Orchestra at the Chittick School

by Betsy Hinkle, director of musiConnects

To be perfectly honest, when I started musiConnects in 2007, having a student orchestra as part of programming was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to truly experiment with the possibilities of making chamber music central to our students’ lives. And I also wanted to ensure that each student received nurturing, one on one relationships through private lessons. Both of these programming components are still rare in public school music programs today but are at the core of musiConnects.


In year 6, we needed to hire a second cello teacher and I met Laura Messina. She came to musiConnects not only with years of teaching and performing experience, but also with a Masters in Music Education, and orchestral education training and experience. Meeting Laura planted the seeds for adding orchestra when the time was right. Image

This fall our Chittick orchestra was born, with Laura as our fearless leader. Since day one she has instilled a new sense of belonging within our students, who are very familiar with their role in a small team through chamber music, but had not yet felt the magic of being in the middle of a large orchestral sound. Her expert group management, rehearsal structuring and sense of humor keeps students focused throughout the long rehearsals which take place at the end of an even longer Thursday.

Orchestra is very popular with our students, and has made Chamber Music sessions even more productive. Our kids are even more aware of the possibilities that collaborative music making brings to their development as young musicians, and as human beings.

I sat down with Laura recently to ask her to share some of her orchestra director tricks of the trade and here is what she had to say:

“I always try and structure rehearsals the same way each time – begin with some warm-ups, usually using elements of the piece(s) we are working on, but by rote so they are not bogged down by looking at music at first. This is when I remind students of all of the possible kinds of conducting they will see from the podium with regard to tempo, dynamics, and simply what each beat will look like. Then I begin rehearsing a piece. I expect silent listening and observation from each student throughout the session, and the kids are pretty good at staying on task and listening for which section, which measure, or other explanations I might call out. I make a point to be as positive as possible when giving feedback, while having very high expectations for effort. I think we are off to a pretty solid start, and there is lots of potential for exponential growth.”

I love looking around at specific students in orchestra on Thursdays. One student who might have been in trouble earlier that day in the classroom, and also might have had a hard time during our snack and homework time, is suddenly giving Laura his undivided attention, sure to sit up tall in his chair and hold his viola with expert posture. Another just started the cello a few weeks ago, and is so excited about being a part of the group that he is beaming from ear to ear the entire hour. And then there are the older, more experienced kids, pointing out which measure we are on to a younger player, and proudly demonstrating how far they have come with hard work and dedication. I love hearing the very beginning sounds of a new piece, too. There is so much potential, so many possibilities!


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