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The cinder block walls of Chopticon High School’s band classroom no doubt have witnessed many a melody played throughout the years, many a harmony come into synchronization.

On Monday nights, that classroom becomes the steppingstone for young musicians of all ages. It is the practice spot for the Southern Maryland Youth Orchestra. Now entering its third season, the orchestra provides a musical experience — with strings and wind instruments playing together — unlike anything else for the region’s young and aspiring music lovers, and they’re hitting all the right notes.

A few years back, a desire to bring something different to the area for budding young musicians motivated Julia Nichols of Leonardtown, herself a violinist and violin instructor, to get the orchestra going.

“Growing up in Vermont, I was in a youth orchestra, and I loved it,” Nichols said. “I have three kids who started violin when they were 5. I found out when they got in the school system, strings and band instruments were kept separate, and that was a total surprise to me, even at the all-county level.

“I thought it would really be so nice if it was more than that. I started thinking in the back of my mind that it would be great to have a youth orchestra in the area,” she said.

Nichols mentioned her intentions to a friend who, to her surprise, shared her enthusiasm.

“She immediately responded and said she had wanted to do something like this,” Nichols said.

The orchestra held its first rehearsal in January 2013 and held two performances in June and December. The number of children playing has hovered steadily at about 30, Nichols said, and the main focus is trying to grow the ensemble’s wind and brass sections, along with percussion. By 2017, the group hopes to have a steady 50 members or more playing in the ensemble.

Under the instruction of Anne Marie Karnbach, an orchestra teacher at Chopticon, Nichols said the ensemble is flourishing.

“She was just really excited about it,” Nichols recalled of Karnbach during the interview process for a director. “I had sent an email out to all of the middle and high school strings teachers to see if there was an interest, and she said she’d been wanting to do something like this for a long time, but she hadn’t been able to organize it. We watched her conduct it, and she seemed to do really well with the kids.”

Like Nichols, Karnbach had played in a similar ensemble while growing up in Ohio.

“It was such an important part of my life and shaping who I was as a musician,” Karnbach said of the orchestra she performed with. “I wanted to provide that for other kids. It was a life-changing experience for me. I knew it was … an opportunity for me to do what I absolutely love, and to provide that for other kids is great.”

When she saw the advertisement for the orchestra, Karnbach said she “jumped at the chance” to audition to direct it. The bulk of the kids she directs are in middle school and high school, Karnbach said, although there are couple of younger members. The benefits, Karnbach said, extend further than one might think.

“A lot of the kids are home-schooled or in charter schools, so it gives them the chance to play in an ensemble, which I think is one of the biggest benefits,” Karnbach said. “It gives public school kids the chance to participate in something not part of a public school day around here. This is the only opportunity like this down here … and it’s so important to play as part of a group.”

Karnbach said the key to keeping the orchestra in perfect harmony lies in an easygoing approach.

“I have to remember to keep it a little bit on the lighter side, to loosen up a little bit because there’s such a large age range. I don’t want to sacrifice the standards for them,” Karnbach said. “I’m a firm believer in a program that suits the kids. I don’t walk into a new season and go, ‘This is what we’re going to play.’ I say, ‘This is what we’re going to try.’ I want to hear what the group sounds like and what they connect with. Right now I’m pretty confident about where we’re going to be.”

Like many a teacher before her, Karnbach said she finds the most joy in the successes of her young charges.

“When I introduce them to music they think is hard, keeping them motivated and excited, giving them those challenge pieces and getting it to performance level is a big challenge,” Karnbach said. “I’ve got fourth-graders and seniors in high school, and sometimes it’s the seniors who struggle. [It’s about] seeing the kids when they accomplish something they thought was difficult. When they hit the part they couldn’t hit before or at the end of concerts, just seeing them be successful. It sounds so cheesy, but it’s such an amazing experience for me.”

Jacob Middleton-Day, a 14-year-old home-schooled student from St. Leonard, is at the moment the orchestra’s lone flutist. Jacob has played the flute for three years.

“It’s so beautiful sounding,” Jacob said of his instrument during a rehearsal last month. “It’s just so calming. It’s one of the more important instruments in an orchestra, so it kind of singles me out.”

Jacob said he practices every day for half an hour. He was attracted to the orchestra because of the chance to get such a unique offering on his resumé.

“It’s really fun. There’s a lot of cool music,” Jacob said.

Being the lone flute player is not without its disadvantages, though. “There’s a lot of intimidation I have to overcome,” Jacob said.

Becky Olsen, a 17-year-old Hughesville resident, is a senior at Thomas Stone High School in Waldorf. Becky began playing the flute but for the past eight years has played the oboe.

“I’ve just fallen in love with it,” Becky said. “It’s a pain sometimes, but I definitely love it, and colleges want oboe players.”

Playing with the orchestra is just one of many obligations for Becky. Along with the normal ins and outs of one’s senior year in high school, Becky also is an emergency medical technician with the Hughesville Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad and has been accepted to more than 13 colleges who have offered more than $500,000 in scholarships. Becky isn’t sure if she wants to pursue a career as a musician but said she plans to keep playing her oboe through college.

“I definitely enjoy coming here and hearing all the different sounds we have come together,” Becky said. “But my oboe is a hard one to tune, and so matching with the string instruments is hard.”

Thirteen-year-old Ben Ausenbaugh, who attends Leonardtown Middle School and lives in Leonardtown, said he was looking for a challenge when he auditioned for the orchestra last year.

“I felt like the school music wasn’t challenging enough, and the orchestra really interested me,” said Ben, a violinist. “It teaches you skills you really need to know and helps improve your playing. When the group gets it all together, it’s the best.”

At a rehearsal last month, Karnbach took the time to walk the group through what she had planned for the evening. When she was done explaining the approach, she wanted to take to sight-reading Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. She switched on the metronome. First came the familiar rhythmic clacking sound, then the woodwinds entered, followed by the entrance of the strings.

Karnbach would pause frequently to ask questions of the players, keeping the metronome going all the while. All eyes were on her, where she was situated in the center of the semicircle that band directors so frequently occupy with a baton in hand.

She’d get a laugh from the players, and as the music played, Karnbach would shout words of encouragement over the din of instruments to keep the music playing on.

The mix of levity and concentration seemed to work well for the group as they went through the “amazingly gorgeous piece” that Karnbach told them she first attempted in college.

“I will make you work, and you will get it, and you will all love every minute of it,” Karnbach said during one discussion break, getting a laugh from the entire group before growing more serious.

“It’s something you will be able to get and get really well. ... I’m hearing a lot of really good things.”



To learn more

The Southern Maryland Youth Orchestra is a full orchestra for students in grades 6-12, although younger students who can play Level 4 music or above are welcome to audition. Audition dates for the next season have not yet been announced.

For a list of audition guidelines and dates, go to smyorchestra.org.



lrenner@somdnews.com