Karl stopped on vocals and sang “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash.
Samantha is nervous about performing in Memphis next month.
“At first when I heard about it I said ‘Oh my God, yes,'” she said, “but then I saw the scene and I’m a little nervous, a little confident.”
Salpietro said performers can train to conquer that feeling, the same way his school emphasizes practicing their music.
“You go on stage once and you’re nervous,” Salpietro said. “Now you go on stage next time, you have a little more confidence. Then you do it again, you have a little more confidence – now you’re smiling on stage. Now you don’t have that wall in front of you anymore. It’s funny.”
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Taking care of business in Graceland
Fall River Arts Academy receives a rare honor – Salpietro said it was one of eight schools selected out of 300 nationwide to perform at Graceland. On April 7, his students will perform two 90-minute shows, at 12:45 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.
The school holds two recitals a year in Fall River and has performed destination recitals in the past, including New York’s famed Carnegie Hall in 2019. It’s the school’s return to touring during this waning COVID pandemic .
Salpietro said visiting a top music destination like Graceland isn’t just a fun trip for students. This improves their skill.
“As you know, nobody likes to fail in front of people. So when we have these destination recitals, these people practice,” he said.
“The destination recital is extremely important because if you are going to train for a recital, you are really going to train to go and perform at Carnegie Hall or Graceland,” he said.
Students of all ages
The students performing at Graceland aren’t just kids — they range from third-graders to retirees. There are two sets of mother-daughter performers. Janessa LeComte-DaQuay and her daughter, Jessa, 12, have been learning singing in school for years and performed at Carnegie Hall in 2019. They perform separately and have a number they will do together: “Mamma Mia” from ABBA.
“As soon as we heard about this opportunity, we jumped at the chance,” Janessa said.
Desiree DaCunha has been studying at the academy for two weeks and is already on stage like a pro. Her daughter, Olivia DaCunha, 9, is also a singer and, despite her short stature, released a fierce version of Beyonce’s “Halo.” She has never traveled to perform before. She said the trip to Graceland makes her “a little nervous, but right here, doing this, I feel like I’m probably getting over it.”
Jordyn May Silva, 10, has six months of lessons under her belt, and sings and plays the piano beautifully. Performing at a place like Graceland can be nerve-wracking, “but I just try to do my best. It’s much easier when my family is in the crowd.
Abigail Hellwege has said she’s been performing “literally since I was 2”, in theater and in a band. So no nerves, then, right?
“Oh no, my heart still skips a beat, but I’m just learning to get over it.”
The one — perhaps the only — genuine Elvis fan in the group is Lynnly Dady, a teacher who retired from Viveiros Primary School and has been studying at the academy for three years. She will perform a gospel number, “How Great Thou Art”, in honor of the king, who died 45 years ago in August.
“As an educator, this school is so wonderful. It gives these kids such a great platform to learn and perform,” she said. “How would you ever have had the chance to sing at Graceland if you weren’t in that school?”
Dan Medeiros can be reached at [email protected]. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.