The music of violins, cellos, guitars, drums and piano blended hauntingly, rising in crescendo in the rock protest song “Zombie” by the Cranberries.
It was just before 7 a.m. on a Thursday in the East Kentwood orchestra room, and 44 students in the Anything But Classical Orchestra were already immersed in full-on alternative rock.
“I really like playing the violin and being able to play a different kind of music in a different kind of way,” explained senior Madeline Nguyen, a violist. “It’s a completely different setting than a traditional orchestra. I like being part of something different every day.”
You could describe the orchestra as “different” because it’s anything but what most people expect when students enter a concert venue dressed in formal attire as an ensemble.
“Every time I have to explain to someone what we are it’s a little bit difficult of a process. It’s an orchestra, but it’s not,” said Eric Hudson, who co-directs the class with Ryan Wallace.
Hudson, who also directs the high school and Pinewood Middle Schools’ classical orchestras, wanted students to push the boundaries of classic chamber music and learn the versatility of their instruments. The group plays genres ranging from folk and bluegrass to Irish and rock, taking on songs by Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, as well as folksy, jazzy, hootenanny songs. Students audition for the class, attend a summer camp and must also be in a classical orchestra at their school.
“I have a hard time committing to one thing,” quipped Hudson, a 13-year high school and middle school music director who started the orchestra his first year teaching. “I wanted to do a little bit of everything. That’s why we do rock, celtic, world music, jazz, fiddling …”
There is also a middle school ABC Orchestra directed by Wallace and Elizabeth Knoll, involving the district’s three middle schools and meeting at the high school.
Instead of sitting symphony style with song books open, students stand; songs have choreography and students play by memorization.
“The day of reckoning is coming soon, so you must have this memorized,” Hudson told his students on the recent morning. “Look at your music as little as possible please.”
Junior Rachel Pham, a pianist and violinist, said she likes the challenge.“There’s a lot of different types of music you get exposed to. It’s really cool and the environment is really chill and a lot of fun.”
The orchestra focuses on a main group of music each school year, with Irish fiddling now on the docket in preparation for a major trip. For Spring Break, the orchestra will tour Dublin and the west coast of Ireland, performing five concerts along the way. Hudson tries to take the students on a big trip to Ireland or Scotland every other fours years and one within the U.S., such as to Nashville, on other years.
‘I like being part of something different every day.’— Madeline Nguyen, violist
The music they play ties in with travel plans. “We always try to connect what we are doing to something meaningful,” Hudson said.
Sophomore Abbi Best, a cellist, who plans to major in music education, said the zero-hour class starting at 6:30 a.m. is worth getting up for. “It’s so early,” she said, with a laugh. “But it’s a really good environment. Our rhythm section and drummers are so funny in the morning. We just have a good time when we are playing.”
Hudson, who has music education degrees from Central Michigan University and Western Michigan University, said several of his students have gone on to play professionally/ He credits ABC Orchestra for their ability to perform a variety of music: “They feel like they are better prepared to play out in the real world.”
Also, Hudson said, ABC Orchestra helps them become well-rounded musicians.
“It’s fun to watch them translate what we are doing in this bluegrass tune and then all of the sudden they are like, oh, this kind of actually works for Dvorak too.”