Despite growing up in an area of New York State that is surrounded by thriving string ensembles and enthusiastic teachers, I only participated in All-County orchestras for two years. One of those was the infamous “minute bow” experience, a story which many of my students can recall, and the other threw me for a loop when I was asked to pronounce “L’Arlesienne” as the first part of my seating audition. The latter was neither as scarring nor as useful as trying to play a note with good tone on a single bowstroke for 60 seconds, but my high school self did harbor some regret for not having the opportunity to participate in the festivals each year that they were offered.
All-County Orchestra is exactly what its name implies: a festival orchestra comprised of students from one particular county in New York State who were selected based on their NYSSMA Solo Festival scores. NYSSMA — the New York State Music Educators Association — allows any child in the state to participate in a Solo Festival each Spring and publishes a manual for educators detailing appropriate solo pieces, scales, and sight reading expectations on six levels of accomplishment. Combined with a level indication, these scores can be used to apply to festivals like All-County (for elementary and middle school-aged students), Area All-State (for high school, and sometimes junior high school students), and All-State (for high school juniors and seniors), though for many years my only extrinsic motivation for participating in Solo Festival was to have a more objective way to compare my progress with my sister, my friends, and other students in my teacher’s violin studio.
Competition for invitations to an All-County Orchestra varies greatly across the state, and when I was growing up in Dutchess County, a score of Excellent or Outstanding on Level 4 or higher could all but guarantee you a spot in the string section of the elementary All-County Orchestra (Grade 5 & 6). In the same county today, students vie for invitations to audition for elementary All-County by performing well in Level 3 and above. While they are awarded NYSSMA Solo Festival scores in the late Spring, a select group is invited to audition in December/January with a piece composed specifically for the audition and with the intention of highlighting skills such as dynamic contrast, bow control, hooked and other bowing styles, rubato, modulations, and meter changes. Having prepared students for these auditions and adjudicating violinists and violists in Dutchess County from 2011-2014, I know that this audition also includes NYSSMA-level sight-reading, a Major scale requirement, and an optional addition to the required solo to show ability shifting and/or performing in triple meter. The Orange County Music Educators Association, across the Hudson River and south of Dutchess County, didn’t go as far as to have an original solo composed for the audition, but they did require a specific solo (one example being Petite Bourree from the Etling Solo Time for Strings Violin Book 4).
To maintain integrity, the All-County audition process was run just like a NYSSMA Solo Festival, with a fixed length of time given to each student, a specific repertoire, and a standardized process. Just like at NYSSMA, parents of young or anxious children could remain in the room while they performed their scales and solo, but they had to exit during the sight-reading portion. Music teachers from neighboring counties would adjudicate students playing their primary instrument and provide comments to the student to take home to their families and teachers. Because I teach in the Brewster Central School District in Putnam County, I am often invited to adjudicate in nearby Dutchess, Orange, Westchester, and Columbia counties.
Having no experience with counties closer to New York City and on Long Island, I can only imagine that their selection process is even more rigorous and competitive. However, tumultuous funding for music programs in Putnam County caused the little corner of the state that I teach in to be much less competitive than the surrounding areas. Here, students were required to submit NYSSMA Solo Festival scores for consideration, but they could also be admitted without scores if there was a great need for their instrument. Scores still trumped all else, but the Putnam Music Educators Association took teacher recommendations into consideration as well. I am often frustrated when I find myself comparing my middle school program in Brewster to those in similarly-funded districts and have to be reminded of the great effect that parental and administrative support can have on a program. It is for this reason that I am so grateful for PCMEA’s more inclusive policies that allow me to thrust my students into an All-County festival when I know they will thrive. Time spent with the instrument is never time lost.
Still, I was not sure I was ready to chair the PCMEA Middle School All-County Festival Orchestra when I was nominated in February of last year. I am still a relatively new teacher in Putnam County and don’t know the all the personalities of teachers and programs in the county the way, it seems, everyone else does. But I wanted to be more involved, and what better way to learn the ins and outs of a music association than to assume this type of responsibility and refuse to fail?
The first challenge in chairing a festival — or so I’ve been told — is finding a conductor. Luckily for me, I secured an excellent music educator right away! I have known Jessica Weber for almost as long as I’ve played violin, and we’ve studied with more than a couple of the same teachers over the years. Since she grew up in the Wappingers Central School District, she was familiar with what All-County Orchestra is, the schedule it follows, and the expectations for students. Today, she is a middle school orchestra teacher in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, so she felt right at home with a middle school ensemble.
Choosing music was also a breeze, thanks largely in part to our similar approach to teaching and listening. Jessica requested one of her favorite pieces, Blue Ridge Run by Alan Lee Silva, which challenged the ensemble with quick string crossings in the violins, sixteenth note rhythms, soaring melodies, and an exciting — but firm — bass and cello line. I added a favorite of my own, Adra’s Dance by Brendan McBrien, which tosses a bone of melody to the second violins, violas, and cellos, entices first violins to leave the comfort of first position (and surpass even 3rd position for the truly capable), and even dabbles a bit in a minor key before returning to Major. The PCMEA Library already owned Variations on a Ground by Marsha Shapiro — so we saved some money while reaffirming the importance of a strong bass section in a theme and variations form. My students know that I don’t love playing watered-down arrangements of popular tunes just for the sake of playing something that the audience “knows,” but it is a tradition of the PCMEA Festival Orchestra to have a few pop selections on their program. I chose Larry Moore’s arrangement of Eleanor Rigby and a popular-sounding piece called Secret Agent 440 by Carrie Lane Gruselle.
Once all that was in place, the rest was clerical. I had to solicit applications from teachers in 6 public middle schools and 11 private schools in Putnam County and compile a master list of middle school students (Grades 7 & 8) ranked by their NYSSMA Solo Festival scores and annotated with their teacher’s comments. Schools who submit applications must be in good standing with NYSSMA, having paid their dues, and I needed to make sure we had enough teacher chaperones onsite at George Fisher Middle School in Carmel. Photo release, permission, and medical forms needed to be collected and compiled, tshirts and pizza ordered, and festival schedules coordinated with the school day and bus parking schedule of our host school. Schools pay the $10 participation fee per student, but I needed to make sure that fees forms were completed and that all payment was received. Once all the forms were in, I could distribute the original copies of music that I had carefully numbered and assigned to specific students for use during and in the weeks leading up to the festival. I had to make sure that Jessica’s conductor biography fit in the space allocated for it in the program, and double and triple check that names for all students, teachers, and administrators were included and spelled correctly. Of course, I also had to arrange to teach and rehearse the music with my own students who had been selected for the festival.
On Friday, February 1st, students from around Putnam County arrived at George Fisher Middle School and began rehearsing in the orchestra room. Rehearsal on the first day is always long (from about 2pm until 5pm, then again 5:30pm-7:00pm after dinner), and it can be a bit of a shock for students who aren’t used to more than their 38-45 minute daily (or every other day) orchestra rehearsals in school. Luckily, pizza dinner is a nice perk to look forward to, and a surprising amount of bonding occurs when kids work so hard alongside new faces. Parent pickup at 7pm on Friday wasn’t too bad — I had to wait around for only two students whose parents were about 30 minutes late. I was dying to go home for a little rest before Round 2 on Saturday, but it’s hard to be mad at the kids who can’t control the habits of their parents.
Energy was higher on Saturday, despite the 8:45am orchestra arrival time. Kids knew the concert was in sight, and Jessica was able to run bigger sections of pieces that had had a bit of time to settle overnight. Setting and resetting the stage for different ensembles and shuffling those groups to and from their rehearsal spaces kept me and the other chairs busy through the late morning, but I was relieved to see that all of the kids showed up with appropriate concert attire.
Doors opened at 1:30pm for the 2:00pm concert, and it was a good crowd of parents and other family members. The kids really did a nice job, both in performance and behavior, and I was quite happy to put my first festival as host in the books!