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Making merry music, from a safe distance

Kenowa HillsThe holidays may look different this year, but students like Peter Berdo are still making merry music, even from home.

A high school junior and viola player in the Kenowa HIlls High School orchestra, Peter enjoyed the opportunity to continue practicing music, even when class couldn’t meet in person or “even when I’ve felt sluggish and burned out from virtual school,” he said. “I think Mr. Hosler is doing a good job of keeping us motivated to play music during some not-so-great times.” 

In lieu of an end-of-year holiday concert, district orchestra director Weston Hosler said, “We are working on a video project that integrates technology and performance, with an overall goal of increasing the well-being of members at assisted living facilities and homes.” 

From their homes, Hosler’s high school students are playing music from the same binder of 16 songs and recording their audio and video for Hosler to compile into a virtual concert. The songs include holiday classics like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls” and “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” 

Hosler plans to send out the final video of the students’ performance to various community organizations, including the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. 

“I’ve enjoyed playing holiday songs and am looking forward to being featured in the final video of songs,” Peter said.

According to Hosler, his orchestra students typically put together small or large groups during the holidays to play music outside businesses or public spaces. These young musicians previously played for the Grand Rapids Police Department and residents at the Sanctuary at St. Mary’s

“We’re seeing students less and less in the classroom, but we still want to have a fun product of some sort to share with the community,” Hosler said. 

Freshman cellist Avery Cole is in the middle of his first year in the high school orchestra and has yet to remember all the names and faces. He also faced a challenge trying to locate where his teacher uploaded all of the background audio tracks. As soon as the music files were in hand, he could begin practicing the songs with the pre-recorded track to accompany his part. 

“It’s been a bit crazy this year,” Avery said. “I’m genuinely interested to see all our people come together and hear all the different parts in the final video.”

“‘Adeste Fideles’ was my favorite song to play,” he added. “The way it sounded when I played it through and got all the notes made me feel really good.” 

Hosler encouraged students to record and contribute what they were able, and experiment with the melody and harmony parts of each song. He also emphasized that he wanted this project to be low-stress for the already-stressed-out students. With a strong belief in the healing power of the arts, he strives for his class to not be a burden to students balancing school, work and social lives. 

“I feel like students are just stressed; I am trying to be as fluid as I can and use music as a healing tool and not a curriculum,” Hosler said. “There comes a point where, as teachers, we have to sacrifice curriculum to maintain students’ mental health.”

Getting Creative for Concerts 

Over at Alpine and Zinser elementary schools, music teacher Lauria Majchrzak is helping her young musicians prepare for a pre-recorded holiday concert for parents. 

“We’re videotaping the students singing and making music in the gym, standing six feet apart on the bleachers and all wearing masks,” she explained.

This year, music class travels between buildings and classrooms on Majchrzak’s cart. She collected found materials, including shakers and coffee containers, to create 700 rhythm kits for students to use in the concert instead of community instruments. 

Majchrzak, with help from Hanah Smith, her teaching assistant from Grand Valley State University, got creative when planning the holiday performance. Her students will use their bodies as percussion instruments for “Sleigh Ride” and a few songs from “The Nutcracker.”

“They’re learning to play different rhythms, read music and follow the beat,” Majchrzak said. “The kids have been outstanding while learning to make music in different ways.”

Fifth-grade students will perform a few songs on ukuleles, and third- and fourth-graders are reimagining buckets as drums for “Carol of the Bells.” A rendition of the Kenowa Hills fight song, performed by all students, will wrap up the performance. “One of my first-grade students approached me and said school was their favorite thing and they felt sad we were only in school twice a week,” Majchrzak said. “The students are why we’re trying to keep the holiday season as normal as possible, so they don’t miss out on everything.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia and Kenowa Hills and is a roving reporter for Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio or email Alexis.

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