Despite the fact that only a handful of Walworth County school districts offer an orchestra program, those that do seem to find harmony through enthusiastic students, staff and supporters.
A chance to play
Lake Geneva Middle School orchestra director Lauren Klement knows how far music has carried her in life. Starting at age 6, Klement picked up violin and four years later added the oboe. She played both all the way through grade school, high school and college at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Two important sets of people supported Klement’s journey to a music career.
“High school and middle school teachers at Shorewood really developed my love for music,” she said. “My parents said, ‘We’re really glad you settled on music, because you do well at that.”
In addition to her middle school directing duties, Klement teaches fourth- and fifth-grade orchestra at Eastview and Star Center elementary schools and conducts the Fiddle Club at Lake Geneva Middle School. It’s a program she inherited and nurtured -- boosting the number of participants from nine to 30.
Klement stressed it’s a movement in two parts, involving children and their parents.
“The kids help sell it, too, and if I can get them really excited they see it as a positive, and for some in orchestra they really excel, where as in other areas they might not,” she said. “The parents also know they’re already paying for an instrument and decide on giving them extra opportunities to learn.”
Klement has demonstrated that the power of having an opportunity to play and being challenged works for her students. She makes it a big deal to play an instrument and perform, and the participation numbers reflect that. When she started at the middle school seven years ago, there were fewer than 50 students in orchestra; now there are 115.
Lake Geneva eighth-grader Maggie Gallagher, who started playing the viola in fourth grade, said orchestra is fun because of the choices and variety students encounter.
“You get to do varying pieces from classical to pop pieces … “ Gallagher said. “It’s really cool because you have different experiences as you go along.”
Making time for strings
What works at one level doesn’t always translate to the next. When students transition to high school, the demands for their time change like a tempo in a minuet.
For Jennifer Bayerl, orchestra director at Delavan-Darien High School and Phoenix Middle School, the key is the student’s involvement.
“As long as there’s interest, … then the class happens,” Bayerl said. “You don’t hear people say I wish I’d never touched that clarinet, they say I wished I had practiced more.”
Like Klement, Bayerl started music at an early age, playing the cello at 10 and continuing through Alverno College. She started directing at DDHS in 1996.
Bayerl has a fast-paced work schedule, especially during the holidays. Last year the orchestra and string choir combined to put in 15 gigs, including candle lighting at the hospital for volunteers and holiday banquets.
“It’s fun because we get out and do stuff in the community,” she said. “The high school string choir performed at the (county fair) meat animal sale buyers’ banquet. (T)hey wanted something a little classy and we do a mix of pop and rock.”
When it comes to putting one activity over the other, Bayerl said it’s a duet.
“A very large portion of the orchestra are athletes, and because orchestra is a class, when we set concerts for the year, we don’t go up against football and other sports,” she said. “We had two soccer kids that missed a gig recently, but they will catch the next one.”
Bayerl’s counterpart at Badger High School is Loni Gornick. Gornick said her program numbers are up as well.
“We are growing by leaps and bounds and our numbers continue to rise each year,” Gornick said. “Currently, we have 75 students total between three orchestras. When I first started, the orchestra program was at 45 students.”
Gornick also has a packed calendar during the year, including participation in the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Marquette University orchestra festivals, and performing for the community at nursing homes and events such as the Illumination Ceremony at Grand Geneva Resort.
In Whitewater, a community effort is the driving force behind a growing after-school orchestra program. In its seventh year, the program boasts 70 students ranging in age from fourth grade to high school, said Christine Hayes, a Whitewater music teacher who volunteers to oversee the program.
“Our district has stood by this program to keep it viable and valuable,” Hayes said. “This is our first year having a high school ensemble.”
A retired orchestra director directs the Whitewater program, and UW-Whitewater string education students help provide group lessons.
“Our goal is that budget situations will improve in the future to make possible a program that takes place during the school day, but in the meantime we have had wonderful district support for our students to have the opportunity to be a part of a significant string program,” Hayes said.
As to why only Lake Geneva, Delavan-Darien and Whitewater have orchestra programs and most districts in Walworth County don’t, Bayerl can only speculate.
“There’s no reason why there can’t be more orchestra programs here,” Bayerl said. “We have students from other districts open enroll because we do have a program.”
A universal language
In addition to students, parents and supportive administrators, the growing inclusion of English as a second language students is boosting participation in music programs, Bayerl said.
“We’re all learning a language together; music is universal,” she said. “Maybe those kids are really comfortable in a music environment because they can hear it, they can see it, it’s not a hindrance in any way.”
“When a big group of people play something together … all the work to get there is just exciting and fun,” Bayerl said. “I know what the kids get from it even if they don’t always know until they’ve looked back.”