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School of Rock: Will Play for Free

Lowell High Musicians Want to Partner with Urban Schools

The high school band room before a recent evening practice was a flurry of activity and chatter, as students uncased their instruments and shrugged out of sweaters and jackets to reveal their matching black “Fusion Rock Orchestra” T-shirts.

Band Director Wendy Tenney watches students get ready for practice

A girl polished off an ice cream sandwich in one hand and a Dorito in the other, while two other students debated the merits of two popular social media sites.

Once in the auditorium, and after a good half-hour of excuse-me-I’m-new-to-this equipment setup — all part of practice — the playing seemed to start suddenly.

Violins, cellos and a pulsing drum beat marked the opening strains of 1970s rock-and-roll band Led Zeppelin’s song “Kashmir.” And then they were all playing: the strings, the horns, percussion.

No doubt about it: These. Kids. Rock.

“I remember when I was in orchestra here I heard about Fusion, and it was really exciting to me,” said Eli Boulton, a junior who plays viola and drums. “I know there are kids in orchestra who really love that music. For me, (Fusion) is great because we’re playing really cool music. This is music I’ve heard my parents play on their ‘old people’ CDs.”

Junior Eli Boulton on the drums

Rock Fusion = Cool

Kent ISD received a $83,750 service-learning grant from State Farm Youth Advisory Board in October 2014 for the Rock Orchestra Arts Advocacy Project

Though it was originally hoped to host a camp for student musicians, Director Wendy Tenney, who leads the Rock Fusion Orchestra with her husband, Aaron Tenney, said that would have taken most of the grant funds. In order to reach the maximum number of students, she is hoping to partner with urban schools and reach more students through assemblies, concerts, workshops and other events. The programs would be free for partnering schools, she said.

Rock Fusion Orchestra already has played for students at Holland’s West Ottawa High School and at various community events. Their next performance is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22 at Lowell Middle School. The event is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a concert by Lowell Middle School’s orchestra.

At least in Lowell, Wendy Tenney said Rock Fusion events already have brought about an uptick in student interest in district music programs. She said 300 students were enrolled last year, and this year the number jumped to 370.

“When I started here 11 years ago, people were saying ‘orchestra’ with a funny tone in their voices,” Tenney recalled. “They didn’t see it as relevant anymore. Now, when weplay for them and we can connect our playing to what they are familiar with, they can see how orchestra can be cool.”

Any school interested in hosting the Lowell Rock Fusion Orchestra is invited to call Lowell High School at 987-2900.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.


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