"Do I have to be in my school orchestra? I'm way ahead of everyone else and I'm not going to get anything from it."
That could have been me in high school, but it's something I've heard as a teacher, from students and parents, as well.
Here's the dilemma: When a child begins violin lessons -- or cello lessons or any instrumental lessons -- at a young age, he or she usually gets a pretty big jump start on the kids who do not begin learning the instrument until fourth-grade music class, or junior high, or high school. Then, when a group of kids finally forms at school for orchestra, most of the kids are beginners. They don't progress quickly because learning in a big class tends to be more difficult than learning in a one-on-one, private lesson.
What is a student going to get, from being in orchestra with students who can't play as well as they do?
Maybe another question is in order: What might the student, who has had the benefit of early lessons, give?
This can be a tough sell. It was for me in high school, when I was required to be in my school orchestra in order to participate in the Denver Young Artist Orchestra (which I believe no longer has the requirement). I wanted to take French, or art. I had to use up my elective on orchestra. I was so mad.
I'll confess, I started my four years in high school orchestra with a pretty bad attitude. I eventually came around, at least a little. And wonder of wonders, I learned quite a lot. Technically, everything was easy, so I experimented liberally, playing things in second position one day, fifth position the next, etc. After a while, I occasionally would work with other kids in the orchestra, in a coaching capacity. When I think about it, those were my first "students." As a participant in my school program, I qualified to audition for "All-State Orchestra," a very fun gathering of kids from all around the state, which I did every year. Eventually, we formed a quartet at school with the section leaders, and we played things like "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" for district events. The choir director allowed me into the alto section of the choir, and mysteriously enough, that year he programmed "Fiddler on the Roof," Mozart's "Laudate Dominum" and a number of other pieces that required a violin solo. (I had a feeling I didn't get in for my singing voice!) When I was a senior, they picked "Oliver" as the school musical; it has quite the nice violin solo, which I played from the pit with a good friend who was "Fagan" onstage. I'll probably remember, on my dying day, a friend from the audience who came up to me after "Oliver," so excited about that violin solo. Though to me it seemed like a pretty regular day in the orchestra pit, it was truly revelation to him, that anyone could play such a thing, in person. It was a revelation to me, that my violin could actually connect me to someone I'd known since kindergarten, in such a new way.
So before dismissing the idea of school orchestra or band, I'd ask you to consider it. Consider that you, or your child, might get something in giving something. You might be able to learn to play a leadership role. You might attract more excellence to your school's program, just by being there. You might learn something about teaching. You might learn about that complicated intersection of humility, confidence and competence. You might bring attention to your art, among people who don't even play.
Certainly, don't put yourself in a destructive situation. But if you find some good will among the teachers running your school music program, I'd urge you to support them in the endeavor -- support them with your participation. You might find some opportunities that surprise you.
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