Changing an Orchestra Program to Meet the Needs of All Students, Part I: When Teaching to the Middle No Longer Works

March 19, 2012

            Imagine you are back in your high school orchestra. (Or band. Or chorus.)

I know, I know. I shouldn’t put you through that again. If you’re like me you’d rather not revisit your high school self. Just bear with me. You’re back in the orchestra and you are bored out of your mind, frustrated with the music selections, the rehearsal process, and even your fellow orchestra members.

Maybe you’re bored because you’re sitting in the back, barely able to see the conductor’s beat above the five rows of heads in front of you. Or perhaps it’s because this music is so much harder than what you learned in middle school. You know you’re not playing it well, so why even bother? Your mind starts to wander. You reach for a scrap of paper, scribble a note, and pass it along the back row to your similarly placed friend.

On the other hand, maybe you’re sitting in the front stand of the 1st violin section, listening to your director explaining the phrasing of the section you’ve just played. You’ve heard this before. He says the same thing during every single rehearsal. You glance at the back of the orchestra, where you are sure his intended audience is sitting. One of the violinists is passing a note along the back row. Another looks like he’s asleep. You nudge your stand partner and roll your eyes, half-amused, half-disgusted.

Now imagine you are the director of this orchestra. You are constantly striving to find that perfect musical selection; the one that challenges your top players and is still attainable for your weaker players. Your mantra has become “I’m doing the best I can”. In seating the orchestra, you have spread out the stronger violinists among the 1st and 2nd violin sections for balance, re-written sections to create a 3rd violin part, while delicately balancing the egos and emotions of the ones who get assigned to that section. Deep down inside though, you are harboring a nagging feeling that you just might be failing every member of your orchestra.

I knew that director; Trent Henderson, a one-time faculty member with the Richmond County Orchestra (RCO) program. (Maybe you have another name that comes to mind. Maybe it’s you.) Henderson realized that something needed to change. He’d been making little adjustments with the Richmond County High School Orchestra for years, trying to find a balance for those top players and the bottom players. All he saw was a widening gap between the two.

In the spring of 2003, the High School Orchestra was 60-70 students strong, a mix of everyone from violinists with nine years on their instrument, to recently converted cellists and violists with only a year or two of experience, and everything in between. Henderson started a conversation with another RCO faculty member, Philip Rhodes. They asked rhetorical questions, which soon became philosophical, boiling down to the very specific– albeit hypothetical – “What if we created a new high school orchestra?” Eventually that hypothetical musing turned into a radical “Let’s create a new orchestra and see what happens!” Over the next couple of months, they sought out about 20 of the more advanced and dedicated students to recruit them for a kind of invitation-only test group.

At first, the formation of this group was somewhat hush-hush. Henderson and Rhodes were feeling their way in the dark, using a bit of trial and error to find the best size for a new ensemble, while trying to keep the weak sound of these newly exposed musicians in perspective, for themselves and for anyone who happened to hear one of those first rehearsals. After all, they’d come from a group where, even if they were a “leader”, their individual sound was still lost in such a large ensemble. Suddenly, each student felt a new personal responsibility to the ensemble. Like throwing a child into a swimming pool in order to teach them to swim, Henderson and Rhodes gave their students an instant, “trial-by-fire” introduction to chamber music. These teachers approached the process with the mentality that at least they were giving it a try. Even if the orchestra was not successful in its own right, hopefully it would yield inspiration for some other avenue.

Meeting outside the regular rehearsal time, and in no way excusing the students from their responsibilities to the larger orchestra, this newly formed chamber orchestra initially focused on tone. One of the first things that the two men discovered was that most of the students had little idea what they sounded like as a key component of a small group. Bach chorales and similar pieces (with rich consonant harmonies, identifiable sing-able melodies, and extremely playable fingerings) became the standard for these rehearsals. As the weeks went by, the timbre and tone quality improved tremendously. By stepping away from the most challenging music these students might play individually and instead allowing them to focus on creating music as an ensemble, the stage was set for a new chamber orchestra to be formed, permanently.

In my next installment, I shall address how they went about sculpting the identity of the groups that became the High School Chamber Orchestra and the High School Symphony, and addressing the logistics and criticisms therein.

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