My first experience having student and adult orchestra musicians “mix it up” was as music director of the Elgin Area Youth Orchestra back in the early 90s. Our high school orchestra was invited to share a concert with the local, professional Elgin Symphony Orchestra. For the finale of the program we all performed Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav together, with student and adult musicians sitting and performing side-by-side. I could see what an extraordinary experience this was for my student musicians, but it was only after that concert was finished when I actually heard what a profound experience sitting alongside adult musicians had on the students. We planned to recycle the Tchaikovsky piece by performing it on our own spring concert, so we returned to rehearse it some more after the side-by-side event was finished. Only now the sounds that the student musicians were making were totally different than I had ever heard them create before! Sitting alongside and hearing the sounds that adult musicians could make with their instruments had completely changed the students’ concept of sound: Being surrounded by the orchestral sound that experienced, adult musicians created quite simply changed what the student musicians were aiming for, so now they created a richer, fuller sound all by themselves, simply because they had been immersed in it.
In the case of the East Metro Symphony Orchestra sitting and performing side-by-side with the 8th-12th grade string students from the South Washington County Schools, I can’t guarantee that our community orchestra composed of adult amateur musicians can create the same sound palette as a professional orchestra,
but I can guarantee that sitting amongst adult musicians will absolutely expand the student musicians’ vision of what it can be to work together and perform as an orchestra, just as much as it thrills the adult musicians to be able to work and perform alongside their student peers. And a community orchestra can offer additional perspectives to young musicians that a professional orchestra cannot: Community orchestras are composed of people who have been so moved by their experiences playing their instruments and working in ensemble – for many, since their own days as young students – that even though they made many different career and lifestyle choices they choose to continue to practice their instruments, learn music and come together every week to work and perform as an orchestra. Their message to the young students they share the stage with for our annual side-by-side concert is that whatever you decide to “be when you grow up,” making music with other like-minded folks can be an important element of your life for the rest of your life.
I believe that as a culture we tend to focus too much only on nurturing those who promise to be the “best and brightest,” oftentimes ignoring the fact that it is important for everybody to create music (or art, theater, dance and anything that incites productive passion) regardless of what they ultimately choose for a profession. So as a community of musicians participating in orchestra for the love of it (amateur), our message to the students we share the stage with each year is that they might consider making music for the rest of their lives, simply because they enjoy it, and ultimately because it can add something of great worth to their lives.
Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes
Music Director and Conductor