Portsmouth students never forgot Kate Grana's song

Teacher recalled fondly as inspiration to countless number of chorus students

Jim McGaw
Posted 6/2/16

PORTSMOUTH — In the late 1970s, Kate Grana wrote a song for a musical called “Fantasyland,” the melody of which was based on Pachelbel's Canon.

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Portsmouth students never forgot Kate Grana's song

Teacher recalled fondly as inspiration to countless number of chorus students

Besides being a voice teacher, Kate Grana was a classically trained lyric soprano who performed locally at concerts and private events.
Besides being a voice teacher, Kate Grana was a classically trained lyric soprano who performed locally at concerts and private events.

PORTSMOUTH — In the late 1970s, Kate Grana wrote a song for a musical called “Fantasyland,” the melody of which was based on Pachelbel's Canon.

The song, about finding one’s own voice while navigating life’s passages, became an instant “hit” among Portsmouth students. It was so popular that the middle school chorus, directed by Ms. Grana at the time, begged her to let them sing it in concert.

Despite going on to high school, college, marriage and kids — and experiencing all of life’s bumps along the way — many of Ms. Grana’s former students still couldn’t shake that song. In 2014, one of those students, Nancy Benson Wilson, posted some lines on Facebook.

“Since it was 30 years ago, she could only remember a few lines,” said Laurie Costic Farrea, one of those middle school students who ended up singing the song in concert. 

Slowly, former chorus members pieced the song together, word by word and line by line. “Many of us from that chorus class started posting the lines we could remember and we had many of them, but not all,” said Ms. Farrea.

Ms. Grana then joined the conversation and filled in the last remaining lines. They include, “Look at me/I am free/I could sing forever.”

Her former students, family members and friends were heartbroken to learn that Ms. Grana, 66, died Monday morning after a brief illness. She leaves her wife, Susan Cotta, of Bristol.

A classically trained lyric soprano, Ms. Grana taught in the public schools for 31 years, first at the middle school and then at PHS. She was also a voice teacher and coach and performed at many local concerts and at private gatherings, weddings and other events.

In interviews, e-mails and Facebook messages with the Portsmouth Times, her former students and friends recalled an inspirational teacher, an incredible vocal talent and someone who just made them feel good, always.

“To me, as a professional musician, she fostered my love of singing and I still remember the things she taught me and the way she was, from back then (grades 5 to 8), and as an adult,” said Laurie Spaner, who graduated from PHS in 1984.

“She was so knowledgeable but, more importantly, she had a happiness and energy about her and encouraged us so much. She instilled confidence, skills, a true love of music and a true love for her.”

Wendy Fournier, a member of the PHS Class of 1982 who had Ms. Grana in middle school, was another student who credited the teacher for inspiring her to pursue music after graduating.

“She gave me my first solo in sixth grade: ‘Send in the Clowns.’ I’ll never forget it. I adored her,” said Wendy. “She had a profound impact on my life that led to a 10-year career as a vocalist.”

“Kate was full of spirit,” added Laurie Deffet Spartano, Class of ’82. “She was gifted with the ability to love life and those around her. She shared that gift to the fullest. Sharing soft-spoken words or cackling laughter, she found her way into your heart. Her connection with music was always so powerful and undeniable. Through music, she will remain connected to all that knew her.”

Added another former student, Kim Kekligian Stamoulis: "She was such a charismatic, fun-loving, beautiful person. Her humor and music touched so many lives, and made her one of Portsmouth's most beloved teachers. She will be greatly missed.”

Laughter was plentiful

Ms. Grana was known for her sense of humor and her huge, high-pitched belly laugh. Julie Bisbano, now an English teacher at PHS, remembers taking singing lessons in ninth grade at Ms. Grana’s home in Portsmouth. 

“We were warming up and I was of gasping for breath,” said Julie. “She said, ‘You have to use your diaphragm. I know what you need!’”

Ms. Grana then reached behind the sofa and pulled out a wooden plank. 

“I was thinking she was about to hit me with it or something. My face must have registered horror because she laughed. ‘You bird!’ she yelled. ‘I’m going to put this against your stomach and have you push against it so I can make sure you're using your diaphragm to breathe!’”

They both howled for about five minutes before Julie calmed down enough to do the exercise with Ms. Grana holding the flat end of the plank against her stomach.

“I breathed in deeply, using my diaphragm, and sang as loud as Ethel Merman holding my note longer than ever before!” she said.

Boosted confidence

Beth Sousa Zois still remembers a simple note she received from the teacher in 1980, when she was taking flute lessons from Ms. Grana as a fifth-grader at the middle school. Ms. Grana wrote in her report card: If all of my students were like Beth, what a wonderful job I would have.

“I always remember the afternoon when my mom showed that comment to me because it was the first time that I remember getting such a positive comment from a teacher, and my mom was so proud,” said Beth. “I struggled academically as a student, due to learning challenges that were not diagnosed until college. As an awkward pre-teen, music became the place where I felt successful and at home, and my fellow student musicians became my best friends.”

Beth went on to join the chorus for the remainder of middle school and never forgot what she learned from Ms. Grana. “She taught us not only how to sing, but how to use our voices as instruments. She made us vocalists,” Beth said. “She taught us how joyful music could be and it was always wonderful to see and talk with her.”

Ryan Spero also remembers the little gestures that made students feel special. He recalled the time the chorus was performing in a festival at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania in 2002 or 2003, and the teacher couldn’t get anyone to calm down and listen.

So, Ms. Grana asked Ryan and another student, Pat Gorman, to take charge of the guys.

“That stuck with me,” Ryan said. “I remember me being the wild guy in the chorus yelling, ‘Everyone, it's time to get your head in the game, so shut up and pay attention.”

Ms. Grana then gave him a thank-you nod, he said. “That little nod meant a lot and made me a better person. So, just little things (she) did meant a lot.”

Nancy Benson Wilson, one of Ms. Grana’s middle school chorus students in the mid- to late-’70s, agreed.

“She just always made us feel good, and a part of something. She showed us that we could do amazing things together because what can be more powerful than music? I still sing with her in my ear coaching me to be better,” she said.

A few years ago, Ms. Grana was performing at Common Fence Music’s annual “Fiddlers and Fishermen” concert, and Nancy introduced her to her mom. “Mom was complimenting her on her performance, but Ms. Grana didn't even hear as she was praising me to my mom. She validated me — all of us, I think.”

Tom Perrotti, longtime music director at Common Fence Music, had known Ms. Grana since he first started teaching at the middle school in 1972. 

Ms. Grana was supposed to have performed again at the most recent “Fiddlers and Fishermen” — re-scheduled to April 2 because of a snowstorm — but she had to cancel due to her illness. On Tuesday, Tom said he was at a loss for words over his longtime friend’s death. 

“We played music together and we talked about music a lot,” he said. “I just remember laughing a lot — that was Kate. She was full of life and joy.”

‘Choir for Kate’

Wendy Fournier is hoping to get a big group of people together — a “choir for Kate” — made up of singers of all ages. “Maybe we'll just sing a song or two to help us heal, or maybe we'll turn it into a concert/fund-raiser in Ms. Grana’s honor. We'll see where she guides us.”

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 40 years since Ms. Grana was her chorus teacher, she said.

“It feels like yesterday,” said Wendy. “Ms. Grana had a way of making each one of us feel special. She taught with joy, humor and a contagious passion for music that I hold in my heart to this day.”

Funeral arrangements

Calling hours will be held Friday, June 10, from 3-7 p.m. in Connors Funeral Home, Portsmouth. Her funeral will be held Saturday, June 11, at noon at St. Barnabas Church in Portsmouth. Burial will be private.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Ms. Grana's memory may be made to Community Concert Series at St. Michael’s, 399 Hope St., Bristol, RI 02809 or Portsmouth Music Boosters, P.O. Box 21, Portsmouth, RI 02871.

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.