In its first year, high school orchestra makes ‘magical’ music

New strings program thrives

Ninth-graders Talia Osborne and Armaan Amiri are among nearly 40 high school orchestra members

Sophomore Charlotte Best had just finished playing a soothing melody on her double bass, and felt as mellow as the music sounded.

“It really calms me down. It’s almost like therapy,” Charlotte said during a recent rehearsal of the Rockford High School Orchestra. “I immerse myself in it, and I really enjoy being part of something bigger than I am.”

Conductor Erin DeYoung goes over an exercise with ninth-grader Ella Dykstra

Now in its first year at the high school and fourth year overall, the Rockford strings program has quickly grown bigger since it began at the middle school level. About 270 students are part of it, including nearly 40 in the high school ensemble.

After years of officials working to mount the program, it’s gotten off to an auspicious start. The high school orchestra scored all first-division ratings at the recent Michigan School Band & Orchestra Association’s district festival at Grandville High School.

“They just performed really beautifully,” said Director Erin DeYoung, noting her group of primarily ninth-graders was competing mostly against older students. “That was as magical as anything else. Having that time onstage, you can sense they are connecting with each other as musicians, and connecting with the music.”

Erin DeYoung has headed the Rockford strings program since it began four school years ago

A ‘Counter-Cultural’ Experience

DeYoung was brought in to launch the program in the 2014-15 school year, after voters approved a bond issue that among other things funded conversion of the former high school band room into an orchestra room. That provides the group with a home space, helping knit members together musically and socially.

“It feels like we have something, like the band does,” said Christian Hiler, a ninth-grade viola player, who has been in the program since sixth grade. “The marching band has like Macy’s (Thanksgiving Day Parade). We don’t have that, but we have a room,” he quipped.

Calling the orchestra experience “counter-cultural,” he added, “We’re all working together to produce a sound. In everyday life, we’re talking about us and what I want. I really like how we’re working together to create a piece of music.”

Violinist Paris Thompson agreed. “I like how it all collaborates together,” the ninth-grader said. “They’re all different sounds, and they all come together to make a great sound.”

Violists Rosie Van Luven, right, and Ashlyn Minter rehearse in the renovated orchestra room

At the district festival, their sound ranged from the gentle strains of William Hofeldt’s “Lullaby” to the sharp, percussive energy of Kirt Mosier’s “Red Rhythmico.”

First violinist Kelsey De Young said she thoroughly enjoys such material, along with her beloved Bach and Mozart. The sophomore has been with the strings program from the beginning, and recently played for a wedding in a quartet with fellow orchestra members.

“You can express every emotion with it,” Kelsey said of making music. “It doesn’t betray you. It’s not like a person. It’s always there.”

The entire Rockford strings program will perform a concert May 1 at the Calvin College Fine Arts Center.

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‘Long overdue’ strings program comes to Rockford, at last

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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