By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
Middle-school performing arts students at A.D. Henderson University School in Boca Raton have had a few downright unique “assignments” lately — helping their teacher, singer-songwriter Rhea Francani, decide which of her songs to send out into the world.
And, as Francani and fans of her country pop recordings would attest, the kids are all right.
“I feel like they are my biggest fans because they also get to be a part of the process,” says the performing arts teacher, whose new song, Holes, is set for a mid-summer release. “If I write something new and I like it, I’ll sing it in class and be like, ‘Hey, I just wrote this, do you think it has legs?’ They are definitely honest humans. They are very opinionated, so I know I’ll get a response from them.”
After Francani recorded a few songs in Nashville last summer, she came back to school and played them for her students. She asked them which one should be her next release. I’ll Go, a contemporary country rocker with a super-catchy chorus, is the song they voted for. It’s since garnered thousands of digital streams on a variety of platforms. The same process preceded her followup release in March, I’m More, a pumped-up, inspirational ballad with a pay-it-forward component.
The song benefits VH 1 Save The Music Foundation, a charity that preserves school music programs across the United States, where almost one-third of students don’t have access to a music education program. For each download of the song, Save The Music receives a donation — to the tune of almost $4,000 so far.
“I know what music can do for kids,” says Francani, who teaches chorus, dance and musical theater and leads the Junior Thespians theater club. “I’ve seen it firsthand in my classroom. I’ve truly seen how music impacts students and helps them connect to the world and to each other.”
She’s had a good sample size. The 29-year-old Boca resident began Henderson’s performing arts program four years ago when she arrived at the K-8 school on the Florida Atlantic University campus.
“My students are just a dream-come-true to teach,” Francani says. “It’s so wonderful to teach students performing arts. You really get to see bigger things happen in the classroom. It’s so much more than a song or a dance. You get to see them grow into their own person, and they get to really express themselves. So you see confidence and all these life skills being born right there.”
Francani believes that the lack of an outlet for such expression is one serious shortcoming of schools without a music program. Which is why she’s so excited about teaming up with Save the Music.
“There are a lot of charitable organizations that help students and schools in music,” she says. “However, Save the Music specifically develops a long-term plan to sustain the music in these schools. This is definitely an organization that hits home for me specifically, because I have such a passion for music, but I really have a passion for kids.”
Francani’s been back with some of her kids in the classroom since October, teaching hybrid classes.
“It’s definitely been challenging, but I will say I’ve never felt like we had so many resources,” she says, echoing the pandemic experience of many teachers. “It started with Zoom and then it really branched out, especially with performing arts. I’m in all these groups on Facebook and interacting with other teachers as well, and we all just keep talking about how many resources we’ve found. After this is all said and done, there are a lot of things I’ve learned that I’m going to continue to work with.”
Raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Francani was drawn to Nashville after she started writing songs on piano and realized they were aligning with the structure and storytelling of country hits she was hearing by artists like Lady A and Little Big Town. After receiving her master’s in music and music education from Columbia University, she headed south for the country music capital to pursue singing and songwriting full-time. She even started and ran her own label, Limestone Records, for which she co-produced her debut album, Now or Never, in 2016. The album’s breakout number, Dizzy, reached No. 11 on the global HotDisc chart.
She’s gone on to open for such country stars as Maren Morris and Big & Rich, as well as headlining her own showcase at Nashville hotspot City Winery. She performs with an engaging, emotive energy, conjuring a slick, commercial sound yet still singing from the heart. The hopeful I’m More is a perfect example.
The song, written during the beginning of the pandemic, evolved from a personal place. “I was thinking about points in time that were challenging for me, reliving where my life took me in a hopeful light,” she says. “It reminded me of all of the hope that I felt in those moments. I began thinking about how many people must feel that way, and so I hoped people would connect with that message during that time when so many were faced with overwhelming challenges. I thought there’s gotta be hope, there has to be hope.”
Some might think juggling teaching and music careers might itself be a challenge. Francani is not one of them.
“At first it felt like two different worlds,” she says. “After I moved to Nashville, it was definitely its own job — running the label, recording music, songwriting, performing, meetings. But going from that to teaching, I found that they’re not two different worlds. They’re one together. I’m using those same skills within my classroom to help my students. But it also is helping me. We literally are songwriting in my chorus class. So we collaborate, and I’ve been able to do both at the same time.”
Francani finds time to fly off to Nashville during summers and other breaks to record and even perform a bit. With her upcoming releases she is planning to get back onstage in South Florida as well as Nashville.
“As soon as my team feels like it’s safe, I’ll be performing,” she says.
What kind of success would it take for Francani to follow her rising star and leave teaching behind?
“Oh, I don’t think anything. I think I’m always going to have such a soft spot for teaching that I could never really leave the classroom. I’m always going to have too much of a passion for both.”
To listen to I’m More and other songs, visit rheafrancani.com.
Photo: Courtesy of Allen Saunders