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A Musical Journey in the Key of Kindness

| May 16, 2010

It's all about the fundamentals: Caren Umbarger in bow action. (© Paul Umbarger / FlaglerLive)

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.

We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.

—Helen Keller

By Caren Umbarger

The Flagler Youth Orchestra is a fruit poised to ripen and mature. There is eagerness to learn and earnestness among the children which bodes well for their musical future. The children have been inspired by a great teacher–Jonathan May.

But after five years with Jonathan, students and parents naturally may still be wondering who I am and where I’m coming from (in every sense of the terms). My grandfather was Dr. Frank Simon who was a cornet soloist and assistant conductor with John Phillip Sousa for seven years.  I have felt real support from his spirit throughout my journey as a music teacher. Let me share a few highlights from that journey.

I had an elementary orchestra teacher who obviously didn’t like kids.  He was stiff and brusque. It seemed like a waste to me, even in third grade.  As a teenager I was turned off by the enormous egos of the good players I came across.  I was also discouraged by watching school orchestra teachers focus only on the better players and leaving the slower ones in the dust. I always longed to play chamber music with others and never, ever had the chance as a child.  So, when I began teaching 28 or so years ago, I immediately put children together in small groups because it was fun for them.  And, over the years I have always done that.  In each of my student recitals (two per year), I would always give my advanced players music ahead to work on.  Then, after one rehearsal we would have a blast performing Corelli or Handel or Bach.

Caren Umbarger

In December, 2004, my husband Paul and I visited Jonathan and his wife Maureen and their kids in Winter Park. It was Paul’s first meeting with them.  I knew Jonathan from my year at Hamline University when he subbed in the music department for a professor who was out on sabbatical.  It might have been 1986 or ’87.  When I told him about this great group of players I had in my studio in Minneapolis, he suggested that I bring them to Florida to play with his Florida Young Artists Orchestra kids.  It sounded daunting until he suggested that we form a non-profit.  Then we could accept donations to pay for our trip.  The Artistic Youth Ensembles of Minnesota was founded soon after that visit with Jonathan, and several musical trips followed. It was on that last trip that my musicians played with Flagler Youth Orchestra musicians for the first time, just last January at the Methodist Church’s youth festival in Palm Coast.

My students sound good from the beginning because they learn how to hold their instruments correctly, how to use the bow correctly, how to hear pitches, the quality of their own sound and other people playing when they’re playing.  It is a teacher’s job to be vigilant with each student and also to inspire students individually to pay attention to themselves and what their bodies are doing so they can make the best sound on their instrument. Because students are in their own process of learning their instrument, there really is no need for competition in a musical classroom.

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If a child wants to play better, that child can.  I haven’t seen a program doing what we’re doing in Flagler County except for Shinichi Suzuki, Paul Rolland and a few others with an inclusive vision of how to teach string instruments. I hope to bring a clearer understanding to every student of how to play their own instrument and an awareness of and ability to create subtleties in music so that the music they play together has a focused and deliberate sound. Only when they truly listen to each other and play as one will the artistic qualities of the music they make get a chance to surface.

By year’s end, they should all be able to discern the difference in their own playing ability, and of course the orchestra’s various groups will sound better.  By the end of next year—well, the sky’s the limit. When each child in the program is playing correctly and with confidence, the music that their souls will produce together will be something worth listening to….for everyone.  Their real joy will come with gaining expertise on an individual basis, and then seeing what a group of players who can all play can do together. It’s an exciting prospect.

Actually instilling real skills into the children in our program will serve them for the rest of their lives.  It will give them confidence and help them get into college.  It will make them smarter and more aware in the world. And it will make the ensembles sound truly wonderful.  The children of the Flagler Youth Orchestra and I have joined together to continue our musical journeys.  For all of us, we will turn the pain of losing Jonathan into the joy of growing together as musicians.  We want to honor his spirit by becoming better musicians and sending beautiful music into the world, now and for as long as we all can.

Caren Umbarger was named artistic director and lead conductor of the Flagler Youth Orchestra in April. Reach her at

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