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Tacoma Symphony musicians take expertise, passion into local high schools

VIDEO: Tacoma Symphony program brings passion to public school orchestras

Not all Tacoma public schools have dedicated string teachers – and most students can't afford private lessons. Tacoma Symphony's solution? Send their musicians into schools for 8-week sessions to coach and inspire kids for life.
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Not all Tacoma public schools have dedicated string teachers – and most students can't afford private lessons. Tacoma Symphony's solution? Send their musicians into schools for 8-week sessions to coach and inspire kids for life.

It was nerve-wracking enough for 10th-grader Kaia Malona to have a symphony musician as her stand partner for Monday morning’s orchestra rehearsal.

But there was more in store for the Mount Tahoma High School double bass player. Anna Jensen, assistant principal bass of the Tacoma Symphony, handed her own instrument to Malona to play while she tuned the school one.

Eyes wide, Malona signaled excitedly to orchestra director Leo Altamiranda. He smiled.

“Savor it,” he said.

In fact, most members of the Tacoma school’s 15-piece string orchestra seemed to be savoring their chance to have two professionals playing alongside them and coaching them through the repertoire for a concert Thursday evening.

Jensen and her colleague, Gwendolyn Taylor, associate concertmaster for the symphony, were in the second-period class for the eighth and final week as part of a new collaborative project between the orchestra and Tacoma Public Schools.

Dubbed TSO2U, the project sends professional musicians into high school orchestras to coach and play side-by-side, bringing high-level coaching and inspiration into public schools where students need it most.

Students who normally wouldn’t get to experience the symphony get to experience it, just in a different realm.”

Anna Jensen, principal bass of the Tacoma Symphony

“It’s been incredible,” said Altamiranda, who teaches band, orchestra and percussion at Mount Tahoma. A trumpet player himself, he said he’s grateful for the skilled string expertise the symphony musicians have brought to his ensemble.

“(The standard) has been going up and up,” he said. “When they started, maybe one student was at the (expected) level. Now we have 80 percent of these students at level, thanks to this.”

In the 8:30 a.m. class, every student was focused, listening intently to Altamiranda’s directions and to the sotto voce tips from Jensen and Taylor while playing.

Jensen corrected the angle of Malona’s bow, explaining how it affects the sound, and leaned forward to tell the three cellists to begin loud and get softer on each quarter note, rather than the other way around.

Taylor, meanwhile, was reminding the second violins to space their fingers wide in order to get a C sharp note in tune.

They worked as a team, Altamiranda leading the rehearsal but breaking frequently to ask the symphony musicians to offer solutions and suggestions.

In previous visits, the three have split the orchestra into sections, with the professional musicians giving small-group coaching to the students. Jensen and Taylor also perform solos.

In a school with 75 percent of students on free or reduced lunch, none of the students has the luxury of private lessons, so the experience is priceless.

And there was Malona’s experience of playing an instrument worth at least 20 times as much as the one she’s used to. Smiling, she played more confidently as Jensen played the school bass alongside her.

Taylor said she noticed a huge improvement in the student musicians over the eight weeks.

“They’re playing out more and more confidently,” she said. “They seem more enthusiastic … playing with more energy. I’ll miss them. I wish we could just keep coming back.”

It got me out of my comfort zone. I feel like it’s made me louder and more comfortable setting down a foundation.”

Kaia Malona, student bassist

“I learned a new bow technique, finger patterns, shifting,” Malona said. “It got me out of my comfort zone. I feel like it’s made me louder and more comfortable setting down a foundation for the orchestra.”

There’s also the inspiration of talking with real-life orchestra professionals.

As Taylor encouraged the seconds to play percussive attacks at the end of the bow (known as the “frog”), Jensen added a new perspective: “It also looks really cool. It’s a spectator sport, playing in a symphony.”

Students also start to think about the possibilities of lifelong music, even considering college where they hadn’t before, said Jensen, who teaches at local colleges and with the Tacoma Youth Symphony Association.

The TSO2U project was partly Jensen’s idea, although it’s an experience that symphony director Sarah Ioannides, now in her second year with the orchestra, is committed to offering.

“I believe it’s the duty of a symphony to represent as much as possible in schools,” Ioannides said in an interview with The News Tribune before her 2013 audition.

Jensen agrees.

“It’s good for the symphony for us to expand outside of the stage and to get out into the community and take the music to people who generally don’t see it,” she said.

Jensen also hopes the program will expand to offer free tickets for those students to symphony performances.

I think what it does for them is to build confidence and self-esteem, and get them to fall in love with the music.”

Anna Jensen

Symphony musicians have visited schools before, but the TSO2U project is different in that it responds to a specific need — that of music teachers such as Altamiranda, who are maintaining an orchestra program without specific string teachers, said executive director Andy Buelow.

After Mount Tahoma, Jensen and Taylor will spend eight weeks at Foss High School, followed by Lincoln High School.

In addition, the symphony recently sent nine musicians to Annie Wright School for a day of side-by-side workshops, funded by the Bates Family Foundation.

Back at Mount Tahoma, the orchestra was ready for a final run-through. After Altamiranda talked them through it, Jensen politely raised her hand.

“Can I make a suggestion?” she asked. “We’ve done a lot of practicing, but now I think we need to practice performing. Pretend it’s a real performance.”

The students raised some eyebrows, but Taylor chipped in: “Yes! After all, we’re going to be in the newspaper! It’s definitely a performance.”

Everyone laughed. But as Altamiranda pretended to walk on stage and tune, a hush fell over the group. The focus was intense. Then Vivaldi’s “Gloria” began: a clean attack, crisp bows, a full sound. They got the echo phrase perfectly.

Altamiranda smiled as they crescendoed toward the finish.

“Students who normally wouldn’t get to experience the symphony get to experience it, just in a different realm,” Jensen said. “What it does for them is to build confidence and self-esteem, and get them to fall in love with the music.”

Mount Tahoma High School music concert

Who: Orchestra, band, percussion.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Mount Tahoma High School auditorium, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma.

Cost: Free.

Information: 253-571-3800, tacoma.k12.wa.us.

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