Symphony musicians visit W-JCC orchestra students

The sounds emanating from Mary Giacolone's orchestra class at Lafayette High School Monday were not what you'd expect from a group of string musicians.

An enthusiastic crescendo of "Yup ba ba ba bum" echoed around the room as Virginia Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster Vahn Armstrong led the students in Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik."

To the students, the meaning behind Armstrong's gibberish was clear as he emphasized each "ba" and "bum" with a wave of his arms — be lighter with the bows, of course.

"When we play this piece, we don't want to hear sweat, we don't want to hear effort," Armstrong told the group. "It's a party, it's easy, full of life — lots of life in that bow."

Five symphony orchestra musicians descended on Williamsburg-James City County high schools Monday, working with more than 100 students across all three. Lafayette was the third and last stop for the group, they were at Jamestown and Warhill earlier in the day.

Fourteen students filled the chairs at Lafayette around noon Monday.

Isabel Vega sat with the violins; she first started playing in fifth grade. The 17-year-old Lafayette senior said she benefited from each of the symphony's four visits, one per year of her high school orchestra experience. She hopes to continue playing through college, though she doesn't know where that will be yet.

"I've taken away different lessons, new techniques every year they've come," Vega said. As for Armstrong's antics, "It definitely makes it more interesting and fun, the time went by fast because of it."

After working through the Mozart piece and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Overture" with the whole orchestra, each section of instruments broke into groups for personalized instruction from their symphony orchestra counterparts.

Armstrong stayed with the first violins. Assistant concertmaster Amanda Gates took another group of violins, Satoko Rickenbacker had three violists while principal cellist Michael Daniels mentored the cello section.

Since Lafayette only has one bassist, freshman Hannah Weiss secured one-on-one instruction from symphony orchestra principal bassist Chris White.

They plucked low notes and emitted deep, drawn out tunes with their bows in a room off to the side of the main orchestra practice chamber.

"One of the most satisfying things to do is to work with students," White said. "To pass down knowledge I've gained through hundreds of hours of practice. It's a duty."

Fourteen-year-old Weiss has played cello for nine years and bass for four. Learning from a professional helps her and the other orchestra students improve their technique, she said.

Though they did not get to play with the symphony orchestra members Monday, Giacolone had her younger students listen in on the group sessions.

Brittny Marrow, 15, plays violin. While watching Gates tutor five student violinists in Lafayette's empty auditorium, Marrow said she's looking forward to her turn to work with the professionals.

"It's nice that they take the time to help us work on our pieces," Marrow said. "You're with people who are professionals, we're lucky to be able to work with them.... It's nice to see people who went from our age to this."

Local support

The organization facilitating this personalized interaction between musical greats and orchestra students is the Virginia Symphony Society of Greater Williamsburg, a separate fund-raising body. President Barbara Vollmer said education is a primary objective of the organization.

Last year the society raised enough money for educational opportunities specifically so this year the symphony orchestra's work within W-JCC could expand. Early in the year teachers participated in a full day of development with the symphony orchestra and later this spring, musicians will return to work with W-JCC high school bands.

"Our primary objectives are being able to introduce and provide opportunities for students to have personal experiences with the symphony," Vollmer said. "Williamsburg is a culturally rich area for such a small area."

The symphony, based in Norfolk, works in schools around Hampton Roads. Christy Havens, director of orchestra activity for the symphony, said bringing the musicians that students see onstage into the classroom shows students they're worth the attention.

Armstrong, who as concertmaster is a lead musician in the orchestra, left the class with a few parting words of advice.

"Practice every day with curiosity," he said. "Approach your practice with creativity and curiosity."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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