Two hundred years later, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, armed with instruments of its own, is setting out for unfamiliar territory: the world of middle school.
From Oct. 15 to 18, 36 core members of the symphony spent their days at Swift Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County in a pilot residency project. The project was funded by the Chesterfield County public school system, a Chesterfield educational foundation, and anonymous donors to the Richmond Symphony.
Most of the students who worked directly with the musicians were in music classes, but drama, art and social studies classes participated as well. The theme for the week was "Celebrate, Integrate, Commemorate: The 200th Anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition." The residency was to culminate the following Monday (Oct. 21) with a concert by symphony and student musicians, a student drama production, and student artwork. Due to school closings and concerns about the sniper, however, the program was postponed until Nov. 18. Symphony musicians were able to schedule additional rehearsals with students in the intervening weeks.
While the symphony has long been involved in educational efforts through the three youth orchestras it sponsors, summer music camps, concerts for young people, and in-school performances, this is the first time the orchestra has undertaken a residency.
"Orchestras of all levels all around the country are experimenting with outreach programming," said Marta Weldon, director of education for the symphony. "The Richmond Symphony consciously began making the choice to become a community resource beyond performances in the concert hall. I like to think of the musicians as teaching artists."
Weldon spoke with me in a band room at Swift Creek on the last full day of the residency. In the next room, Associate Conductor Eckart Preu was leading about 35 band students and a dozen symphony members in a rehearsal. After directing the week's multitudinous activities, Weldon had the intense look of someone who expects chaos to erupt at any moment, and is ready for it. According to her account, everything had gone smoothly, but she wasn't resting yet.
It's Weldon's job to promote the value of music education, and she is passionate when talking about the benefits of participating in musical performance. Besides teaching teamwork and discipline, studying music can give a student a higher sense of purpose, she says. "It's really a spiritual form of communication," she says, after a thoughtful pause.
However, every ticket through a school's doors has "SOL" stamped boldly across the front, and as nice as it sounds, a plain, old music concert doesn't meet core curriculum requirements for the Standards. That's how Lewis and Clark come in, if you were wondering, as I did, what they really have to do with a symphony orchestra.
Weldon worked with Chesterfield educators to plan the residency around geographic and historical themes, making connections between the arts and social studies. Students were already scheduled to study Lewis and Clark, so the symphony chose a theme that dovetailed with the existing curriculum.
In addition to symphony members, composer Michael Abels from Los Angeles spent the week at Swift Creek in a residency supported by the American Symphony Orchestra League. He spent time in social studies classrooms talking to students about the historical role of music around the world and worked with percussion students, leading them in drum circles and improvisation.
"I used Lewis and Clark as an example in the classroom," says Abels. "There are references in their diaries to music. Often music was a way to bridge the cultural gap between the explorers and the Native Americans they met." Abels also mentored eight young area composers and will return to Richmond in February for the second half of his residency, which will involve readings of their compositions by the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra.
On Oct. 18, the symphony string players performed in the cafeteria for the entire seventh grade, about 400 students. They even led the students in rhythmic clapping patterns, an exercise surely meant to tempt chaos, as many of the youngsters seemed more interested in attracting the attention of the other 399 than in giving their attention to a bunch of musicians.
The concert began with a piece Abels had composed for that performance, then continued with a series of short selections from five different countries. Afterward, a boy approached Abels and asked him to autograph his backpack.
Weldon is looking ahead to more school residencies for the symphony. She says the project had remarkable cooperation from everyone, from musicians and teachers to supervisors and the PTA. Another residency in the Chesterfield district is tentatively planned, and the symphony hopes to work with other local school districts in the future.
In the meantime, symphony musicians continue their education outreach with themed in-school performances and concerts at the Carpenter Center like the upcoming Kid Classics Concert "A Dream Comes True: The Adventure of Flying," this Sunday (Nov 3) at 3 p.m. "It's our role to talk about [education]," says Weldon. "Without a solid base in music education, who will come to concerts? Who will care?" S
A culmination concert by symphony and student musicians, featuring a student drama production and student artwork takes place Monday, Nov. 18 at Clover Hill High School, 13900 Hull Street Road, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $10 for adults, children 12 and younger free. Call 788-1212.
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