Megan Bickford of South Paris is heading to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania next fall. Supplied photo

PARIS — As with most kids, the coronavirus has brought continuous delays and frustrations to the life of Megan Bickford of South Paris.

During junior year at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, she saw the community Broadway production that she had snagged a leading role in called off.

After schools closed down last March Bickford also lost out on the spring season of outdoor track.

When school reopened last fall she was able to continue her cello playing with the high school’s orchestra, but separated by pods and with woodwinds instruments restricted, she misses the camaraderie and full impact of making music with others.

But Bickford has maintained such optimism and is saddled with such an infectious laugh that is hard to imagine anything getting the best of her.

The 2020 production of the Broadway musical All Shook Up that Bickford was set to star in has been in limbo since it was postponed last year in March. She continues to hold out hope the production will be able to open sometime this summer. It will be her last chance to participate, after joining the group 12 years ago at the age of eight.

“Things started to be cancelled in March but we still wanted to be able to perform on opening night,” Bickford recalled. “It was frustrating – I finally got this big role and I was so excited and I had great chemistry with the guy playing opposite me. The whole cast was so much fun and it was my last change to be in a community show before I go to college. It was kind of like a kick in the gut.

All Shook Up has some complex pieces, being based on Elvis. Weird key signatures and harmonies. We did a lot of work with the music, choreography, costuming, and reading our scripts. We were about two weeks away when because of the pandemic we had to cancel.”

But as she recounted the frustrations of a dream lost, Bickford raved about the years she spent with the Oxford Hills School Community Broadway Show.

“My first musical [with them] was in fourth grade,” she said. “It was terrifying as an eight-year-old, having to audition. But I got in and it was so much fun. In community theater, you get to know so many people and bond over the songs and pieces. It’s a fun environment and everyone is having the time of their lives doing what they love.

“There is something for everyone. Ages range as young as four or five, to seniors in their 70s and 80s. If you can’t sing but you can act there’s a part for you. If you can’t sing or act but can dance, there’s a part for you. And if you can do all three, you’re like the golden child. The whole point is just bringing people together to do something that’s fun and to perform.”

Megan Bickford (right) shared the stage with her dad Paul in the 2018 production of Cinderella. Supplied photo

Bickford was taken by music from a young age. While neither of her parents play instruments (although her dad can carry a tune and has appeared alongside her in OHSCBS’ 2018 presentation of Cinderella), Bickford and her older sister Joanna were both exposed as children to music the old-fashioned way – via cassette tapes and CDs.

The sisters both picked up learning instruments when the reached fourth grade, Joanna starting with the violin and Megan settling on the cello.

“I’d known about the different instruments from second and third grade music class, and my sister already played the violin,” Bickford said. “I didn’t like the violin that much because it sounded too squeaky to me. Then we went to an orchestra concert and I saw the big cello and it had a solo and I loved the way it sounded.

“It was so cool and I was like, ‘that’s the one I want to play.’ In fourth grade they let you choose an instrument so I went to the teacher, with my parents’ permission, and told him that I wanted to play the cello. I rented one, started lessons and played in the orchestra. It was so fun, making music and playing with other people.”

In addition to the violin, Bickford’s sister also plays piano and ukulele. Bickford took up the saxophone through junior high and played that in band, but once she started high school she settled with the cello and the school orchestra. After renting three different cellos over the years Bickford now owns one, a partner she has named Archibald.

Megan Bickford has literally grown up playing the cello, starting with the instrument in fourth grade. Supplied image

“It’s kind of funny, it’s a tradition at school to name your cello,” she laughed. “So we come up with goofy names. I call mine Archie. We ‘met’ my sophomore year. Archibald is my first (that I’ve owned).

“There are machine or hand-made, different materials, types of wood, scroll shapes and bows. Different varnishes make different kinds of sounds. It’s a super complex art form and there are world class instrument builders. It’s crazy. You can change one element to change the sound. Different kinds of strings change the sound. Archibald is sort of hybrid, partly machine made but hand assembled and finished.”

And how does one choose the right cello for herself?

“Based on your playing level you just pick different ones to try,” Bickford said. “I was intermediate so I needed one in that range. We went to a couple of instrument shops. I played different models. It can run upwards of five grand, which is an insane amount of money. I wasn’t going to pay that much, but those cellos were so nice!”

After trying several, Bickford found a model similar to one of the premium instruments she’d sampled.

“Archibald is the same brand but not as pricey,” she said. “With the cellos I tried, they were great instruments. But you’re going to play it for the rest of your life, so you want to make sure it’s exactly what you want. The little details, like the peg shapes or the scroll, or how is the bridge carved out.

“I found Archibald online. I liked everything about it and I could pick the varnish. And it was a good price. It was like a little ‘ah-hah’ moment for me.”

Bickford and Archibald have been able to continue with the school orchestra this year but not at the same intensity.

“Now at high school, we do pods in person so orchestra is at half capacity,” she said. “We’re not in the traditional seating arrangement, but spaced out through the room. They’re getting special masks made for woodwind instruments. The director has been working to get them but it takes time. They’ve gotten a few but not enough for everyone to play in the ensemble. But it’s been fantastic to at least play my cello.”

Bickford also participated in track and field at OHMS and OHCHS, taking part in shot put, discus and sprinting.

“I started track when I was little,” she said. “I was just drawn in, kind of like, ‘I get to throw things!’ It was so intriguing. I’d never had formal training but did the best I could. Then I was able to work with an actual coach last year and he started teaching me different techniques [for both discus and shot put]. Getting that training, even for just a few months, was great.

“I also do the 50 meter spring which is pretty funny. I’m six feet tall, muscular, big and solid. And then I get paired with all these teeny tiny little sprinters, and they’re looking at me, it’s hilarious, like what is she doing here? And I’m pretty decent. I came close to qualifying for conference championships last January!”

Last spring the track and field team for OHCHS missed out on its entire spring season. With hopes to earn a sports scholarship for college, the cancelled season was a big blow for Bickford.

“I was looking at schools with sports scholarships but they couldn’t tell me what they could offer because I didn’t have my marks because of the pandemic,” she said. “For shot put I ended ninth in the state in my junior year during indoor track. But outdoor track, we didn’t have a season last year. It was a little terrifying because for college, your junior year is the most important one, especially for spring sports.”

Bickford took stock of what her options would be and changed up her college search. Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, which she fortunately was able to visit before everything closed down, made its way to the top of her list. She recently learned that she was accepted there for early decision.

“I’m still mildly in shock that I got in,” she laughed. “It’s rated like top three for liberal arts schools in the country which is kind of insane. I worked hard and wanted to do the best I could and feel super lucky.

“I never thought I’d want such a small school, but I fell in love with it. It’s an arboretum, a tree museum. It has this giant rose garden and this amphitheater. It’s so pretty. They have really cool traditions. It was so nice. It just felt right for me.”

Even though the school offers no sports scholarships, Bickford will be able to continue her throwing career on Swarthmore’s track and field team.

“It’s Division 3, so there are no sports scholarships,” she explained. “But they do recruit athletes with academics that match the school. The coach reached out to me, thought we should talk based on my sophomore year track marks.

“I met with both the throw coach and head track coach, Lauren Lucci. She was fantastic. She helped me with my pre-read, a mini application which tells you if you have the chance of getting admitted. She even stayed up with me until 10 on the night of Fourth of July to make sure I got through it. She is like a powerhouse and just to have a coach of such a good school kind of look at me and see the potential. It was reassuring, like I’ve got this. I’ve got something to me and I can reach for this as I want.”

Bickford will start at Swarthmore with no declared major, which is school policy for freshmen. For her, it’s the perfect scenario. At 17, she knows she has plenty of time to decide her career path. Her early plans are for a combination of psychology and political science.

“Eventually I’m considering three different paths,” she said. “Maybe politics, go to law school, or maybe get a master’s degree in criminal psychology and pursue that.

“Criminal psychology is a little creepy, I’m not going to lie. I would likely go into profiling. Like on Criminal Minds, I’ll go help find the serial killer and psychoanalyze him.”

But whatever field of study Bickford ultimately chooses, she’s looking forward to being able to “throw things” at Swarthmore for the next four years. And Archibald will be her faithful companion while she does it.

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