When Sarah Russell interviewed for the position of Orchestra Director at Providence Day in the spring of 2015, there were fewer than 40 students in the program. She was hired to begin teaching at PD that fall. Shortly after beginning her tenure as a Charger, Russell recalls a conversation with an administrator, who told her that “he would love to see Orchestra one day outgrow the stage.” Though the students haven’t quite done that, they have achieved something perhaps more noteworthy than outgrowing a stage. In fact, they have achieved a goal that was unimaginable in 2015. The Upper School Orchestra at Providence Day has received an invitation to perform for the 2021 North Carolina Music Educators Association (NCMEA) Annual Conference.
On Monday, November 8, 2021, Ms. Russell and the Upper School Orchestra will travel to Winston-Salem to perform for hundreds of music educators from across the state. The invitation to perform at NCMEA is the highest honor available to any instrumental ensemble at the state level. Russell is thrilled that her students will have the opportunity to showcase their talents and incredibly hard work.
“Preparing an hour-long program is always a daunting task. Knowing that you’ll be performing for a room full of music educators adds an extra layer of pressure. Asking students to do this by the beginning of November is asking a lot. Asking them to do this in the middle of a pandemic is...well, it’s a little crazy!” says Russell. Despite the setbacks and challenges put before them, Russell was still determined to apply, and if chosen, accept the invitation.
“I’ve known since before COVID-19 hit that if I wanted to apply for this performance, this was going to be the year to do it,” says Russell. “Our seniors and juniors are outstanding leaders for the ensemble, and our sophomores and freshmen are insanely talented and playing at a much higher level than freshmen and sophomores typically would. This is a really magical, special combination of students, and I knew that this would be the year to apply.”
One highlight of the performance will include a collaborative work among Upper School Orchestra, Mrs. Tilson’s Upper School Chorus, and Dr. Hough’s Upper School percussionists. The piece, a Swahili work titled Baba Yetu, will be guest conducted by Mr. Christopher James Lees, Resident Conductor of the Charlotte Symphony.
“We are so fortunate to have strong arts programs in all disciplines at PD,” says Libby Tilson, Choral Director, and Department Chair. “Collaborative performance is always great fun for both the teachers and the students. What a thrilling opportunity for the chorus members from Providence Day to share this stage with our orchestra in a performance of Baba Yetu. Such a collaboration represents the commitment from our performing and visual arts departments to inspire mutual appreciation for our individual talents and disciplines.”
In addition to the collaboration among orchestra, chorus, and band, works from our visual arts department will be on display at the performance. Ms. Sydney Shaeffer's Art II students were introduced to the concept of synesthesia, which is the crossing of the senses. Students were then each assigned a piece from the orchestra's NCMEA Performance, serving as inspiration for their work. The students' pieces will be taken to Winston-Salem and displayed during the performance.
“I was so excited when Ms. Russell approached me about the opportunity to collaborate,” says Shaeffer. “I love cross-disciplinary collaborations, and music and visual art are the perfect pair to do it with! My students loved the opportunity as well, many of them being musically inclined themselves. I hope to continue collaborating with the performing arts here at PD!”
The teachers aren’t the only ones who are proud and excited about this performance; the students remember how far they have come and know that it’s their hard work that earned the invitation to perform. When asked what has been the most exciting thing about orchestra over the years, student Nina Geller ‘23 says, “I have been an orchestra student since fifth grade, and I think the most exciting thing about watching our program over the last several years is simply how much it has grown. I am so grateful that we have the opportunity to attend NCMEA this year since this never would have even been considered a few years ago.”
Cole Villegas ‘23 adds, “I think the craziest and most exciting thing about being in the program since the fifth grade is not only the rate at which we’ve grown in numbers but also musically. Combining a group of around ten fifth graders with little to no musical experience into a full ensemble is beyond cool.” Regarding the invitation to perform at NCMEA Conference, Easton Pranksy ‘24 says, “I feel as though this is a great opportunity to demonstrate our group's hard work these past several months. It is such an honor to be able to perform at this event. I am so excited to show what our group is made of!”
Perhaps the program’s greatest success and secret weapon lie not in what they are able to accomplish musically, but what they have accomplished away from the stage. Pavan Thakkar ‘24 has been a member of the program for six years. He writes, “As a member of the PD orchestra program since fifth grade, it has been truly incredible to watch the program grow in both size and skill over the past six years; since I first joined the program, we've moved from learning how to hold the bow to playing arrangements of Beethoven symphonies. However, my favorite part of the orchestra program is the community. Despite the growth, our orchestra has never lost its close-knit family feeling.”