The Piedmont Symphony Orchestra helps build better musicians, one note at a time
By Aimee O’Grady
After school on a Tuesday in February, the music room at Cedar Lee Middle School was filled with musicians, orchestra instruments, school bags, eighth graders, and members of the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra (PSO). Each musician had their place on the risers behind a music stand in their section of the orchestra for rehearsal. The second violinists played mezzo-piano (half soft) to allow the first violinists to take the melody mezzo-forte (half-loud). The melody then shifted away from the first violinists to the violas for a musical bar. Meanwhile, the low-string instruments, such as the cello and bass, acted as the metronome for the group to keep the orchestra on beat.
Together, students and mentors played “An English Folksong,” arranged by Terry McQuilkin, to rehearse for the music program’s state assessment. Similar to the SOLs (standards of learning) for other subjects, music programs are assessed by a panel of judges, all of whom are musicians. Their scores are recorded and logged with the state each year.
During an afternoon of the youth mentoring program sponsored by the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra, the quality of the music played by the students and the accompaniment provided by the seasoned players was such that one could almost imagine themselves at the Highlands Center for the Arts listening to a professional performance.
Funded by a grant from the Virginia Commission of Arts, the PSO Music Mentor Program encourages members of the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra to volunteer their time to play with the next generation of orchestra players. During a two-day residency, they offer the students one-on-one guidance on various orchestra techniques, such as exactly how far to stretch the bow to draw out each note. The PSO music mentors spent the first few months of the year making their way to county middle schools and high schools.
The program supports the SOLs for Fine Arts to help reinforce content with students. “The thought is that the more repetition the students receive on each topic, the better the chances of the content being absorbed,” says Cedar Lee Director of Chorus and Orchestra, Emily Milham. “Selected students can then be invited to rehearse and perform in one of the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra’s season concerts,” she continued.
With PSO Music Director Glenn Quader conducting the rehearsal and showcasing the PSO musicians, the students’ progress that has resulted from a single 90-minute session is audible. From their technique, to the talent of handing off the melody to different sections, to their overall confidence, students in the orchestra are taught to observe every detail on the music sheet, tune themselves into the other musicians in the room, obey the commands of the conductor, and play in harmony with the other musicians of varying talent and experience. Should the second violinists outnumber the violas, for example, Quader instructs the violinists to play mezzo-piano to not overpower the smaller section.
The opportunity to rehearse with accomplished musicians is not lost on the students. Playing with the PSO mentors has been an honor for eighth grader and first violinist Jordan Hicks. “It is pretty cool to play with people who played at the President’s Ball.” Jordan picked up the instrument in sixth grade at the suggestion of his grandfather. “My twin brother, Wyatt, plays percussion and my grandfather, who was in a band, suggested that I play the violin so we could play together,” says Jordan, who manages to juggle schoolwork with orchestra, basketball and football. Of the hectic schedule, he says, “It’s great. I practice in orchestra and then I can go outside and play. It’s a good balance of sports and music.” The mentor program has helped him listen more carefully. “I have to hear when the other musicians begin so I know when to come in.” Jordan hopes to pursue sports in the future, but plans to keep with the violin.
Quader explains to the young musicians how the melody moves throughout the sections in the orchestra, and how each one honors the section currently leading the melody by playing more softly to enable them to have the stage. The levels of experience and enthusiasm in the students vary, but together they give quality performances that make an impact.
Eighth grader Paige Shorey joined the orchestra after attending a performance as a fifth grader. “The music was so beautiful, it sent chills down my spine,” she recalls. The mentor program has helped her to see areas where she could use improvement and how she could sound with practice. “Their vibrato was stunning, I can’t wait to learn how to do that,” Shorey says. As far as her future goals are concerned, Shorey intends to continue with the violin in high school.
Some students have borrowed instruments from the school, others have purchased them from auction sites such as eBay, and still others have rented them from music stores. Just as varied are the reasons each student has joined the orchestra and found themselves part of a unique group with the opportunity to compete and become a finalist in the Young Artists Competition. This past February, the competition brought together Bonnie Laingen on the flute, Lynne Bai on the piano, and Philip Lambert on the piano.
The trio each took to the stage during the Young People’s Concert performed at Highlands Center for the Arts, greeted the master violinist and conductor, and took to their instrument. At only 16 years old, Bai, who has been playing since she was only six years old, has already performed at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. Seventeen-year-old Laingen has sat first chair flute for the past two years and has been playing since she was 10. Lambert, also 16, has won a number of competitions and has been selected to play in the All County and Senior Regional Orchestras. The winner of the competition is awarded a grant of $1,500. Since 2001, the PSO has awarded over $40,000 to young musicians.
The mentoring program, whose tagline is “helping to build better musicians one note at a time,” is a means of equipping students with the skills required to finely tune their instruments and ears to nuances in each musical number and to carry the melody while other sections control the beat, and vice-versa. The group works cohesively not only to entertain an audience but also to honor the unique talent of each individual musician, a skill that every person, both young and old, experienced and new, can apply throughout life when interacting with others.
The PSO is filled with talented and generous musicians who are willing to give their time to help mentor their successors in the hopes that the students will continue their interest in the musical arts. For information on the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra, visit piedmontsymphony.org.