Parents often worry about the summer slide where students lose academic achievement gains they made during the school year. During this timeframe, they also hear cries of ‘I’m bored!’
The Montgomery Philharmonic is available to help with both concerns for students that play instruments and are between the ages of 11 and 19. This year marks the seventh annual Youth Chamber Music Festival running through July 30. Held every Monday for six weeks, students are placed into ensembles such as flute, brass or clarinet. At the end of the festival, the groups perform a concert, which is followed by an ice cream social.
“We wanted to have some meaningful outreach that connected with young people in a way that they couldn’t get in any other way,” said Sandra Ragusa, Montgomery Philharmonic’s music director and conductor.
Many students play in their school bands and orchestras, while others take solo private lessons, but most have never performed in a duo or trio before. Ragusa, a former California public school music teacher, would use the last month of school for her students to play small ensembles instead of the standard large group. “I like to call it democratic music because there is a democratic way of deciding how to play this (music),” she said. “How fast? How slow? How loud? How soft? Where to phrase? Where is the phrase going? All of those things. I thought ‘why don’t we do that here in Montgomery County and see who might sign up?’ We’ve had some really great success in it.”
Through advertising at local schools and through area music shops, the festival has had as few as 14 but as many as 68 enrolees. Ragusa expected 35 to 40 for this year. The festival, held at the Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, is free and no one is turned away. Even some 10-year-olds have attended. “As long as they can read music, we find a place for them,” she said. Attendance to all six sessions is mandatory.
Violist Amanda Laudwein, a founding member of the Montgomery Philharmonic, provides an organizational role for the festival by making sure rooms and music stands are available and answering questions from parents.
“(The kids) are always amazed at how good they sound by the time we have the concert,” Laudwin said. “It’s a different kind of playing than in a larger setting where you are listening to whole sections and following a conductor. With chamber music, you have to listen to the people you are playing with. It’s a bit of a learning curve for some of them, but by the time they have been with us for a couple of years, they are doing great. We have had some really nice groups.”
For many of the tweens and teens that sign up for the festival, it is their first time performing chamber music. Working in a risk-free environment, many test their creativity and make new friends with students from other schools. Some return for multiple years. “They get hooked because … you are being coached, but you get a chance at using your ears to help grow the music,” Ragusa said.
Ragusa enjoys watching the development of the performers. Many walk in nervous and afraid to take risks. They leave feeling confident with an excitement about the musical product they perform. “I love to see that progression,” she said. “…Exposing kids to this kind of music, it gives them a set of higher order thinking skills that you just don’t get anywhere else. If you are playing a solo, your teacher is telling you how to play it. If you are playing in a band or you are playing in the orchestra in your school program, the conductor is telling you what to do. To spend some time thinking about this music, it is a wonderful thing because I think that then that transfers to other things in life. It’s my goal to have thinking children and creative children.”
Founded in 2004 with its first performance in 2005, the Philharmonic’s community-based classical orchestra varies depending on what type of music its members are playing that season — from Johann Sebastian Bach to Anton Webern. Larger pieces require about 80 players and smaller ones in the 40s. The group, with varying levels of musicians, performs between six to seven concerts a year.
Education is at the core of the Montgomery Philharmonic’s mission. Not only does the group put on the festival, but also it offers summer reading sessions and the Bernie Rappaport Middle School Young Artists Competition. “We want to continue to build the orchestra, so we want people who when they graduate from high school or college, they come back and become community musicians,” Ragusa said. “I really believe in music for life. We also want people to come to the concerts. If they know about us and we have a real strong education mission, then people will join us in so many ways.”
Ragusa has chosen a half a dozen various ensemble pieces for the festival. Coaches, who are Montgomery Philharmonic members, help pick which pieces will make their ensemble shine and whittle down the number to two for the final performance.
“This (experience) is a real confidence builder because you really do have to have some intension behind playing your instrument,” Ragusa said. “It’s real scary at first, but the way the coaches coach, they are really behind the people and their leadership is amazing. They make it really safe.”
The culminating performance for the 2018 Montgomery Philharmonic Youth Chamber Music Festival will be held at 8 p.m. Monday, July 30. Admission is free and open to the public. For information, visit www.montgomeryphilharmonic.org.