On a typical Flagler Youth Orchestra rehearsal day, the so-called Green Room at Indian Trails Middle School—the space where students gather and wait before heading to their ensembles, as they would if they were on Letterman—is controlled bedlam: children ranging from grades 3 through 12 pour into the director’s office, eager for a snack (most are coming straight from school), a hardy few hurry through homework on the floor, or read, or gaze, or bite their nails, some toggle between fiddling with their instrument and their smartphone, almost all seem to be chatting up the day’s absolutely urgent gossip from school or home or the bus or the latest walk down hall.
Then comes the top of the hour. And as noisily as they’d come in, silence fills their wake after they leave, for a little while anyway, before the sound of music—innumerable strings finding their pitch, not Julie Andrews—begins to stray over the Green Room and the long hallway that branches off into the four classrooms where four music teachers are making ensembles of muddles. All that’s left in the Green Room, a few stunned volunteers aside, is the faint sound of a television in a corner that plays DVDs of the Youth Orchestra’s February concert at the Flagler Auditorium. By next fall—assuming the program isn’t obliterated by budget cuts—the TV will be playing scenes from Monday’s end-of-year concert at the Flagler Auditorium, when all 280 performers will take the stage in one group or another to play Bach, Mozart, a piece from “West Side Story,” a little rock and a lot more.
The 7 p.m. “Take a Bow” concert is the third at the auditorium this year. The previous two filled every one of the auditorium’s 1,000 seats. The Youth Orchestra’s smaller ensembles, particularly a quartet, perform many more times during the year at various venues: after eight years, the orchestra has become an integral part of Flagler’s cultural scene—and a signature product of the school district’s focus on the arts. And it all starts with those twice-a-week set of classes at Indian Trails, Mondays and Wednesdays, between 3 and 6 p.m., with all skill levels accommodated.
The Youth Orchestra is free to participants, and for students who can’t afford a violin, a viola or even a cello (those things can cost up to $500) the program will accommodate those students through instrument scholarships made possible by the Youth Orchestra’s fund-raising: there are 75 such instruments in the hands of needy students this year. (Well over half the orchestra’s participants are on free or reduced lunch, an indication of the hardships in the county, but also of the available means to surmount the hardships.)
The fund-raising—through ticket sales for concerts and the sale of shirts, hats, concessions—also helps pay for one of the four music teacher positions, which is split between El Gervasio and 21-year-old Jacob Reedy, an alumni of the Youth Orchestra and a music and journalism student at the University of North Florida. The district funds the remaining three teachers, who include the artistic director, and the executive director’s position, for a combined total of $55,000 a year.
The program started the year with 340 students and is ending with 280, the best retention rate yet.
“The point of the music selection for the final concert is to perform music that’s more complex than what the students have achieved before.,” says Caren Umbarger, who’s completing her third year as the artistic director. “The culmination should represent all the hard work from the whole year by the students—and the teachers.” Umbarger plans the musical program and teaches the most advanced students as well as a group that falls just above the beginners (who’ll be playing hear “Do Re Mi,” “Fantasy on Greensleeves,” the old English folk song, at the May 6 concert, and “The Lion,” a more advanced piece composed specifically for the Youth Orchestra by local composer Lucas Drew). The most advanced players will be performing quite challenging pieces that will culminate with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the 9th Symphony, in what has become another tradition of these concerts: the collaboration with the Flagler Palm Coast High School band.
When Umbarger first took the post, in April 2010, after the sudden death of the previous director, Jonathan May, she realized how unique and organic the program really was. It was maybe too organic. “There was no method in place,” she says. Umbarger now rigorously evaluates students twice a year. That determines whether or not the students have made progress, which level orchestra they qualify for, and how the teachers are doing.
Instrumental to the method was separating a strictly ensemble day, during which students learn how to play alongside other students, from a strictly fundamentals day when students learn the nitty-gritty about their instrument—not only how to play it but how to hold it, “properly.” The results are audible. “We’re seeing students catch on. We’re definitely getting somewhere. It teaches students how to practice and it teaches teachers how to teach.”
One won-over mother is Tonya Oshaughnessy whose daughter Morgan plays in Umbarger’s ‘B’ Class—so much so, in fact, that it’s prompted her to start Morgan in private lessons.
“I’m amazed she’s reading sheet music,” Oshaughnessy says. “Especially, after seeing where she came from.” More important than that, or because of that, Morgan now has a real sense of accomplishment, and confidence, Oshaughnessy says. “It was difficult, and she stuck with it.” More than anything, “It’s that whole sense of family that really stands out.”
Of course, the fact that the program is free is “really a blessing,” says Marie Summers who is also amazed that her son, Isaac—who’s home-schooled—is playing and reading music.
George, her husband, says, it’s so evident how quickly the students learn from the “good, shared, valued experience. The group is positive and diverse,” and it’s “exciting” to see them “engage in conversation.”
As it was for Umbarger, though, George admits it was a shaky beginning. After watching the kids during the first two weeks of practice, “You wonder, how they’re going to be able to put all this together?”
But between teachers and students, they do.
Maggie Snively teaches the youngest of the beginner students. Prior to this concert her students didn’t know enough notes to be able to carry a complete melody on their own. That’s no longer the case, she says, and they’ll show that May 6. Snively’s students will perform a variety of pieces, including her own arrangement of an American fiddle tune, all designed to demonstrate learned skills and improvement.
Jack Jeffe, who also teaches beginning students, will culminate his portion of the concert with a specially chosen “mystery” song, performed through the orchestral technique known as a “round,” where one group of instruments start, before the intermittent addition of the others in succeeding order and by which point Jeffe says, the audience should be able to guess the tune.
The hardest part for him, he says, is, “getting the parents to realize this isn’t only going to happen here, only two times a week. It has to be practiced at home. That’s the uniqueness of the instrument.”
You don’t have to tell Daniel Masbad, 16, this year’s concertmaster, an achievement he credits to Umbarger, who’s also his private teacher. His secret? “Practice,” he says, beaming. He has been known to put in several hours a day.
After the final concert, the Youth Orchestra is hosting its annual Chamber Music Camp, where players will get experience playing in a trio, quintet, or quartet. Some 70 students have enrolled, with a performance of their own on June 5 at the Seventh Day Adventist Church (chosen for its acoustics).
But first, it’s “Take a Bow” Monday evening.
The Flagler Youth Orchestra’s Take a Bow concert at the Flagler Auditorium Monday, May 6, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $6 for adults, $1 of which goes to the Auditorium’s Arts in Education Fund. Children younger than 18 get in free. Call the Auditorium box office at 386/437-7547 or visit the Auditorium’s website.