Symphonic students: Schools see benefits of orchestral programs
You can get to Carnegie Hall by going to Mt. Lebanon High School, but you still have to practice, practice, practice.
On April 13, eight student ensembles from across the United States will perform at Carnegie Hall’s Symphonic Series for Bands and Orchestras in New York City. Three of those groups will be from Mt. Lebanon High School, including its symphony orchestra, which played at Carnegie Hall 10 years ago.
A symphony orchestra requires a large section of string instruments. Mt. Lebanon School District begins students on string instruments in the third grade, as do the North Allegheny and Fox Chapel school systems.
Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts school, Downtown, is one of five high schools in Pittsburgh Public Schools to have a full symphony orchestra. Study of orchestral instruments usually begins in fifth grade, though some principals offer it earlier. Pittsburgh Dilworth, pre-K to 5, begins instrumental and vocal opportunities in kindergarten. Pittsburgh Public Schools’ orchestras are also open to charter- and private-school students.
Yet, most symphonic teens will choose to go into fields other than music. Even at the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, which selects its members by audition, only five or six of the young musicians are planning a career in music, according to executive director Craig Johnson.
Most of the thousands of young people studying music in the region do so because they enjoy it and see it as an important part of their education and personal development.
“No one is born being able to play the violin,” says Gerry Chen, 18, a senior playing violin at Fox Chapel High School. He’s looking forward to being an engineer, but says that’s subject to change. Chen will be playing at Carnegie Hall at the end of March in the American Protege International Piano and Strings Competition.
“When I can achieve something great with the violin, it encourages me to think I can do great things in other fields, such as math or science,” he says. “Playing violin solo, you get to see your own progress. In ensemble, the focus is on how we can improve as a team. It’s like doubles tennis versus singles tennis.”
Mt. Lebanon High School has 190 students in its orchestra program, 160 strings and 30 winds, brass and percussion, out of 1,700 students. The school district gives everyone the opportunity to play a string instrument starting in third grade. The next year, they can change to winds or percussion. The two middle schools, grades 6 to 8, have string ensembles.
Robert Vogel is the high-school conductor who teaches six ensembles classes every day. Two are strings only. Four are orchestra.
“We’re fortunate so many Pittsburgh Symphony players live in Mt. Lebanon,” Vogel says. “Paul Silver has been especially generous. His wife, Linda, teaches middle-school strings. Others have come in to help when their children are students here.”
Zhaoliang Ma, 17, concertmaster of the Mt. Lebanon High School Orchestra, says playing music relaxes him and makes him think. He also plays in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony.
“My plan is to study neuroscience,” Ma says. “Another interest is computer science. I will not be pursuing music in college. I’ll be playing it for the rest of my life, just not as a career.”
Mairi Cooper, Pennsylvania 2015 Teacher of the Year, is conductor at Fox Chapel High School. She was looking forward to a performing career as a violinist when she took the teaching job to have health insurance while she worked on her doctorate. After two weeks on the job, she knew she’d never leave.
“I love teaching high school and love this age group,” she says. “They’re funny, really funny. And they have this optimism and idealism of youth, as well as the ability to do analysis and think in the big picture.
“When I hear them play, there will be things out of tune, but they look at music almost magically, Cooper says. “They get me to understand the beauty in places where I wasn’t looking for it. Things are natural for them that I have sort of forgotten as I’ve gotten older.”
School music teachers know that playing music contributes to their students’ development even apart from music itself.
“We know from brain scans that playing music increases how much of your brain you use, across the two sides,” Cooper says. “Sarah Lavelle (her counterpart at North Allegheny High School) has a great quote: Playing music is like a full-body workout for your brain.”
The teachers are not talking about the Mozart effect, which claims benefits from listening alone. Playing music simultaneously combines listening with reading and control of the complex physical moves, large and small, which produce sound.
“I don’t see my job as producing the next Josh Bell. I’m not interested in that,” Cooper says. “I want to create lifelong musicians who will populate doctors’ orchestras and lawyers’ orchestras, who love to go and listen to music, who are really connected to music because they’ve been a part of it.”
Cooper teaches six periods of string-ensemble classes daily at Fox Chapel, with a seventh taken by a colleague. The school will pull together a full orchestra by drawing on the school band for special projects, such as George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” or a musical.
North Allegheny High School has a huge music program, with 5,200 of the 8,229 students in the district taking elective music classes. The music-theory program extends to honors and advance placement courses. The district has 1,600 students in the orchestra program in grades 3 to 12. As at Fox Chapel, strings do not normally rehearse with winds, brass and percussion.
Conductor Sarah Lavelle is especially proud of North Allegheny’s Strolling Strings program. “All of our high-school kids are involved,” she says. “They memorize a set of music at the beginning of the year and go out into the community to play at nursing homes, weddings and banquets.”
Lavelle, like Cooper and Vogel, conducts all day. For her students, ensemble class can be a refreshing change of pace.
“It’s a great time during the day to take a break from all the math and science and use a different part of my brain, to use all of my brain to do something that’s really enjoyable,” says Hannah Synnott, 17, a North Allegheny cellist. Next year, she’ll be studying international relations at American University in Washington, D.C.
The orchestra at CAPA, led by Bernie Black, rehearses three times a week.
CAPA tuba player Noah McDonald, who also plays in the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, intends to be a professional musician. He plays in the school’s concert band, advanced big band and trombone choir. After school, he plays in a brass quintet.
McDonald sounds a social theme expressed by many other young musicians:
“The really great thing about playing with new people at this young age is it lets you know who’s going to be your co-workers in the future. That’s for sure,” he says. “All my friends are from different ensembles. It gives you this wide connection. Even if they don’t go into music, you’re still going to be friends.”
Youth symphonies take school music work to another level. The Pittsburgh Youth Symphony provides the most advanced experience for teens looking to playing symphonic music. It is a 95-piece ensemble which performs repertoire comparable to what the Pittsburgh Symphony does. It is led by Lawrence Loh, resident conductor of the symphony. It rehearses weekly at Heinz Hall, where it gives most of its concerts, and it regularly goes on tours of Europe.
The Westmoreland Youth Symphony rehearses weekly at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center in downtown Greensburg. It is led by Morris Brand and numbers 45 to 50 musicians.
“Only Norwin High School has a string program out here,” Brand says. “Our other string players come from the Suzuki school and other private-school studies. Next season, we’re adding a middle-school string ensemble, which will be called the Philharmonia, as a step to attract a lot more string players and build the youth symphony to a 75-piece orchestra.”
While older generations are inclined to be suspicious of the ones that follow, Brand says “working with the kids makes me feel the country will be in good hands. They’re intelligent, make good decisions, have the work ethic, and, in this case, have the musical talent.”
Other special opportunities do arise. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck and guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda have conducted at Fox Chapel High School. And Cooper invites graduating seniors to play a solo, write a piece or conduct the ensemble.
On Nov. 26, orchestras from Mt. Lebanon, North Allegheny and Fox Chapel high schools performed under Honeck’s baton at Heinz Hall.
“I had a very good experience,” Honeck says. “The kids really want to feel what they’re playing. Of course, sometimes their technique cannot always express what they feel in their heart.
“Playing classical music opens them up to emotions they may not have felt before,” he says. “I thought afterwards, even if I have less time available, it is worth my time to do this. I think music education in Pittsburgh is fantastic.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.