Meeting Tran-Siberian Orchestra creator pays dividends for Shaler Area teens

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Shaler Area High School senior John Beckas' birthday present became the gift that keeps on giving when he received $1,000 from one of the creators of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

It was a surprise to help his school's growing orchestra.

He and his friend and fellow upright bassist Kenny Andrews said they were nervous and excited when they surprised their orchestra teacher, Shirley Rankin, who burst into tears when they presented the gift at the high school orchestra's Dec. 17 holiday concert.

"It was really nerve-wracking, keeping that secret for a week and a half," John said. "I couldn't wait to present it to her."

Paul O'Neill, the composer, lyricist and producer who formed the TSO in 1996, had given the boys several gifts for themselves and their teacher when he met them following the Dec. 7 show at the Consol Energy Center, Uptown.

Every year, John's mother buys him two tickets to the show as a gift for his Dec. 2 birthday. The past two years he has taken his good friend and fellow orchestra bassist. "The two of them can never seem to get enough of the music," she said, noting that it has inspired them to convince their orchestra teacher to play one of the pieces in their holiday concert.

The TSO concert had just ended and the boys were waiting to leave their second-row seats when John spotted Mr. O'Neill signing autographs in front of the stage. The two fans took the opportunity to meet him.

"It was crazy because there were lots of people waiting to meet him," John said. The boys got to meet with Mr. O'Neill and when John mentioned his birthday, Mr. O'Neill gave them both TSO jackets for a gift.

And, when they told them about their roles as bassists in their high school orchestra and how they convinced their teacher to include a TSO song in the annual concerts, he autographed their playbills and one for Mrs. Rankin.

Mr. O'Neill asked how many musicians were in the orchestra and the boys told him 49 members but that many younger students were waiting in the wings. With that, Mr. O'Neill "pulled out $100 bills from his pocket, counted out 10 and gave it to us," said Kenny. "We were floored."

John said, "It was mind-blowing. I wasn't sure it was really happening. It was an experience to have someone like him give $1,000 to a couple teenagers like us who he never even heard of."

The boys decided to surprise their teacher and fellow orchestra members by presenting the $1,000 at the end of their holiday concert.

When they handed the money and autographed program to their teacher, she began to cry with happiness.

Kenny is considering enrolling in the engineering program at either Case Western University in Ohio or the University of Pittsburgh. John has plans to continue playing his upright bass, which he has studied since he was in fourth grade, and has accepted admission to the Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne University to study music technology.

The boys said the money probably be used for uniforms for new students joining the orchestra next year.

Rita Michel, freelance writer:

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