The coronavirus lockdown has totally redefined our weekends. Now that we’re cooped up at home almost 24/7, our weekend nights probably drag on with us wearing pajamas, munching on popcorn while bingeing Netflix.
Adding a dose of fun and magic dust to otherwise same old, same old Saturday nights is International School Manila (ISM) high school principal Michael Dickinson, who goes by the moniker Mr. D on campus.
He dresses up in costumes, decorates the disco ball in his music room (is that a face mask attached to it?), sits on the piano, and goes on Zoom to stage 30 to 40-minute live concerts, performing old standards for his teenage students. By old, we mean songs from the 40s to the 80s—Elton John, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Connick Jr., The Beatles, David Bowie, even The Hotdogs.
How these Saturday night concerts came about began with learning the video conferencing platform Zoom. “The whole thing about Zoom was new to me, and everyone was Zooming. I’ve always liked to sing and my wife told me that John Mayer or someone from the United States Zoomed a concert for free from their recording studio while the lockdown was going on, so I thought I’d do that,” the UK-born principal shares in our interview which is, naturally, via Zoom.
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For the first concert, held last March 22, he played the piano and sang eight songs—“stuff that I already knew, that I didn’t have to prepare too much for, things that I have been playing for years like Elton John.” It was a stunning success for a first time, with 460 people connected to the webinar, watching the concert from various locations in the Philippines, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia. “When they sent me their selfies, I saw that many of them were families of two, three, or four people, so I reckoned there were over a thousand people who watched the first concert.” Not bad for a one-man High School Musical.
The students and parents took selfies of themselves—with Mr. D on their screens in the background. Dickinson then compiled the snaps into a slideshow, and on the second concert, he showed the selfies from the first concert. This is now a regular part of the Saturday night program. “The concert is also quite a hit with the pets of the families. I received pictures of six just about yesterday—dogs and cats watching the concerts,” Mr. D says, laughing.
By concert #2, he again did songs he’s familiar with—he played four on the piano, but he ran out of material so he reverted to just standing on the microphone and singing. “Requests started to pour in after that. ‘Could you do this?’ ‘Could you do that?’ So I put a compilation together of the stuff from the 1970s that I liked that had been requested. And so for the third concert, it was old stuff from the 70s.”
On his third show, he again received lots of requests, and was surprised to find out they’re really old stuff, from the 40s and 50s. “It didn’t take a lot of time and effort to learn the songs, even those that I haven’t properly sang over the last 20 years, but was still somewhere there at the back [of my head]. That went down really well as well.”
Mr. D is always determined to put on a good show, complete with the required accoutrements. For the 70s themed one, he wore a silver suit and a headband. While for the 40s and 50s themed, he slipped into a black shirt and white tie get up, with white braces and a trilby hat.
It may surprise some of the old folks to know that teenagers aged 15 to 18—who dig Bae, Tyga, Khaled, Drake, Billie Ellish, BTS, Blackpink, and the like—are able to relate to and appreciate the tunes of yesteryears. But like they say, “Music knows no age”—and this seems true with the ISM kids, as per Mr. D. In school, he is responsible for Grades 9 to 12 students, but online there are some middle school and elementary school kids and their parents tuning in to his concerts.
Even the 52-year-old principal is amazed by his young audience’s song requests—“Smile” by Nat King Cole, “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra, “Sweet Caroline,” “It had to be You.”
“I just sing whatever they want me to sing, really,” says Mr. D. “As long as I know it and I can sing it, the song is in my range, not too high for me, I sing it.”
Call him Mr. D
Musical performances by Mr. D aren’t exactly unusual in the ISM world. In fact, students and parents have come to expect two performances per year from the charming high school principal—every June (the end of the academic year) and December (before the Christmas vacation). His shows had become quite a campus tradition.
“When I was assistant principal about ten years ago, I sang ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen to the Seniors. But I changed the lyrics to, ‘Let them go, let them go. We don’t keep them here anymore.’ They loved it. I also I sang Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ but I changed the words again. The students seated on Csand Ds, all they wanted for Christmas was a B. So I made the lyrics ‘All I want for Christmas is a B.’”
Every year, the school also holds a jazz night around October, and for the last couple of years, he had guest spots there. “We turn our theater into a café bar, we serve a meal, and the school’s jazz band plays. Some of the kids in the choir sing. I do a couple of songs for the kids just to entertain them.”
Addressed by a vast majority of kids and parents as Mr. D, one can glean Mr. Dickinson is quite a hoot to have as a school administrator. “I like really good, strong relationships with my students. I don’t need them to call me Mr. Dickinson, but some kids do call me Mr. Dickinson. Even the parents call me Mr. D,” he says. The title probably stuck when he started signing off emails to students with Mr. D instead of Mr. Dickinson to save him time typing.
Principal by day
Sans the singing and the piano playing, Dickinson remains to be the very busy principal of ISM most days of the week during the ongoing enhanced community quarantine period. Except his workplace has changed. “This has been my life, this office. Too much screen time. I’ve been inundated with emails. I’m probably getting—without exaggeration—somewhere between 100 to 150 emails a day. I hate having an inbox that starts to pile up, so I stay on top of my emails. It has not been a healthy environment. It would be nice to get some sunshine and fresh air. But I’m chained to my office,” he says.
Mr. D wakes up around 5:30 a.m. after which he comes down to his office/music room, starts answering emails, and attends to a series of virtual meetings almost throughout the day. “Meetings still have to go on, we still have to plan,” he says. “I’ve been meeting with my teams, either with my boss, David Toze, the school superintendent; the higher administration team; my school administration team; my curriculum coordinators; my department heads. We’ve got about ten new teachers coming to ISM in the fall, and so I started to have some Zoom meetings with them. I want to make sure I’ve got a full complement of faculty to be able to run the school when we finally get back to school in August,” he says. This is his 13th year in the Philippines and in Manila. He has been the high school principal at ISM for four years.
He shares that his days are probably busier during the lockdown than it would be in school, where he’s still able to squeeze in about an hour to an hour and a half, going to classrooms every day to say hi to the students. “That’s something that I’m really missing. I popped into Zoom classes every now and them, but not as often as I would like to, and it’s not the same as sitting next to a few kids, having a chat with them about what they’re learning,” he laments. “That helps maintain my relationships with them, and I have not been able to do that. Being in the canteen with 600 to 700 kids, loud and noisy, it’ a great burst of excitement. I really miss the children. I can’t wait for this to come to an end and get back to school.”
ISM’s academic year is supposed to end on the first week of June, which means they still have seven weeks to go. He worries not only about how the lockdown will impact the kids’ education, but also about social isolation. “I think Zoom has gone a long way in bringing the kids together physically, at least they could see one another, but still it’s not the same.”
Not only that. He also worries about their faculty members who are single and living alone in their apartments. “I’ve been trying to call them in the evening. Last Friday night, I did a quiz night for the faculty, we did it on Zoom. I had about ten of the faculty join me, we had a virtual beer together,” he says before letting out an exasperated sigh.
Entertainer by night
This is why he looks forward to his Saturday Zoom performances. “I just want to try to bring the stress and anxiety levels down and try to raise a little bit of positivity and community spirit, and try to make people happier than they would have been. My aim has been to try to bring a little bit of happiness in an uncertain time that we find ourselves in. I just felt that the community needed a morale boost, a little bit like Bob Hope during the Vietnam War, when he went to Vietnam and rallied the American troops, told some jokes to raise their spirits. I have become principal entertainer. Principal by day, entertainer by night,” he says.
Mr. D is amazed with how much encouragement the IS community has given him to continue doing the concerts. After the first show, he received 112 emails expressing appreciation for the opportunity to come together as a community and enjoy good music. He even got a request to make the concert a full hour.
By practicing the songs for about an hour each night, he’s also able to take a breather from work stresses. “I’d sing the songs every evening just to relax, which is what I do really anyway. I enjoy coming into my music room and sitting at my piano, picking up my guitar, and playing just for me.”
He says he inherited this passion for music from his mother, who was a grade school music teacher, and from his grandfathers who are accomplished pianists—“one played in a pub, the other in church.”
Mr. D started playing the trumpet when he was 10. He also played in marching bands in the UK and in the US. He grew up in the UK, “between Manchester and Liverpool.” He learned the piano when he was about 20. It was also in his 20s when he started arranging songs for his band. He moved on to playing the guitar and picked up the ukulele only recently. “Someone requested me to do ‘What a Wonderful World’ on the ukulele, so that might be in for Saturday night,” he says.
He also sang in choirs in the UK, Colombia, Finland, Vietnam. “I sang in choirs since I was in my 20s as well, so I’ve always enjoyed singing. I’m much more confident using my voice than I am playing the piano or the guitar,” he admits.
Mr. D is definitely looking forward to rosier and more meaningful years in the field of education, but he’s also considering performing with a jazz pianist in any of the hotels in Makati Avenue as an absolute ideal future job when he retires. “I will need a brilliant pianist,” he says, “who can’t sing.”