School District 833 orchestra program graduates first class of seniors
Park High School senior Allyssa Phillips was a fourth-grader at Pullman Elementary School when she began playing the violin in the District 833 orchestra program.
“I was already in choir and band and I just liked the challenge and it was something new,” said Phillips, who lives in St. Paul Park.
This spring, Phillips will be among the first group of graduating seniors who have played in the orchestra at every grade level since its inception.
The milestone will be celebrated at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 27, at the District 833 Orchestra Festival at Woodbury High School. Phillips will play in Park’s Wolfpack Orchestra.
The orchestra program debuted in 2006 at the the district’s 14 elementary schools. Fourth- and fifth-graders were invited to pick up a violin, cello or other stringed instrument. The orchestra program was offered in a higher grade each year, reaching the high school level in 2010.
“It was kind of screechy, out of tune,” Phillips said, laughing at the memory of those first rehearsals.
But she stuck with it, learning the precise and painstaking process of up and down bowing on her violin. She and the orchestra program grew up together. Now 18, Phillips said that learning the violin, one of the most unforgiving of instruments, gave her confidence and improved her concentration.
“I learned how to choose what I wanted to be dedicated to and to motivate myself,” she said.
The elimination of music education programs by cash-strapped school districts nationwide continues to be a controversial topic. However, District 833 will add the staffing equivalent of two full-time teachers next year to accommodate the number of students in the orchestra program, District 833 Communications Director Barb Brown said.
The District Orchestra Festival concert will feature student musicians from every elementary, middle and high school in the district, including grades 5 and 8-12. The concert concludes with a performance by the 450 players from all the schools.
“This year is kind of pivotal year,” said Kelly Karow, orchestra director at Park, East Ridge and Woodbury high schools. “This is the very first group (of seniors) to go all the way through the programs.”
That group includes Lucy Yang, 17, of Cottage Grove. A senior at East Ridge High School, she joined the orchestra program as violinist in the fifth grade and played at every grade level since.
“What I really like about the program is that the students didn’t just get older,” Yang said. “There were more people. We had a bigger sound and were able to play pieces that we wouldn’t have if there were only four people in each section.”
Park senior Britta Neumann, 17, began playing violin in the fifth grade at Armstrong Elementary School. Back then, they practiced in groups of three and four a few days a week, sawing out songs like “Camptown Races.”
Neumann, of Cottage Grove, returned to the program every year and said she will keep playing the violin after graduation.
“It kind of gives me an outlet to turn to,” she said. “It helps me relax more.”
Started in 2006
The orchestra program was started by faculty members Nancy Wiessner and Kristi Sullivan. Wiessner teaches music at Red Rock and Woodbury Elementary School. Sullivan was a band instructor who has since retired.
“We had been advocating it for years in 2006,” said Wiessner, who added that they were inspired by orchestra programs in other school districts, particularly in Stillwater.
The District 833 School Board, working with then-Superintendent Tom Nelson, approved capital funds to purchase cellos, violas and bass fiddles. They were rented or loaned to fourth- and fifth-grade students based on financial need. Other students already owned their instruments or rented them from local music stores.
Jesse Traner teaches orchestra at five elementary schools in District 833 — Red Rock, Pullman, Pine Hill, Grey Cloud and Newport. Since the necks of violins, cellos and violas aren’t fretted like a guitar, Traner puts color coded tape on the necks so the kids can follow the music.
“My students and their parents seem to really love the program,” Traner said. “It’s growing every year, which indicates that the people in the district are supporting the program.”
Orchestra is an elective class in District 833 elementary schools, which means that students who are excused from another class for a 30-minute rehearsal must make up the time.
“These kids that are choosing to participate are going the extra mile to do the work to make it happen,” Traner said.
Last fall, the program was the only school district to receive the Meritorious Orchestra Program Award from the Minnesota String and Orchestra Teachers Association.
Some students in the program were named to all-state orchestras. Some play in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony and the Minnesota Youth Symphony.
Orchestra teachers include Stephanie McCorkell, Val Buchmeier and Allison Johnson.
The orchestra program is very much a team effort, said Katie Peterson, who teaches orchestra at Woodbury and Oltman Middle schools.
“It’s amazing to see how much it’s grown and how much support there’s been for us,” she said. “The district’s been giving us the staff that we need to make this successful. The orchestra staff works really well together.”