Students hold a special concert for a far-away grandmother

Mystic Middle School band director James Hilbie, left, waves to Jacqueline Gillen, grandmother of eighth-grader Alex Green, on the screen of a laptop held by library media specialist Sue Prince on Monday, May 7, 2012. Gillen watched her grandson rehearse with the school's jazz band via Skype from her home in Bandol, France.
Mystic Middle School band director James Hilbie, left, waves to Jacqueline Gillen, grandmother of eighth-grader Alex Green, on the screen of a laptop held by library media specialist Sue Prince on Monday, May 7, 2012. Gillen watched her grandson rehearse with the school's jazz band via Skype from her home in Bandol, France. Peter Huoppi/The Day

Stonington — Each year Alex Green’s grandmother travels from her home on the French Riviera so she can see him perform with the Mystic Middle School jazz band.

But after a recent stroke forced her to relearn how to speak,  Jacqueline Gillan’s doctors did not want her to make the trip. They felt that being immersed in another language for a few weeks would set back her recovery.

That meant the 83-year-old Gillan would miss several of the band’s upcoming performances.

So at 7:30 a.m. Monday, via the magic of Skype, the band played a five-song concert for her as she sat in the living room of her home in Bandol, France, surrounded by neighbors and holding a small American flag.

“This is incredible,” Gillan told her daughter and Alex’s mother, Christine Green, as band director Jim Hilbie prepared the 20-member band for its first song. “What’s great is I know all the kids. I can recognize all of them.”

During some of the songs, including “Yesterday” by the Beatles and a rousing rendition of the Rocky theme, band members walked closer to the laptop computer to play their solos, including Green on trumpet. Gillan and her friends cheered on the screen.

One song into the concert, a second laptop was set up so the mother of band member Peter Holliman could watch from Brussels, Belgium, where she was visiting his grandparents.

“We’re in France and Belgium this morning. This is cool,” Hilbie said.

He said he would like to make this an annual event as he knows his students have relatives in places around the world such as Switzerland and Rome.

“It would be cool to set up a bank of computers and just play,” he said. “You could put this on YouTube but nothing beats playing live.”

Gillan is well known to the band as she not only attended its concerts but would stop by in the early morning to watch before-school rehearsals.

Christine Green said her mother carries around a CD of the jazz band in France and plays it for friends.

She said Hilbie always asks how her mother is doing and he suggested they use Skype so she could watch the band’s spring concert Wednesday night.

When Green reminded him it would be late at night in France he suggested the morning rehearsal instead, as it was 1:30 p.m. in France.

“The kids got all excited about it,” she said.

Before the band played a song, Hilbie would approach the computer and tell Gillan what the band would play next.

“But I’m not doing any dancing today,” he told her.

Hilbie said his students may have been a little nervous and tired, but as usual they were impressive.

“I wondered if this would work,” Alex Green said, “but I thought this was one of our better concerts.”

j.wojtas@theday.com

Mystic Middle School eighth-grader Alex Green rehearses with the school's jazz band on Monday, May 7, 2012, as his grandmother, Jacqueline Gillen, watches via Skype from her home in Bandol, France.
Mystic Middle School eighth-grader Alex Green rehearses with the school's jazz band on Monday, May 7, 2012, as his grandmother, Jacqueline Gillen, watches via Skype from her home in Bandol, France. Peter Huoppi/The Day
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