Stringing along: District 518 orchestra program thrives
WORTHINGTON -- While it may not be news that school orchestras generate less excitement on a weekly basis than, say, high school football teams, the District 518 orchestra program--with a rich 116-year history -- gives community music supporters plenty to cheer about.
"We had nearly 200 students from grades four through 12 involved last year," noted Melanie Loy, orchestra director at Worthington Middle School (WMS) and Worthington High School (WHS), "and this past year there were 35 high school string students.
"My first roster for the 2012-13 year at WHS shows 43 students."
Loy took the reins of District 518's orchestra program in 2006 from Beth Habicht, who ably led string instruction (students learn the violin, viola, cello or bass) in Worthington for 38 years.
"Beth Habicht maintained the program here and was a staunch advocate for orchestra through many years when budget cuts threatened to kill it," Loy said. "My mission was to grow it, and to build on Beth's success in reaching out to as many kids as possible who wanted a string experience."
One of Loy's first-year initiatives in Worthington was to establish the WHS Beth Habicht Orchestra Award, honoring Habicht's leadership and nearly 40-year commitment to string education in Worthington. The award recognizes a WHS senior who demonstrates outstanding musicianship, leadership, scholarship and spirit.
It is relatively rare for communities of Worthington's size to have as broad a school orchestra program as District 518 supports.
"Strings are alive and well in Marshall, and Fairmont and Blue Earth both have strings, but those are the only other communities in our part of the state with similar programs," explained Loy.
To the west, both Brandon, S.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D., have sizeable school orchestras; in fact, Sioux Falls' schools have roughly 1,400 string students and 12 orchestra directors total in their system.
"I taught at Sioux Falls' Patrick Henry Middle School before coming to Worthington, and I had 150 string students in grades six through eight," Loy said.
But since 2006, the District 518 student string numbers have increased from 90 to nearly 200 at the end of last year. Enough students were added that an additional part-time orchestra instructor, Katie Stafford, began teaching fourth-graders at Prairie Elementary two years ago. Stafford also teaches general music and expects to have more than 70 beginning string students in 2012-13.
"I do my final recruiting in the fall, but my summer orchestra numbers doubled over last year," said Stafford, who, along with Loy, is in the midst of a two-week intensive (but optional) summer string program. Students involved had one small-group lesson daily from July 16 through today.
"I have been extremely impressed with Mrs. Loy's and Ms. Stafford's ability to recruit students for orchestra," said Prairie Elementary principal Josh Noble. "Not only have they found a way to get students excited about the program, but they are able to keep them engaged and committed -- and the numbers continue to increase.
"It is also great to see the diversity of our school orchestra; it is a true reflection of our community."
Loy and Stafford aren't surprised that students find their orchestra experiences both engaging and challenging.
"The advantages are endless," Stafford said. "Learning a string instrument and participating in an orchestra helps students develop physically, mentally and socially. Fine motor skills are critical for playing a string instrument, and they are honed very early on.
"Also, the combination of two very separate skills -- with the right hand on the bow and the left-hand fingers moving on the fingerboard while the eyes are reading printed music -- creates a singular challenge that enhances the development of both sides of the brain.
"Finally, orchestra provides a unique social outlet for students to come together with like-minded peers and work as a group toward common goals."
Loy adds, "Orchestra music appeals to a different cross-section of people and can satisfy that creative side. Students who learn a string instrument often go on to use their musical skills in the future, sometimes in college or later as adults in community orchestras.
"If you have string experience, you have a lot of opportunities to use that string talent, whether professionally or as an amateur for personal enjoyment."
While Loy had the chance to begin studying the violin as a fifth-grader in the Moorhead public school system, and therefore values that opportunity for District 518 students, Stafford grew up in the large Colorado Springs, Colo., school system that had a strong band program but no public string instruction.
"I learned the violin in private lessons and played in the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony, but I really wish I could have had the opportunity to learn in a school orchestra setting," Stafford said. "The arts are definitely a valued, supported element of District 518, and our music programs -- including orchestra -- offer a rare and enriching opportunity for students."
Loy, too, is grateful for the support the public, as well as the District 518 administration and school board, has shown for the arts in general and orchestra in particular. When the WHS orchestra appears at the December madrigal dinner, performs its Masterworks concert in late October or is part of the All-School Orchestra Concert each May, audience members abound and are enthusiastic.
"I appreciate our good administrative support -- they believe in our program enough to support it," Loy asserted. "Mr. Noble used to tell me he didn't have as many fourth-graders signing up for baseball as we did for orchestra, so it's apparent Worthington believes in the arts, and there is a need to fulfill the kids' interest in it.
"Worthington is certainly very competitive with the larger school districts in offering orchestra instruction for our students."