Orchestra: Looking Beyond the Strings

Orchestra: Looking Beyond the Strings

By Avani Papadopoulos

Have you ever thought about the instruments in an orchestra? First, you have the violin, the most commonly played string instrument in the orchestra that everybody thinks they want to play. Next, there’s the instrument that all violinists wish they played because it doesn’t take ten years to sound good if you practice, the cello. Then, the viola, which is basically a slightly bigger version of the violin and doesn’t play as high notes (includes a C string rather than an E string). Last but not least, the bass, which can be seen as a big version of the cello, also not reaching as high a note range (includes the E string rather than a C string).

Did you ever want to play the violin but think it was too screechy, or want to play the bass but then realize it’s too big? Did you even know the difference between a violin and a viola before reading this article? Maybe you are just one of those people who couldn’t care less about orchestra, much less music?

The thing about University’s orchestra though, is that we don’t just play classical songs, we play jazz and pop as well. We even get our own choice in what we want to perform when we play in small groups.

Mr. Knox teaches band, orchestra and choir at University, which is extremely uncommon to find in most schools. He fell in love with teaching because of Eagle Scouts where he learned leadership skills.

Mr. Knox started band in middle school where he originally played the trumpet, but then switched to the tuba shortly after. He explained, “So my band director did a weird thing where the only instruments he started us with were the flute, clarinet, trumpet and trombone, and then he’d like introduce the french horn, or the oboe, so every time he introduced a new instrument I wanted to switch. He wouldn’t let me switch because I was really good at the trumpet, but then I was also very forgetful, so I would often forget my instrument at home and he would let me play his instrument. He had a professional trumpet and I was always playing his instrument, so I would leave mine at home on purpose. Then, one day he was like, ‘I’m not letting you borrow my instrument anymore,’ so that day I played the tuba and I guess it was a really natural fit so my teacher was like, ‘Okay, you can play tuba if you want to.’ Since then I’ve played tuba as my primary instrument.”

Mr. Knox says that being a musician has helped him seek more creative solutions and that he also feels more courageous from having music solos. He thinks it has helped him never be nervous for a job interview either. He met his wife, Kristen, through music as well.

His favorite part about teaching class is the performance, seeing the end result. He told me, “I really like seeing you guys understand something or giving you guys something challenging where everybody’s like, ‘Oh no, I can’t do this,’ and then at the end when you can do it. I like seeing the growth people have, the moment when people get it.”

There is really good energy this year in the orchestra and Mr. Knox thinks that it’s primarily because there are a lot of juniors and seniors, which helps with leadership as well as being able to play more challenging pieces.

He talked about how four years ago there were only nine people in the orchestra, and how we have grown since. There are now 26 people at all different levels and we are able to show how much we have developed as a group, giving us the opportunity to play a variety of pieces, easy and hard.

Mr. Knox says that he likes having us work in sectionals (playing with the rest of our instrumental section or part) because it allows us to play through the music and figure it out with others, helping us prepare for when we rejoin for our group rehearsals.

When asked what he wants us to learn, Mr. Knox says, “I really hope that people learn that they can be really good at something if they try hard, and that if they put in the work, they will see results. I also want people to know that they have something to say musically. You don’t have to be the best ever to get some enjoyment or to express something musically. Everyone can make music, some people can do it really well, but just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean that other people aren’t given the same benefit.”

He hopes that more people will do small group performances at morning meeting so that we can be made aware as part of the community. Long-term, he would like it if we could work with clinicians and if we went for more trips and festivals together as an orchestra.

Becky Williams is a sophomore who plays the bass. She started playing the bass because it was the biggest instrument to choose from. She also says, “The orchestra teacher at my school told me that you have to have strong fingers to push down the strings, and I was like, ‘Well I want to be strong, so like if I play bass then people know I’m strong because I can push the strings down.’”

Becky says that orchestra class is a time when she can stop thinking about everything else and make something beautiful for other people. She says music can be really important in how you mature because it requires a lot of “consistency, practice and focus that a lot of people don’t have. It takes a certain kind of person to have the commitment to actually practice and learn everything that they need to.”

Kate Bonnell, also a sophomore, started playing the violin in 5th grade, but was originally part of band. Band wasn’t working out for her, so she switched to orchestra. She says that the best thing about orchestra is playing the pieces, especially the ones she enjoys, so it’s more fun to practice them at home.

Kate likes that Mr. Knox is energetic every class, saying it’s “a nice change of pace.” She hopes that by the time she graduates she will have become a better performer and be able to play more technically challenging pieces.

Allie Skalnik, a sophomore as well, plays the viola. She says that orchestra is one of her favorite classes and one of the few that actually balances having a fun time and learning really well.

When asked what she likes most about orchestra, she says it’s nice that you get to know people better than you do in most other classes because everybody shares an interaction between music. What she likes best about Mr. Knox is how outgoing he is and how he checks up on every individual before class starts to ask how they’re doing and make sure that they’re in a good place.

Allie says that she wants to focus on improvement, and that if you compare how everybody played in freshman year (minus the freshmen now), then you would see huge growth, which she finds more rewarding than checking a goal off her list. “Practicing an instrument is very different from studying for a test for example. There isn’t a study guide, there isn’t a list of inductives that you have to learn, the goal is always just to play better. So, learning how to manage my time and learning what works best for me as a person I think is something you don’t get anywhere else really.” In other words, each individual musician has to learn to manage their own time for when and how they will practice.

Allie hopes that she will continue to have fun playing music over the years. She says, “Mr. Knox talks a lot about making good music and having fun, and to be honest, that’s really the ultimate goal.”

Jada Swearingen, a senior, plays the cello. She originally wanted to play the violin, but because too many people in her 5th grade class were playing the violin, her teacher asked her if she would play the cello. She was initially disappointed, but is now really glad that she agreed to play the cello instead because she really enjoys it.

Jada says that music makes her more aware of current issues around the world and that it’s nice that music is a form of art that helps bond everyone in a way where they feel safe to express themselves.

She likes that Mr. Knox is “funny, and has that nice quirky touch to him, the good kind that keeps everyone else energetic.” To help herself improve, Jada uses one of the practice techniques that Mr. Knox recommended called the “three penny trick.” Basically, the trick is to help an individual play specific measures in the music correctly through repetition. You’re supposed to slide each penny down every time you play the trouble spot right, but if you mess up before having slid three pennies down, you have to start all over again from the top.

After being asked what she hopes to get out of the experience of being in an orchestra, Jada says, “I dread that at college I will not be able to continue playing in an orchestra. I guess what I hope to get is sort of this communal experience, getting to make music with everyone and having fun doing so.”

Everything being said, although orchestra instruments may seem very comparable, each individual musician is not, and can express and interpret music in their own unique way.

Image courtesy of University High School

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