Changing an Orchestra Program to Meet the Needs of All Students, Part III: Insights from Members of the Chamber Orchestra

April 5, 2012

In Part I and Part II, I examined the circumstances under which the Richmond County Orchestra (RCO) was expanded with the addition of a Chamber Orchestra, comprised of the top 20 students in the program. In my own voice, I discussed how it was conceived by Trent Henderson and Philip Rhodes and how they, along with the current Symphony Orchestra Director Amy Ellington, shaped the program over the years. Now I will step aside and allow the members of the orchestra themselves to explain how being a part of it made a difference, if any, in their lives after high school. In a sort of round-table discussion (thank goodness for the internet, as these young adults and I cover at least three cities in two states), I asked them to be completely honest with me about their experiences. On a personal note, I was thrilled to hear from these former students of mine and am delighted to share their observations with you.

“The idea of the Chamber Orchestra is smart”, says Jennifer Parker, a violinist and junior Music Education major at Augusta State University, “because most of us there were motivated and wanted to do challenging music. In general, I feel that Chamber was a very good opportunity and I’m very glad I was able to participate in it all four years of high school.” Ashley Weaver, also a violinist in the class of 2009, adds, “I personally feel that the chamber orchestra was a great idea and that I benefited greatly from it. Although I am no longer actively playing the violin, I do feel as though it would make a difference in reference to preparedness for college level playing.”

Jahnell Williams, a violist and junior Music Education major at Augusta State Universty confirms Ashley’s hunch, noting, “I was very prepped to play in college and Chamber was only the beginning of my musical career, connections and overall appreciation of actually performing, preparing and listening to music.” Jennifer agrees, but would like to have been challenged even more, “I think everyone in Chamber, especially those who were thinking about pursuing music after high school, should have been pushed more to take private lessons and do things like All-State. I had one or two people around my 11th grade year tell me to take private lessons, but I didn’t even know All-State Orchestra existed until my 12th grade year and I wish I had the opportunity to at least try out for it. I do note, however, that if I had practiced more or shown a higher level of interest, I probably would have been pushed to do those things more, and I appreciate people like you, Phil [Rhodes], and Amy [Ellington] who did take the time to give me the extra push when I needed it.”

“Chamber was a God-send,” enthuses Jacqueline Scopa, one of the first violinists to be named Concertmistress of the Chamber Orchestra. “I wouldn’t have enjoyed high school as much if there wasn’t [a chamber orchestra]. Chamber’s music was a lot more challenging than Symphony’s and didn’t seem as cheesy since our music was real non-arranged music. I felt like I was able to connect more with the students in Chamber because they obviously had just as much of a passion as I did. Since it was a smaller group, I was able to be closer to them and we were one happy family.”

 

As with any open-ended discussion, I anticipated and got suggestions on how the orchestral experience could have been better.  “I certainly think that Chamber helped in the preparation of pursing a music degree and for the appreciation of Baroque and Classical music, but I wish that we had more of an opportunity to do full orchestra pieces (with winds and brass), and I wish we had done more Romantic and 20th Century music.”, Jennifer observes.

Scotty Allen, a third year Violin Performance major at the University of Georgia, laments his time with the orchestra. He generously points out, “I feel as if the concept of chamber was a great concept. Even a fantastic concept”, but he has reservations, “I do not, however, think that its execution was effective, or beneficial to me. The program did -not- by any means prepare me for college. That’s not to say I wasn’t prepared; I was, but it had nothing to do with Chamber. I believe if anything, Chamber hurt me.”

Scotty goes on to explain how he would have executed a new chamber orchestra, if he were given the chance, “If a program were to employ such a system I think that the students in ‘chamber’ should be required to play in the ‘normal’ ensemble. I also believe that the students should be dispersed throughout the orchestra. I think it helps the ‘normal’ students by having a strong support, and it allows the ‘normal’ student to get a different student’s perception on how to play the given music (assuming this other student knows himself). The ‘chamber’ student will also play in the chamber ensemble (of course). I think that the program wasn’t intense enough”, he continues, “It accepted a below average expectation of playing, and I think that this was absolutely devastating to ALL of the students perception of music who had not been exposed to anything else (which you can imagine was practically all of the students in the program).”

Still, many of the students comment on the motivation they felt to practice and prepare for each concert and for college. In a bold contrast to Scotty’s words, Ben Lowe, a violist and Music Education major at Augusta State University is downright rhapsodic,I think the Chamber Orchestra prepared me for college. It helped me work harder in high school and pushed me to another level in the music we played. I think having a chamber orchestra helped prepare us as a whole as well. As a chamber orchestra we got to do concerts that the symphony didn’t do, for example the trip we took to Boston!”

Ben is referring to a five-day trip that the students took during Spring Break in April of 2006, just two years after the orchestra’s inception. Ten of the members and several teachers and parents (myself included) travelled by bus from Augusta, Georgia to Boston, Massachusetts to perform a concert of Baroque music at St. John’s Seminary with the inestimable talent Dr. Janet Hunt, formerly organist and choir director at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta.  One of the proudest moments of that trip for me was not the performance itself. It was actually on the bus, while the students were listening to a recording of themselves playing the concert, when cellist Hope Schultz, then a sophomore, spoke to the group. She looked around at the rest of the students and told them in no uncertain terms that they were going to have to step up their game. There was something truly magical about watching these young people, a thousand miles from home, making a decision together to become the orchestra they really wanted to be. Practically from that instant, I witnessed a change in the attitude of those young musicians, which they spread to the rest of the orchestra and carried with them until each of their respective graduation days and beyond.

Ben continues, “I think experiences like that will help motivate the players that are really good, [but] who need experience like that. It gives them vision for their future, so they can be pushed to do greater things with their talent and music.”

A cellist and Music Education major at Augusta State, Jacob Garn is currently logging his apprenticeship hours with the RCO to finish out his senior year. “I definitely think Chamber helped prepare most of us for what college music would be like”, says Jacob, “I really think it was a good move to take the [front stands] from symphony and give them their own group. In Chamber we could practice without being slowed down by the students that didn’t want to be there or didn’t give it their all. It was a great experience.”

Jahnell and Jennifer echo Jacob’s sentiments. Jennifer also comments on the motivation she felt to practice more, once she joined the Chamber Orchestra “What Jacob said is definitely true. We weren’t held back [by] unmotivated folks, which was nice. I feel like being in Chamber also made me realize how much time I truly needed to spend on orchestra music; because honestly, I got away with way too little practice, until high school. That change in work ethic within itself was certainly worth it for me. It gave me a reality check of just how difficult music is, but also how much fun it is when that hard work pays off in a good performance.”

To add some perspective to what these former students had to say, I sought out the director himself for some comments about the overall state of both the Chamber and Symphony High School Orchestras. Philip Rhodes is currently finishing his eighth year as the conductor of the RCO Chamber Orchestra. He takes a practical and appraising look at the high school ensembles. “The students [in both groups] have come a long way since Chamber was formed”, he says, “The base level of playing has improved for nearly all high school students.”

Even so, Rhodes is not content to rest on the laurels of his achievements over the past decade. He adds, “While the creation of Chamber has addressed the bulk of the situation facing the orchestra program in the high schools, there are things that still need to be done. We must constantly tweak Chamber so that it will benefit the students and we have yet to fully realize my initial plans for the ensemble. We still have room to grow and improve.”

It isn’t long before he’s back to praising his hard-working students though; his pride in those students is always apparent. “The dedication of time and effort that the Chamber students give is admirable, and we are able to accomplish much more than would be expected from once-a-week, two-hour rehearsals.”

Taking his cues from the students themselves to find out how to best motivate them, Rhodes makes a point to foster a sense of comradery among the students and encourages them to socialize with each other. He takes the time to sit down with individual students and ask them about the morale of the group. Rhodes is also known among the students and faculty for his rousing, near-militaristic, pre-concert speeches to the students. He makes a lasting impression (and even hears about the sense of duty to the group that he instills years after the fact) by instructing them, “You each go out there and play your part to the best of your ability. I’ll handle the rest.”

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