Surrounded by the usual clutter of a school orchestra room, the forest of music stands, racks of violins, cellos lining the walls, Dan Boyer was talking to a visitor when students started filtering in.
The students pulled instruments off the shelves and out of their cases, tightened their bows and started playing the “Titanic” movie theme without benefit of conductor while Boyer continued his discussion.
Boyer broke in just long enough to remind the students, all Verity Middle School eighth-graders, that his visitors were there to observe them so would they please employ correct posture and finger positioning. Then they launched into a second piece called “Dragon Hunter,” also on their own.
When they finished that piece, Boyer stepped up to his podium and led them through a series of technical exercises using a silver and orange No. 2 pencil, eraser side out, as his baton.
The students’ get-right-to-work approach is a mark of their commitment to making music, and helps explain why Verity — and Paul Blazer too — are among a handful of schools in the state whose orchestra programs have been awarded the coveted Gold Level on the Kentucky Music Educators Association’s Program of Excellence.
The Gold Level designation is conferred based on specific measurable criteria, including how many students participate in various local and state ensembles as well as their performance scores at band festivals.
The Ashland schools have achieved the designation for five consecutive years and this year’s award is based on last year’s work. “It’s representative of a full-spectrum music program. We do about everything that is available for a student string orchestra in the state of Kentucky,” Boyer said.
Participation in musical events is plays a big part in qualifying for the designation, and the KMEA wants to see a lot of students audition for all-state orchestra, play in extra-curricular ensembles, and perform in community venues such as parades and nursing homes.
Doing so demonstrates interest in deeper learning about music and broader experience in performing, according to Boyer.
Talent counts, and the KMEA checks assessments of performances at competitive events. The assessments also include sight-reading exercises, in which young musicians receive unfamiliar sheet music and are prompted to play it with a minimum of preparation.
Because the award is based on the previous year’s orchestra, this year’s musicians are taking it as a challenge to maintain the high standard. “We know other kids earned it, and we want to be the ones who keep it here,” said Lexi Smyser, who has been playing the violin for three years.
The motivation is essential to maintaining their musical edge, she believes. “If you don’t keep improving, your performance level goes down.”
“It makes us want to try harder and get the gold standard every year,” said Ben Fazenbaker, a third-year violinist.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.