Orchestra teaches young musicians how to play as a group

Margaret Hair
Violinist Zach Cohn practices with the Steamboat Springs Youth Orchestra last week.
John F. Russell

— Every Monday afternoon this fall, Craig resident Ray Kirk drove 45 minutes to Steamboat Springs so his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, could play violin with an orchestra.

Hannah plays percussion with a band program in Moffat County, but the Steamboat Springs Youth Orchestra is her only semi-local opportunity to play her primary instrument with an ensemble of her peers.

“I think (it gives her) a broader experience in the arts and performance experience,” Kirk said, explaining that he doesn’t mind working in the back of the Steamboat Springs High School band room while his daughter rehearses. He said the chance for Hannah to pursue her musical interests is worth the drive.

“Music expands math ability – it just complements all aspects of her life,” Kirk said.

Going into its second full season, the size of the youth orchestra has stayed even, with about 30 participants between the ages of 8 and 17, said youth orchestra director John Fairlie. Maintaining a solid group has provided a chance to take on more difficult music for some of the program’s players; an advanced group will play Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” in a holiday concert.

“The level of play has come up quite a bit. For example : with the ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik,’ we could not have done that a year ago,” Fairlie said. The piece is one of 11 works the youth orchestra will perform in concert on Monday at the Steamboat Christian Center. The concert starts at 7 p.m., and tickets are $5.

“We’re still pretty young, but we have the same core of musicians that have been here for a while. Most of those kids practice a lot, and you can tell when they play,” Fairlie said.

The youth orchestra is open to all young string students who have completed the second Suzuki Method book or higher. There also are limited opportunities for wind players and percussionists, but for now, the ensemble is focused on strings, Fairlie said. Because there is not a strings program at any of the public schools in Routt or Moffat counties, the Steamboat Springs Youth Orchestra draws musicians from all over.

“That’s why we started this, because the kids had no opportunity to be playing in a group,” Fairlie said. As the number of private music teachers in Routt County has grown in recent years, the level of playing for young musicians has improved, he said. Ensemble play offers motivation to stay with that private education.

“You get bored with it after a while, sitting by yourself in a practice room,” Fairlie said. It’s been a challenge for some students to learn how loud or fast or long to play a note in a group, but most are getting the hang of it, Fairlie said.

“Since a lot of them have been in there a couple of years now, they’re now getting used to playing in an ensemble,” he said. “It’s a process. For those of us who have been playing for a while, it’s almost instinctive. But for students who have been playing just with their private teacher, this is a learned art.”

Fairlie would like to see the program grow to include a full orchestra with winds and percussion, and he hopes that can happen by fall 2010.

“We just need to get enough of everything that we can field an orchestra that can play Beethoven : music that’s accessible and exciting,” he said. In the end, that’s Fairlie’s goal for the youth program, to pass on his love of an art form.

“That’s what got me into classical music, was playing it,” he said. “I still remember in high school playing Beethoven, the ‘Eroica’ symphony. It changed my life.”

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