WMS eighth grade orchestra to make history with Friday performance at MMEA conference
The 48-member WMS eighth grade orchestra was chosen by audition to play at the 2022 Minnesota Music Educators Association Midwinter Clinic.
WORTHINGTON — Worthington Middle School (WMS) sixth- through eighth-grade orchestra teacher Zac Paulsen, 28, played many concerts as an oboist, bass clarinetist and saxophonist with Concordia College’s prestigious instrumental ensembles during his undergraduate years.
And since joining the ISD 518 faculty in 2016, the Helena, Mont., native has led dozens of string students in numerous public performances before large audiences.
But Paulsen is poised to take the podium at 1:15 p.m. Friday for what is the culminating honor of his music teaching career to date.
“This may be the highlight of my career,” said Paulsen. “It’s exciting, nerve-wracking and challenging all at once.”
The 48-member WMS eighth grade orchestra was chosen by audition to play at the 2022 MMEA (Minnesota Music Educators Association) Midwinter Clinic, the state’s largest annual gathering of music educators. Staged at the Minneapolis Convention Center, it’s a platform that Worthington’s student music ensembles have rarely ascended in the past.
“We’re planning for about a 45-minute performance,” said Paulsen, who managed to prep his students with the benefit of 44-minute rehearsals every third school day.
“In a typical period, we have only enough time to work on two to three pieces, but we have nine numbers to play on Friday,” Paulsen said.
Paulsen was impressed enough with his ensemble of then-seventh graders to submit a recording from their May 2021 concert to MMEA last June for consideration.
In October, he learned the group had been selected — and the race was on to rehearse and polish.
“It’s wonderful to see how excited the kids are and how hard they’ve worked to make this happen,” said Paulsen. “The fact they’ve gone above and beyond has blown me away. They’ve put in tons of time and effort for this concert, so I really appreciate these kids.”
Paulsen is the first to acknowledge that the eighth grade orchestra’s state-level achievement is only possible due to the depth and breadth of the entire ISD 518 music program.
“Without what happens at Prairie and the incredible work our general music teachers do with students, and without Melanie Loy starting them at the fourth-grade level and giving them a solid foundation on their string instruments, none of this would be possible,” credited Paulsen. “It’s a real team effort.”
The eighth graders have indeed put in extra time, including two four-hour Saturday rehearsals on recent weekends. Paulsen said his ISD 518 orchestra colleagues Melanie Loy and Morgan Rukstales assisted him with sectionals and have been supportive throughout the entire process.
“And these kids have been such a great group to work with,” Paulsen said. “They’ve been willing to take the extra steps necessary to be successful in this.”
Eighth grade violinist Ayana Leovan was tapped to present the spoken introduction to the Deborah Baker arrangement of Gustav Holst’s evocative but uplifting “Jupiter.” Paulsen indicated the number is a favorite of his students and was the “most requested” when he asked who would like to introduce it at the MMEA performance.
Leovan said, “I love to play that piece because I have an emotional connection to it.
“I really love music, and when I play ‘Jupiter,’ it makes me think about the past and all the memories I have, in a positive way.”
Providing a major contrast to the classical Holst work is an arrangement of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Leovan’s viola-playing orchestra peer, Cassie Schulz, will introduce the more contemporary work on Friday.
“I love how upbeat it is,” said Schulz. “I think it’s cool that ‘Seven Nation Army’ can be a pop, rock, orchestra or pep band song — there’s not just one type of music group that can play it well.”
Like Leovan, Schulz is also involved in band and choir at WMS. Both girls say their favorite classes, aside from music, are science and English.
“In English, you can dive deeper into the texts, and in science, the hands-on labs are so much fun,” said Leovan.
These thoughtful students are, Paulsen says, typical of the kids he instructs and is proud to be taking to the Twin Cities to play for his music-teaching peers from across the state.
And the experience itself is their best reward since the endeavor is a no-frills excursion; the 48 young instrumentalists will depart Friday morning on two coach buses, tune their instruments, perform their concert, enjoy sack lunches prepared by ISD 518 food service staff and return to Worthington between 6:30 and 7 p.m. Friday evening.
Still, these 13- and 14-year-olds are eager and welcome the weight of this distinct honor.
“I’m pretty excited,” said Schulz. “There aren’t a lot of students from Worthington schools who have had the chance to do this.
“But I’m also a little nervous because I don’t want to mess it up in front of the important people.”
Neither does Paulsen, who is buoyed by the support of his colleagues and administrators.
“I am honestly so grateful to have such a supportive music faculty to lean on,” said Paulsen. “They’ve been great throughout the last several months and have gone out of their way to be helpful and advocate to our administrators about the importance of this.
“They have my back, 100%.”
In addition to the WMS eighth grade orchestra’s MMEA performance, two individual WMS students — seventh grade bass player Emily Dahlquist and eighth grade violinist Brittney Chavez Raya — qualified by audition to play at the conference on Saturday as part of the Minnesota Middle Level Honors Orchestra. So after a very full Friday, Paulsen will be back on the road early Saturday to see those students play in an 11 a.m. concert, also at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
“I’m going to stay home and sleep as long as I can,” laughed Paulsen.