Laura Mulligan Thomas: An Orchestral Oasis

Mike Lawson • Archives • January 23, 2012

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By Eliahu Sussman

Laura Mulligan Thomas considers herself fortunate, and it’s easy to see why. For starters, she is now in her 30th year at her first job out of college, the orchestra director at Virginia’s Charlottesville High School. And her program is positively thriving: over ten percent of the student body plays strings, and most of those take private lessons; her groups have toured nationally and internationally; and the orchestra program is the beneficiary of a wonderful support system comprised of both school administration and private donors.

However, it wasn’t always like this. When Thomas joined the music department at CHS, she inherited just eight string players. With the help of a healthy pairing of determination and enthusiasm, that number quickly grew, peaking near its current 150 students. While some might say that Thomas was simply born with a purpose – her mother alleges that Laura declared that she would be a music teacher at age seven and never wavered – she has also undertaken a consistent and forceful campaign to trumpet the successes of her students and performing groups.

In a recent SBO interview, Laura Mulligan Thomas details the specific steps she has taken to build her program into orchestral oasis that it is today.

School Band & Orchestra: How did you end up at Charlottesville High School?

Laura Mulligan Thomas: I was very fortunate to come into this situation [at Charlottesville High School] because there were only eight students, and it’s amazing that the program wasn’t cut entirely. There was a gentleman at the central district office who really wanted to see the program flourish. He felt like if he brought in the right person, the program would grow and thrive.

SBO: What were your thoughts upon accepting a job where you had so few students in the high school?

LMT: First of all, I was only four years older than some of my students, so that was a little odd. And the players were good, so while it was a struggling program in terms of numbers, the few students we had all studied privately, and they were also excited about the opportunity of growing the program. We started with some good energy.

I have to admit that some of them were not excited about getting an inexperienced 22-year-old orchestra director, but they’re all excited and proud of what’s become of the program since that time.

SBO: What were the first steps you took to increase the number of students in the program? 

LMT: When I started out, I taught at three elementary schools and at the high school; that was my full-time job. The numbers that had been recruited for me were pretty small, only three students from one school, five from another, and eight from a third. So I knew that the first thing to do was get kids excited about playing strings and show how fun it could be. Rather than approaching it from the standpoint that orchestra is a prestigious and lofty art that only the best can ascribe to, I really look at it from the angle of how much fun it is.

I started recruiting in the elementary schools, and I think I recruited about 50 beginner students the following year and every year for several years, until the point when I became full time here at the high school, I think in 1990. The growth we have experienced was beyond my wildest dreams when I started out. I just taught music that I love and shared my love of music with the students. I said yes to every invitation to play, whether it was for the school board, a store opening, or at the mall. We just went out, played a lot, and got some attention. People were noticing that we were pretty good and we started having some students join the regional orchestra, as well.

I learned from my band director at the time, who had already been here for ten years, how important it is to tell people what you’re doing right. He would always write up a press release. Even if it was only a trophy they’d earned at a marching band competition, he would write it up and sell it. In those days it was probably typed on a purple Ditto – that was a long time ago! He would walk it to the local newspaper and say, “Hey, look at this great piece of news we have,” and maybe hand them a photo, too. Newspapers love that. They want to put good news out there. We’re the only high school in the Charlottesville schools system, and there are only a total of 4,000 students, so it’s not as if our paper would have to publish the achievements of 15 different orchestras.

Being in the small division in a moderately sized town probably helps. We’ve certainly received a lot of media attention. And we started winning competitions, which also helps. As I’ve said many times, the goal was never to win competitions. The goal was to perpetuate this fantastic heritage of orchestral literature that we have, and to pay it forward. I had some fantastic music educators who influenced me, and I come from a family of string players: my older brother plays in the Baltimore Symphony, my sister is also an orchestra director, and my younger brother sings with the Tanglewood chorus. It’s in our blood, there’s no doubt about that.

SBO: Let’s talk about your program now. The orchestra group is broken up into two ensembles, correct?

LMT: We have the string ensemble, which is 52 of the top kids who are auditioned based on the all-state requirements. The rest of the students are in the concert orchestra, which is split into three classes. That’s more of an intermediate ensemble. The only thing I do is hand-move some of the bass players so I don’t have 10 in one class and two in another. We’ve got 150 string players this year, which is more than 10 percent of the school. We have about 1,200 students total, so to have 150 is great. They are the best and the brightest, no doubt!

SBO: What are the big challenges that your program faces and that you face as a music educator?

LMT: I’ve been told by my friends that I live in La La Land, because of the community support we get here. We really have faced very few challenges. The school division is so proud of our fine arts program. This community has sent us to Europe three times. We’ve raised an incredible amount of money to send teenagers overseas to be ambassadors of the city of Charlottesville.

We also have a great collaboration with Boyd Tinsley, the violinist from the Dave Matthews Band, who actually graduated from this program two months before I got here.

SBO: So he must’ve been one of the last in a dying program?

LMT: He was, but he was a rock star even back then. Everyone talked about him when I first got here. He was very much adored and idolized. He had that big personality, even back then.

Boyd actually supports our program in a tremendous way, and I’d like to give him credit because what he does is pretty much unheard of: He gives us $25,000 a year to pay for private lessons for students that can’t afford it, for grades six through 12. We have a lot of kids in the school system that are getting private instruction early on, so that is a huge key to our success.

We have a good amount of money for instruments and to purchase literature and so on, and I felt like we were well funded before Boyd Tinsley came along nine years ago. But what his gift does is even the playing field. Because the University of Virginia is located here in Charlottesville, this town spans huge social and economic strata. We have AP students and we have a lot of kids who are on free and reduced lunch – in fact, nearly 50 percent. It’s a really urban high school. So what this gift does is level the playing field for the kids who don’t come to the program with same level of financial support.

SBO: How did that gift happen?

LMT: Boyd Tinsley called a meeting out of the blue, and we met with the superintendent. Boyd is such a generous person. He was actually very emotional when he talked about all the support that he received when he was in high school from an organization that was called the Wednesday Music Club. They had supported lessons for him at the university. He felt like it was greatly due to everyone’s faith in him that has been able to become, dare I say, the millionaire rock star that he is today. He got a chance, and others supported him.

SBO: There aren’t too many violinist rock stars, either.

LMT: Right! Absolutely. Can you imagine how inspiring this is for our students? We have signed autographs of Boyd and Dave Matthews Band posters all over the orchestra room. Of course, that band was founded here. Actually, their drummer, Carter Beauford, is also an alum of the music program. He took music theory and played in the band program here.

SBO: Also a very accomplished musician! Getting back to your program, what are some of the other practices that you’ve adopted to really put your program out in the limelight?

LMT: We’ve played at University of Virginia sporting events. I put 100 kids on the basketball court, and they played the National Anthem, which they had memorized. It was a pretty unusual event, and we received lots and lots of positive response from that. And also, there was a tremendous audience! When else can high school music students play for thousands of people at once?

I send string quartets out to store openings, any kind of holiday functions, we play for the rotary club – we accept any and all opportunities to perform. The more these kids are out there, the better the community support will be for us.

Developing relationships with private teachers is really important. You can ask them to judge or coach sectional, for example.

SBO: The private teachers are also eager for a connection to your program as well, right?

LMT: Absolutely. What you don’t want is to have your students in two different worlds, where the private teachers have a way of doing things that conflicts with technique that I’m trying to teach.

SBO: Do you ever meet with them to try to coordinate that sort of thing?

LMT: Oh, I’m friends with most of the private teachers in this area. I would say that I’m solicitous of them because I understand the importance of what they do to the success of my program. I’m very respectful and very appreciative of the private teachers my students work with.

But I also develop strong relationships with the teachers and administrators in our building. For example, I’ve been doing the school newsletter here since 1990. At one point, I couldn’t get any news in our own school newspaper, so I offered to take it over. I learned a layout program, and I’ve been doing it for a zillion years now. That helps me learn so much about what’s happening in the school, and it makes our administration want to support us because we support them.

Another thing we do is invite local government officials to concerts. For example, we hosted the all-state orchestra and bands last year, and we had the mayor open up the program. Building good relationships in the community are really critical.

SBO: Getting the good news out there and making connections really fosters opportunities, doesn’t it?

LMT: The good news is important – goodness knows people hear enough bad news out there!

SBO: For sure! Speaking of, what do you think when you hear about all of the challenges facing music and arts programs in public schools these days?

LMT: It makes me sad. I wonder if we’re not just in a down cycle right now. I hope that that’s the case, and that the cycle will turn around for the better. I hope that more people figure out that the focus on technology and testing is not the answer; that we have to feed these kids’ souls and nurture their spiritual side. And music is a fabulous way to do that.

I teach in a very enlightened community – this is the only job I’ve ever had, and I’m in my 30th year here – so I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to teach in such a supportive community. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to teach in a community where the axe drops every year and people really have to fight for their programs.

SBO: However, it sounds like you’ve been fighting for your program from very beginning, with all of the advocacy and marketing efforts you’ve undertaken. 

LMT: Perhaps I’ve just been proactive about it without realizing it.

SBO: What are your greatest teaching rewards these days?

LMT: The little daily rewards are things like this young lady telling me that a piece we’re working in is her favorite piece of music ever, which just happened. I also have had some huge rewards. For example, I got to see one of my former students play with Taylor Swift at the American Music Awards. He was playing an upright bass with a beautiful German bow hold that I taught him. That was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. I feel, as I said, very blessed and fortunate because the goal here is to great music and to foster great relationships with these students so that they want to be here. My students spend lunchtime with me, they hang out after school, they want to play in string quartets – they can’t get enough of the music, and that’s my great reward.

I should also mention that we have an extraordinary elementary and middle school program, as well. We wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are if it weren’t for this tremendous feeder program we have.

SBO: You were the feeder program for a while!

LMT: I was, that’s right!

SBO: Since then, what sorts of activities do you do to foster and maintain a healthy amount of incoming students?

LMT: The Charlottesville High School string ensemble always plays at the Buford Fall Concert, where do a piece with the middle school students, which I get to conduct. That’s wonderful. The middle school director invites us down, and we play a piece on our own and then do one in conjunction with their top middle school ensemble.

SBO: Conducting the middle school students gives you an opportunity to demonstrate what they have to look forward to at high school, right?

LMT: Sure enough. It’s a rare thing that a middle school music student won’t sign up for ninth-grade orchestra. They’re pretty excited about coming to this program.

SBO: What advice would you give to someone who might be reading this article and thinking about how to get their program moving in the direction that your program has gone?

LMT: Sell it. You’ve got to sell it to anyone who will listen. Take the kids out and be visible. Prepare performances. Chamber music, National Anthems, get the kids out there. Take them out of the concert hall and out into the community. The School Board and all the taxpayers in the community needs to know about the wonderful things happening in their school music programs.

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