Changing an Orchestra Program to Meet the Needs of All Students Part II: Birth of a Chamber Orchestra

March 27, 2012

In my last post, I addressed the circumstances facing the Richmond County Orchestra (RCO) high school directors Trent Henderson and Philip Rhodes in the spring of 2003. Directing a large orchestra with a wide gap between the most accomplished musicians (who were ready to master music on GMEA* level V and beyond) and the less experienced ones (who may have been struggling to play GMEA* level IV) inspired them to try something unprecedented; they created a new orchestra on a temporary, invitation-only basis for the remaining couple of months of the school year. Eventually this group became the Richmond County High School Chamber Orchestra.

“Create a new orchestra? Is there room for that? Do we have the time to carve out of our already hectic schedules for that? What will the other faculty members think?”

I imagine that the thoughts and conversations of these two men during the formation of the chamber orchestra included these sentiments. Like many orchestra (band, choral, etc) programs, the RCO suffers budget cuts and constraints. As a pull-out program of nine itinerant teachers covering 60 schools, efficiency is a necessity, so the time and effort needed to put together a brand new orchestra would be a precious commodity. In other words, if they were going to do this, they knew, they needed to do it right from the very first step.

Let’s go back to that invitation-only group for a moment. These students were already meeting one evening per week in at the Martha Lester School, a formerly impressive brick structure built in the 1930s to provide education to the children of Augusta’s mill workers, but vacated long before it was allotted to the RCO around 2001. Though the wooden floors, high ceilings, and wide hallways suggested grandeur, the musty curtains of the small theatre, peeling paint in the classrooms, and stale odors translated the style of yesteryear into a kind of sinister beauty.

It was decided between Henderson and Rhodes that the former would continue in his role as the director of the current high school orchestra (which would later be renamed the High School Symphony), while Rhodes would have the honor of creating this new Chamber Orchestra. Finding a suitably-sized room and asking some of the students to spend extra rehearsal time in the building proved to be a less daunting task than expected. Some of the students already realized they were not being challenged in the high school orchestra as it was.

When the new ensemble started to take shape, their enthusiasm helped to fuel the other students’ energy and willingness to participate.  At first, they were timid about “playing out”; they never had to be responsible for such a large percentage of their section’s contribution to the group. Coming from the larger orchestra with seven or eight stands of violins in each section, even the ones who found themselves on the third stand of three certainly felt more important to the process. I attended a few of these rehearsals at the beginning and was amazed watching them adapt and rise to the occasion.

Rhodes was able to focus first on tone and intonation. As these rehearsals passed, he decided to cultivate a sense of ownership in the students. “This is your ensemble. You are the cream of the crop. It’s time to step into that role and show everyone what you can do.” By taking this attitude, he allowed them to improve in the most basic aspects first, without pressing them to play the most demanding repertoire. Beginning with Bach chorales, he often went through the parts chord by chord stopping to tune each one, or having the students sing their parts. Eventually he would add a couple octaves of solfege above his chalkboard and teach the students sight-singing.

The idea of doing these things with the large high school orchestra back then, in my own opinion, would have been laughable. I was still in college at the time, but frequently spent time volunteering as an assistant at these evening rehearsals. I saw first-hand the widely varying levels of commitment and ambition in the students. I truly believe that asking all of them to sing (in 2003) would have caused a riot. However, by isolating the front 20 or so students, giving them a special ensemble, and instilling a sense of individual responsibility to the group, the stigma of singing in orchestra and playing middle school-level music was quickly replaced by the contagious feeling that they were accomplishing something new. These kids seemed to understand they were making history.

Questions were flying everywhere at the start of the 2003-04 school year. How would students audition to get into the new orchestra? Would the ones invited for the trial group the previous year be guaranteed a spot? What level music would they be expected to play in the long run? Since all the high school students meet at the same class time during the day, how would the other faculty members handle having to teach two different levels of music in the same class?

Slowly, through trial and error, Henderson and Rhodes worked their way through these questions, originally simply taking the top 20 students from the high school auditions at the beginning of the year. In subsequent years, this process would become slightly more complex, yet more effective, by giving the students an opportunity to perform extra scales/ octaves and/or extra excerpts as part of their audition in order to be considered for the Chamber Orchestra. They also instituted a rule that every student must be a member of the Symphony for at least one year before being considered for Chamber. This helped to keep the connotation of Chamber Orchestra membership one of accomplishment and status, as well as keep the Symphony a relevant ensemble, not simply one comprised of the “bad” players. Because of this rule, most Chamber Orchestra members are in 10th-12th grade; although by auditioning for the Symphony as an 8th grader (as many of the most ambitious students do), it is possible for a freshman to earn a seat in the Chamber Orchestra.

A word about the Symphony Orchestra; while the Chamber students were being challenged in their way, a similar, albeit more gradual, change was occurring in the Symphony. Students who’d always been placed toward the middle of the group found themselves in leadership roles for the first time. They discovered that, when playing real literature on their level- not a watered-down arrangement of a piece that was beyond them, they sounded good. I recall a concert in 2005 when the Symphony finished playing their selections and someone near me breathed, “Wow. That was Symphony???

I think it’s safe to say the RCO has benefitted tremendously from the formation of the Chamber Orchestra. Don’t take my word for it, though; my next post will feature reactions from past and present Chamber Orchestra members, many of whom are currently pursuing degrees and careers in music.

*GMEA is the acronym for Georgia Music Educator’s Association, the organization in Georgia responsible for setting state-wide standards in music education, including guidelines and regulations for the annual Large Group Performance Evaluation, as well keeping a list of the accepted repertoire and assigning a Grade Level I-VI to all pieces. Grade Levels vary from state to state.

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