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Liz and Jon Handman

Josh Harris • Archives • January 11, 2013

By Eliahu Sussman

New York’s Arlington Central School District covers a wide geographic area near the city of Poughkeepsie in the Hudson Valley. Thanks in part to its relatively close proximity to New York City, it has boomed in population over the past few decades, while also seeing a commensurate increase in art and music in the area. Arlington High School, the lone secondary school in the district, has been a beneficiary of this growing artistic community, featuring an impressive array of ensembles in its music department. Course offerings now include five concert bands, a marching band, two choirs, three jazz bands – including the Arlington Jazz Machine, last year’s first place winner from the Berklee Jazz Festival – a music theory class and several piano classes. The department also boasts three full orchestras and a string orchestra, paced by the reigning 2012 ASTA National Orchestra Festival National Grand Champions, the Arlington High School Philharmonia.

The two orchestra directors are Jonathan and Elizabeth Handman, a brother-and-sister team who have been working together in Arlington High School for the better part of the past decade. Jon directs the two most advanced orchestras, while Liz manages the freshman ensemble and the non-auditioned orchestra for grades 10-12. The children of a clarinetist father and a pianist/flutist mother, the Handmans are quite the musical family. “Some families are doctors; we’re musicians,” says Liz, a Manhattan School of Music-trained violist who spent years as a professional musician in New York City before entering the field of education. Jon, a cellist, was trained at Oberlin College in Ohio, and their other sister, Rachel, is currently a professional freelance violinist in the Tri-State area and a prominent violin teacher in the region. What’s more, Kimberly Handman, Jon’s wife, is the orchestra director at a feeder middle school in the Arlington district.

Arlington High School Orchestra Program At a Glance

Location: 1157 Route 55, LaGrangeville, N.Y.

On the Web: www.arlingtonschools.org

Students in School: 3,500

Students in Music Program: 600+

Students in Orchestra Program: 250

Orchestra Directors: Jonathan and Elizabeth Handman, Lauren Regan (part-time)

Band Directors: Rich Guillen, Darrell Keech, Timothy Daniels

District String Teachers: Frank Camiola, Kimberly Handman, John Harper, Lauren Regan, Kristina Rizzo, Heather Sullivan, Laura Taravella

Primary Orchestral

Ensembles:

· Symphonette: 85 9th Graders

· Sinfonia: 90 10th-12th Graders

· Symphony: 80 10th-12th Graders

· Philharmonia: 75 10th-12th Graders

Recent Accomplishments:

Philharmonia

· 2012 ASTA National Grand Champion Orchestra at the National Orchestra Festival

· 2011, 2012 American Prize – 1st place (Public High School Orchestra category)

· NYSSMA Majors – Gold with Distinction in 2010

Chamber Music Program

2012 Fischoff – Live Round Quarterfinalist

2012 St. Paul String Quartet Competition – Bronze Medal.

In examining the recent successes of the AHS orchestras, it should be noted that the program is bolstered by several unique factors. First, like other schools in the state of New York, music students benefit from a pull-out lesson program: on a rotating schedule, music students are pulled out of other courses one period a week for small group lessons. Also, ensembles in both the middle schools and high schools meet daily, in addition to the weekly pull-out lesson. Some of the top orchestra students that have room in their schedules and choose to, also participate in curricular independent study chamber music classes, which means that, when you add that all up, some students may receive up to an astonishing three full periods of music in a single day.

Beyond the high school, the entire region benefits from a highly successful private, non-profit music school called Stringendo, which was founded by Jon Handman and Emily Schaad in 2001 and includes Rachel and Liz Handman among its instructors. Stringendo features six string orchestras in the Orchestra School of the Hudson Valley, four ensembles in a fiddle program called the Strawberry Hill Fiddlers, and Summer Strings, a summer day camp. This supplemental school serves the double purpose of providing motivated students with advanced training beyond what they might receive in their school programs, while also keeping private teachers and their studios busy in a healthy symbiotic relationship. Stringendo’s top orchestra, Vivace, directed by Jon Handman, has also had significant success on the national stage, including being named the Grand National Champions at ASTA’s 2009 National Orchestra Festival.

In a recent conversation with Jon and Liz Handman, SBO went behind the scenes of this vibrant and prosperous community of string players.

School Band & Orchestra: Would you talk about the evolution of the orchestra program at Arlington High School? And how did the two of you end up working together?

Jon Handman: This is my ninth year in the district. When I came on board, I was the only full time orchestra teacher and the program was continuing to grow. There really should have been two full-time teachers when I got here, because there was that demand among the student body. I was managing these groups that had 105 students in one group, 95 students in another, and 80 in a third, and it was just ridiculous. We had more kids than would fit on the stage at concerts and rehearsals.

Eventually, though, a second position was added to the budget, and we were able to hire another full-time teacher, who, after a thorough interview process, turned out to be Liz. The district was a little reluctant to put siblings together, but Liz is a great teacher, and someone who I’d been working with musically for many years. We had been working together at Stringendo since 2002 and had clearly proven that we knew how to work well with each other.

She had been teaching elementary strings at the time, but decided that she wanted to interview to move to the high school when we had that position open up. Liz is amazing – she’s a great violist who has played on Broadway and used to play in the ballet when she was living in New York City, and she’s a great teacher, as well.

SBO: Liz, what’s it like working so closely with your brother?

Liz Handman: Mostly, it’s quite easy. Jon was an education major long before I even thought about being a teacher, so he was my mentor in a lot of ways when I first started down this path. We get along miraculously – the usual fight now and again, but no more so than with any of my other colleagues! [laughs] All in all, he respects the work I do, I respect the work that he does, and we learn from each other. He’s a lower strings person whereas I’m an upper strings person, so there’s a good fit there. He teaches lower strings in my orchestra and I teach most of the upper strings in his groups, although not all because there are so many more upper strings in his groups. We work together very well.

SBO: What kind of direction have you taken the orchestra in, and what’s been your focus since you’ve been managing the ensembles?

JH: Any transition takes a little bit of time. I came in with strong ideas of what I wanted based on my experience, which is where we get our ideas from in most cases. Prior to coming here, I had been teaching in a small neighboring district. There, everything was tiny. I had groups from grades six-12, and the average orchestra size was about 20-25 students. When I showed up at Arlington, it was a totally different world – the orchestras averaged about 85 students each! It took some time for me to really feel convinced that I had made the right decision. Basically, the first year was acclimation. The second and third years showed a bunch of improvement and things really started to click when Liz joined the staff.

One important step for the Philharmonia was using the lesson periods to form a comprehensive chamber music program. It took a year or two for that to really get going, but once it did, its educational value became immeasurable. That began about five years ago, when I started noticing that a bunch of seniors had free periods. I decided to try to coordinate their free periods so they could form chamber groups, giving students the opportunity to better maximize their time. I worked it out that there were two groups of four advanced kids who I thought would work well together. We went to guidance and had their schedules lined up. It became an independent study class, where they rehearsed on their own every day. The administration was supportive because they would always rather have students doing something constructive instead of just free time. This everyday component to the chamber music program has been pretty transformational. This year we have four string quartets participating in it. They organize their schedules with the help of the guidance counselors, and then they learn how to rehearse on their own each day for a 45-minute period. The kids love doing it, and it changes them fundamentally as musicians.

Another key step has been a grant from the Howland Chamber Music Circle to bring in a young up-and-coming string quartet for a four-day residency. These quartets – currently the Jasper String Quartet – come in and meet with each of the chamber groups from Philharmonia, coaching them, and then at the end of the seminar the ensembles all perform in a recital. It has been amazing– we get to hear some of the best young players in the country right there in the rehearsal room, and our students are coached by each of their members in a given year. We’re now in our fourth year of the residency, and it has had a major impact on our program.

Last year, after sending in recorded auditions, we had a quartet get accepted into both the live quarterfinal round of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and the final round of the St. Paul String Quartet Competition, ultimately receiving a bronze medal. After the Fischoff event, their executive director said to me, “I can’t remember a time when a public school string quartet has been accepted into the live rounds of this competition. Those slots virtually always go to groups from private music schools in big cities or college preparatory programs,” – and I believe she had been there for 15 or 20 years! Our kids were really strong players that worked really hard. They were not necessarily as strong as some of the groups that had national award-winning solo players, but because they rehearse every day, they really learned how to connect with each other. I’m convinced that this is what enabled them to be highly competitive as such a prestigious level.

At a refined level, that’s one of the big things that I’ve gotten going that has had a profound impact on the program in general. Kids see those quartets as something that they want to be a part of, whether they are planning on going into music or not.

SBO: On the other end of the spectrum, how do you incorporate incoming freshmen into the orchestra program?

LH: There is one freshman orchestra at the Arlington High School, no matter the playing level of the student. I feel that this is a very important social, emotional, and musical tradition to keep. Students entering the ninth grade are separated in so many other academic ways from their middle school peers that I believe long lasting friendships and a positive relationship with their instrument gets developed when the option for competition is removed from the equation. We work together as a team for our six concerts that we prepare for in the first year of their high school lives.

I currently have 84 string players in the freshmen orchestra. Within that ensemble, I create lesson groups of students with similar talent/ability levels. Within those lessons groupings, there is usually one or two chamber ensembles that are formed to work on skills that the more advanced students of the freshman class need to work on.

Last year, I had one lesson group doing the original, unabridged Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. We worked on it for most of the year, and then in the spring when the Jasper Quartet visited our high school on a grant from the Howland Chamber Music Circle, they coached my freshman group along with the quartets from the Philharmonia orchestra. At the culmination of Jasper’s residency, Philharmonia and Symphony perform a concert with the members of the Jasper Quartet. The second half of the program is a chamber music recital. The recital features quartets that have been working all year and receive special coachings from the Jasper Quartet during their time with us. The advanced freshman chamber groups have the opportunity to get coached by Jasper and perform in the chamber music recital!

This experience really ramps up their accountability and their playing. Chamber music, in any shape or form, makes you a better individual player. That’s my firm belief and experience.

SBO: Do you use those quartets and smaller groups to enhance visibility of the program, and for recruiting purposes and so on?

JH: Yes, we do it as much as possible because it is great experience and exposure for the students and a tremendous give back to the district and community. We have them playing on the stage before our big concerts, for the school board, for teachers’ retirement parties, district art shows, on the local radio stations, at local restaurants and for regional non-profit organizations fund raising events. Our classroom teachers who we work with are wonderful, but they don’t always love students getting pulled out of their classes for the group lessons. So when they get a chance to hear our students play, they have a better understanding of the value of the lesson program, and they start to get it. So it helps on a lot of levels.

SBO: What are the challenges you’re facing? In many respects this sounds like a great situation because of the in-class time the students have playing music, but there must be more to it than that.

JH: You’re right, we do have some nice benefits, but there are also challenges that the students in our district face as well. Our district is comprised of students that come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, so there is much creativity involved in getting students “in need” an instrument to play since we have a very limited number of district-owned instruments. We are looking to develop a more formal program that will insure that every student has an opportunity to play an instrument, regardless of their economic situation.

Along these lines, we also have to think outside the box to provide some of our students that are interested in going above and beyond an opportunity to receive a “private lesson equivalent” education. In order to deal with this, we’ll frequently have advanced high school students and recent alumni work with our students to help them along. In addition, we have exceptional music teachers throughout our district. These teachers do incredible work providing a comprehensive education for each and every student. On top of an outstanding musical and technical education, the students of these teachers come to us with that super important passion for learning. We also have strong support from local music stores and an amazingly supportive parent group, the A.S.O.A.

LH: Our success is not predicated on just face-time, though. Of course that helps – without it, the challenges mount tremendously – but we really succeed through demanding the level of excellence and accountability in students’ playing. Everyone has to come prepared, and there’s no faking or hiding in the program. Also, the feeder programs from the elementary and middle schools are unprecedented. The high level of discipline and musical accountability starts there. We are so fortunate to have our students as well trained as they are when they arrive at the high school.

As for challenges, I feel like I’m stretched in a million directions every single day. I have two children and a private studio of 17 students. My lunchtime is typically spent hunched over a computer watching YouTube videos of performing groups or filling out necessary paper work for an upcoming Area All-State or All-County festival.

SBO: Do you have any thoughts on cultivating an interest in strings among a region or student body?

JH: When I first moved back here, in 1997, it was a very different culture at that time in terms of string education. The programs were smaller – I think the overall school population was smaller, too. I do think there’s been a pretty significant increase at Stringendo and at Arlington both in the number of people playing and the enthusiasm. What I’ve found to be most effective is that students are attracted to something that’s exciting. They want to be a part of something that is more like an adventure than a dry learning experience. They’re also attracted to quality. When they start to see their friends excited about doing something and doing well at the same time, then they decide they want to do it. Siblings come along and they want to be a part of it.

SBO: Have you had any difficulty getting kids excited about classical repertoire?

JH: When I first started doing this, it took a few years, and it wasn’t until my fourth or fifth year that I started overhearing my students talk about listening to a Shostakovich string quartet or comparing Tchaikovsky with Dvorák. That was right around the time that iPods first started becoming this big thing, and I was shocked at how many of these kids were loading up their MP3 players with classical music. Even though I was pretty committed to my instrument growing up, even I was never that focused as a child!

If we can weave it into the social structure of their lives in a way that it’s exciting for them and make it something that they want to be a part of, then they fall in love with the music. There’s a reason this music has been around that long. From my own experience, I didn’t start really falling for classical music until I started playing it. I think that’s the hook for them, too. They join, then they get to a place where they can feel it in their finger tips, and then they just want to play it. We don’t hear students complaining about only playing the music of dead composers – it’s just not an issue that we really have to deal with. It comes up here and there, but in that context, that’s where fiddle is a totally different thing, because it involves more improvisation and jam sessions. And a lot of the students really enjoy that part of it, because it diversifies the experience.

At the school, we have a very special situation going on with our music colleagues that we teach with every day. The fact that we are able to sustain wind/percussion sections for three symphony orchestras is due to the tremendous support we receive from these exceptional musicians and teachers. I’m fully aware that band and orchestra teachers do not always get along like we do in Arlington and I am grateful for this each and everyday. Having these full orchestras gives students a chance to experience a vast and diverse repertoire that is highly motivating and exciting to perform. Also, a number of our students receive a thorough and well-rounded education as members of our wonderfully led choirs.

In addition, we bring in a group called the Sweet Plantain Quartet, and they play all sorts of alternative music for the kids. They’re classically trained, so they’re great musicians fundamentally, and they bring an amazing energy to the classroom. Our kids are interested in it all at different levels. Some of our more advanced kids take to alternatives styles – rock, Latin, and reggae – and that exposure is really helpful for them, musically and creatively.

We have 250 string players in the high school, and probably over 225 of them won’t go into music. We teach to everyone and we do hope that each student wants to support the arts and continue playing, but it doesn’t need to happen. It’s about life lessons as much as anything – the discipline you learn, and the concept of being a part of a group and a community. Those are lessons that are hard to learn in too many other places. Especially in the context of the public school day, the students are still learning and thinking when they come into their music classes, but it’s a different mode of operation – and one that I think is really important.

Inside Stringendo

Jon Handman: Stringendo is a program I started with Emily Schaad in 2001. It began as an extension of a summer camp that we had set up with Emily’s mom Carole called “Summer Strings.” The camp was designed to get the kids playing for a week in the middle of the summer. We created  an interesting twist to it, making it equal parts fiddle music and orchestra music, and adding a “Music Jeopardy” game that works miracles in terms of developing their rhythmic skills and musical terms knowledge. It wound up being really exciting and successful for the kids. It grew really quickly – from one week to three one-week sessions, with each one having over 100 kids.

We taught fiddle rote, and that really helped the kids with their intonation. The younger ones are mostly kids coming out of public school, not necessarily with private lessons. And the progress they’d make and the fun they’d have in a week made them come back for more. After running it for a couple of years, we decided to try to see if we could get a regular Saturday program going. We had a huge registration – with enough for four orchestras in the first year, about 120 students. Now we have over 200 students in six orchestras, and we have a fiddle program called the “Strawberry Hill Fiddlers,” which has four or five groups. It’s been an amazing experience being a part of that organization and being in contact with kids from throughout our region, watching their growth.

There’s a heavy focus on rhythmic independence. Emily and I both grew up playing in large orchestras where individual rhythmic accountability was sort of a non-factor. This caused both of us to make it our mission to address the issue. As a result, we do a lot clapping and counting, a lot of plucking and counting and we work that through the system. The payoff has been really big. Once it gets woven into the culture, students do it because it’s just what they do, and they’re able to play repertoire that is really complex rhythmically, especially when they get into their high school years. At that point, it’s not that hard for them on a rhythmic level because of what they’ve gone through. The smaller orchestras of about 30 students each also help to develop the students’ intonation and chamber skills. Perhaps most important of all, having six groups gives us the chance to place  just about everyone at the right ability level.

Saturday is the orchestra program, Tuesday nights are the fiddle groups. Rehearsals are anywhere between 90 minutes and three hours. It is completely independent in terms of material from the school programs, but we require that every student in Stringendo also be a part of his or her school music program. Most students in Stringendo get their start in a public school program. A typical path for Stringendo students would be an elementary school orchestra, their teacher gives them a flyer for Summer Strings, they come to Summer Strings and have a good time, they want to enroll in a year-round program, and then they start private lessons because they see the positive impact it is having on their peers. It’s a culture, and that’s a path kids can take. There are so many choices for young people these days, so getting them early is important. Not all of them stick, but the ones who love it stay with it. It’s a wonderful group to be part of. At this point, we’ve graduated 8 or 9 classes, and between five and 10 seniors go on to study music in college every year – whether that’s music education or performance or something else like music business or music therapy. The oldest ones are now 24 or 25, and they’re teaching in public schools and starting to get some good playing gigs. It’s early in that sense. We don’t have graduates in the New York Philharmonic or anything yet, but it’s neat to watch it grow.

I never dreamed that Stringendo was going to become what it has – going to ASTA in ’09 and winning a national competition was a really exciting moment. That really, in a sense, validated the work that we’re doing. It’s an excitement that builds enthusiasm. It’s also a tremendous amount of work for the teacher. You do have to be really committed on a heart level, as well as a technical and personal level. You have to care about the students you’re teaching as human beings, as well as musicians, of course, and realize that you’re part of a community and you’re committed to the community and its success, as well as the success of the individual program.

I’ve thought a lot about the factors that have gone into the success of Stringendo, It’s probably more common to see these types of programs in a big city, where there are higher concentrations of students, as well as more professionals to draw from, but I don’t see why it couldn’t succeed anywhere. However, it’s not something that can happen overnight – it takes a lot of time, effort, and relationship building among a lot of people.

On the Web: stringendoweb.org

Executive Director: Gabriella Fryer

Artistic Directors: Jonathan Handman, Carole Schaad, Emily Schaad

Stringendo Orchestra Faculty: Elizabeth Handman, Jonathan Handman, Rachel Handman, Gretchen Horvath, Kristina Rizzo

Strawberry Hill Fiddle Faculty: Carole Schaad, Emily Schaad, Ambrose Verdibello

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