Linking Strings to Future HS Orchestra

Last year’s high school string ensemble.
Last year’s high school string ensemble.

After a half-year of playing a string instrument in third grade, novices are left in the lurch with no bow to turn to until high school. That will change next fall with the addition of a strings section to the elementary and middle schools’ regular music curriculum, a step towards the district’s goal of developing a full high school orchestra.

The program will cost $131,000 a year with $50,000 contributed for three years by Schoolpower, a group of parents and school supporters who voluntarily raise funds to enrich programs at Laguna’s public schools. The remaining $81,000 will be provided by the district.

An after-school music class for orchestral string instruments such as violin, viola and cello is currently offered through middle school and a performing arts-elective strings class is offered at the high school. But the class attracts only a handful of students and never evolved to orchestra size.

“The missing link, of course, is the middle piece,” said local parent Steve Baker, who, along with his wife Jennifer, helped spearhead the strings class for younger students. “What happens when you’re finished with elementary school and there’s no strings program in the curriculum to go to?”  Band and choir are now offered at all grade levels as regular school classes.

Laguna Beach High School principal, Joanne Culverhouse, requested the strings program so that a concert orchestra could eventually be offered at the high school, said assistant district superintendent Deni Christensen, who presented the item approved unanimously by the school board last week. “Well, you’re not going to have an orchestra at the high school level if you don’t have a strings program from fourth grade through middle school,” said Christensen.  “That’s just not going to happen.”

A nearly fulltime teacher will be added, she said, to assist Jeremy Chung, the district’s instrumental music instructor, along with supplemental music experts now assisting students learning how to play  jazz and to sing.  Guitar and ukulele instruction will also be added as an elective and an advanced-placement course on music theory will be included on the high school schedule.

Rich Hartford directs the combined TOW and El Morro string programs in concert at Thurston Middle School.
Rich Hartford directs the combined TOW and El Morro string programs in concert at Thurston Middle School.

Christensen said the appeal of the strings program to elementary and middle school students is yet to be determined.  “It’s hard to know the level of interest that you would have when you give students a third-grade experience and then you tell them, ‘Well, if you want to continue this, it’s after school only.’”

Student interest in band and choir classes grew exponentially, she said, while numbers for the after-school strings class faded, even though the district had plenty of instruments and qualified experts, such as Rich Hartford at the elementary level and Landon Yaple at the middle school level, to teach them.  “It wasn’t a level playing field for the strings students,” she said.  Conflicts like sports, scouts and other extracurricular activities as well as busy family schedules didn’t help. “We are an art community and certainly one of our goals is to have a topnotch arts education for our students,” Christensen added.

More instruments may be purchased, depending on interest.  “We have gift funds that were bequeathed to the district for musical program support,” Christensen said, “which we will use for these purchases if or when necessary.”  The district has nearly 200 string instruments available, noting that high school students usually own their own.

The Bakers, who have a daughter in seventh grade and another entering first grade in the fall, pushed for the strings program not only considering their children’s interests but also their own passion. Ms. Baker teaches music at Capistrano Valley High School and has been recognized with the prestigious Irene Schoepfle award for music education in Orange County.  Mr. Baker is a freelance music events coordinator and has worked with Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts in New York, the National Endowment for the Arts and locally at Laguna Beach Live productions.

Early exposure to music, Mr. Baker said, helps develop a lifetime awareness of the arts. “It tends to draw them towards cultural activities like going to concerts and enriching their life experience,” he said, noting that the Pacific Symphony’s director Carl St.Clair, and the Pacific Chorale’s artistic director John Alexander, recognized leaders in their professions, are both longtime local residents and potential champions of the new strings program.

The benefits of learning music has been studied and attributed to the brain’s development in math, languages and science, Christensen said.  “I think what’s in the best interest of students is to say we’re going to offer all three things during the school day and you’re free to choose,” she said about adding the option of strings instruction to band and choir.  “It’s very clear that not only academically but social-emotionally kids really benefit from music instruction.”

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