2/26/12 United through music

Above, Williams High School orchestra teacher Veronica Allen conducts her students, as well as students from Turrentine Middl

Sam Roberts / Times-News

Above, Williams High School orchestra teacher Veronica Allen conducts her students, as well as students from Turrentine Middle School, during a rehearsal for a recent “combined performance” that featured students from multiple schools and grades.

United through music
Area schools pool orchestras for a unique performance
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 2/26/12     
Reprinted with permission.

his photo shows students in the violin section.
This photo shows students in the violin section.

  The sound of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau” filled the auditorium of Williams High School on Thursday, first during a morning rehearsal and later during an evening concert.

   The symphonic poem, part of a series of works translated into English as “My Country,” evokes through music one of the rivers of Bohemia: Vltava, or, in German, Moldau. The flow and swelling of the music makes the listener think of the movement of the river. (If you’re not familiar with the piece and would like to hear it, one easy way is to enter “Moldau” as a search term at www.YouTube.com  ).

   The performance wasn’t by the North Carolina Symphony, the Greensboro Symphony or another visiting orchestra. Instead, it was by orchestra students at Williams, joined by eighth-grade students from Turrentine Middle School.

   It was part of a larger effort called “String Fling” that highlights the talents of some of the orchestra students in the Alamance-Burlington School System. While schools are sometimes known for the talents of marching and concert bands, some of the local system’s schools have built and maintained strong orchestra programs.

   Thursday’s concert featured orchestra students from the system’s Williams zone, including, besides Williams High and Turrentine Middle, Grove Park, Hillcrest and Smith elementary schools. Students from Elon Elementary — in the last year of its orchestra program, Turrentine orchestra director Jody Gaedtke said — participated, too.

   Schools in the Cummings High School Zone including Cummings, Broadview Middle School and Andrews, Eastlawn and Newlin elementary schools also have orchestras, Gaedtke said, though those students did not participate in the Williams-zone event.

   “The Moldau” was an arrangement of the original composition. Veronica Allen, a Williams graduate in her first year of directing orchestra there, said the school orchestras are made up exclusively of string instruments, unlike the traditional orchestra model of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion.

   There are small exceptions to that rule. A Western-style piece called “Riding the Rails” included a Triangle and, at the conclusion, a wooden whistle that replicates the sound of a train whistle.

   Allen worked with the eighth grade and high school students Thursday morning to polish that piece. It was the first time students from Williams and Turrentine played it together, though they had been working separately on both it and the Smetana composition for weeks.

   Mary Cox, the concertmaster of the combined eighth-grade/high school orchestra or, in the layman’s terms, the lead violinist, said things went well during the rehearsal.

   “We were thinking that maybe the tempos would be different,” she said, based on orchestra students at the two schools having played separately at different speeds. But there were no serious problems in that area, she said.

   Allen worked with the high school/eighth-grade orchestra to polish their two pieces during the rehearsal. She advised the violinists not to rush during a pizzicato section of “Riding the Rails.” The term refers to plucking, rather than using the bow, on the instrument’s strings.

   No matter how the technique is executed, she told students, “It’s always going to sound fast to the audience … (so) you never want to be early.” Instead, she said, try to be the last to play each note.

   The concert also included a combined performance by students in all grades of“Twinkle,Twinkle, Little Star,” along with separate performance by students in fourth grade, fifth grade and a combined sixth and seventh-grade orchestra.    Close to 400 students participated in the event, Gaedtke said. Students said it gave them a chance to learn how to work together.

   Jonathan Blackwell, an eighth grade student from Turrentine, is in his fourth year of playing violin. On his own, Blackwell said, he enjoys exploring a “funky” country-fiddling sound.

   “I also like the Motown style.”

   He recommends being part of an orchestra, Blackwell said, because “You learn how to work with a team.”

   Charlotte Wray, the principal viola player in the eighth grade/high school orchestra, picked her instrument as a young girl as a compromise between the violin and a larger instrument.

   “Everybody told me I was too little to play cello,” she said.

   Orchestra directors involved in the concert said support from the volunteers and contributors such as the Williams High School Orchestra Boosters Club is essential and has helped keep school orchestras in place while some systems have cut similar programs.

   Byron Grimes directs orchestra students in the Williams zone’s elementary schools. He likes the way String Fling brings together students of different ages.

   “The really neat thing about this concert is the opportunity to see growth in students from fourth-grade up to high school,” he said. “The elementary kids get to see what they will be able to accomplish in a few years, and the older students get a reminder of where they started and how far they’ve come.”