As a concept, Exceptional Orchestra, or XO, sounds like it’s right out of a textbook. But for all the pieces to come together, Kim Kredich — founder, program director and conductor — spent months planning, recruiting staff members and applying for grants.
“I have always been fascinated by the goals people can achieve when they are set up for success,” says Kredich, who has a master’s degree in choral conducting from the New England Conservatory of Music. In her experience conducting choirs at Duke and Stanford universities and in public and private schools, Kredich says she would assign parts to choir members based on their strengths.
“So when the idea came to me that everyone has a part to play in an inclusive performing arts program,” Kredich says, “it was really just an extension of that philosophy — highlighting people’s strengths and abilities — to include all ages and abilities.”
Rehearsals center on “Open Waters,” a work written for XO by Charlottesville composer Stephan Prock. The conductor’s score shows a typical orchestral combination of winds, brass, strings and choir — and a part labeled “XO players” that incorporates rhythm instruments made by the participating children and adults.
On this particular Saturday morning, rehearsal begins with animated storytelling by Yvonnie Perrello, XO education director. After a simple participatory music exercise, the children and their parents or caregivers gather around tables to make puppets while the musicians rehearse.
Anne Chamblin, XO visual arts director, moves among the tables, offering people colorful bits of felt and praising the fish taking shape. She and Brandi Clifford, an occupational therapist, help everyone participate at the level most suitable for each.
“The staff meets weekly to plan the projects and set our goals for each session,” Chamblin says. “I help figure out how to make the projects so everyone can do them. They can’t be too complicated or require too much dexterity.”
In some cases, the children with disabilities cannot assemble any of the project components, but they are able to experience the multisensory stimuli inherent in all aspects of the Exceptional Orchestra. More importantly, they are engaged in the same activity as peers.
As people finish up the art project, Ben Hazelton’s sister, Gracie, sits in her wheelchair, wearing her fish puppet while Ben hops around waving his. Their father Robb says, “This morning, Ben saw me getting ready to come here and he said, ‘You mean we’re all going? Mom, Dad, Gracie and me?’ He was so excited that we were all doing this together.”
Hazelton points out that often a sibling with disabilities goes to different places for recreation and education than a sibling without disabilities. He appreciates the rare opportunity that Exceptional Orchestra offers for the whole family to do the same thing.
Kredich, who has a son with disabilities, calls the orchestra a “tribute to the enabling power of the arts. I strongly believe that all children should be able to learn with and from one another — to exclude a certain population of people is harmful to everyone.” In the future, she plans to continue the Exceptional Orchestra project using other musical genres. The staff hopes that the program can be a model for other communities to create their own orchestras, with sharing of ideas and curriculum among projects.
Rehearsal ends with everyone gathering to go over the third movement, “Mother Ocean’s Lullaby.” The voice of Anne O’Byrne, soprano soloist, floats above the rolling currents of music, while some children wave sheets of silky, sea-gray fabric and others waggle their sock fish through the waves. Without exception, everyone has a part. SThe Exceptional Orchestra will perform “Open Waters” at 1 p.m. on Sunday, May 16, at First Unitarian Church, 1000 Blanton Ave. Admission is free. For more information go to www.exceptionalorchestra.org.
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