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An Honorable Orchestra

Josh Harris • Features • January 1, 2002

The students in the W.T. Clements High School orchestra program are at the top of their class. Orchestra directorPenny Meitz, who has taught music in the public schools for 24 years, has never seen such academically-focused students. On a recent trip, a group of orchestra students met every night to study for the AP Chemistry exam. Last year, 32 students from Clements High School were recognized as National Merit Scholars. Many of the students are so intent on boosting their grade point averages that they have to be persuaded to stay in orchestra, which is not an honors-level class.

Those students who have remained in the program have helped the orchestra earn two distinct honors in the three years that Meitz has been director. Last year, the ensemble was invited to perform at the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic, and this year the Texas Music Educators Association has selected the Clements Symphony Orchestra as this year’s Honor Symphony Orchestra for the state of Texas. As part of this honor, the orchestra will perform at the TMEA convention in February.

The school’s Sugar Land, Texas, neighborhood has a substantial Asian population, and about 90 percent of the Clements Orchestra is Asian, Meitz estimates. The cultural emphasis on excellence extends from academics into the music realm, she notes. Many of the Asian students in

the orchestra have been playing piano or violin since a very young age. By the time they reach high school, they are playing at a level of proficiency that is far superior to any of the other high school orchestras Meitz has directed.

At audition time, students earn placement into one of the top two string ensembles by demonstrating their mastery of three-octave scales.

“This is the only place I’ve ever taught where I’ve been able to set the standard so high. Everywhere else I’ve taught, even the top groups, we worked on learning the three-octave scales,” notes Meitz.

No matter how high the bar is raised, the students continue to amaze her. An example is the number of students in her program who advance to the All-State Orchestra. The All-State selection process begins at the All-Region level. From that round of auditions, 43 students from Clements were selected to the All-Region Orchestra, which is comprised of 120 students — roughly one third of that orchestra hails from Clements High School. From that ensemble, a smaller group of students advances to the Area Orchestra, based on their auditions. Nineteen string players from Clements were named to the Area Orchestra this year. Students selected to the Area Orchestra are asked to submit a recorded audition to be considered for the All-State Orchestra, which reflects Texas’ cream of the crop. This year, 11 students from Clements have been selected for All-State — the most the school has ever had, and one of the largest groups of students from a single school.

School Band and Orchestra: The W.P. Clements High School Orchestra was named Honor Symphony Orchestra for the state of Texas by the TMEA. Could you explain the significance of this honor?

Meitz: It’s the musical equivalent of being state football champs. The road to that title involves submitting a taped audition. All of the tapes that are submitted are judged by a panel, and they take the top six from that round and move them into a final round. In the final round, the orchestra that places number one is named Honor Orchestra for that particular year and has an honor performance at the TMEA Convention in February. It’s a real honor and I can’t believe that we’ve achieved that. The competition is extremely high and most of the orchestras that submit tapes for Honor Orchestra are playing standard orchestral repertoire. They’re not doing arrangements; most are venturing into repertoire that was, until fairly recently, only doable by All-State level groups. I’m continually amazed at the repertoire that my colleagues are able to do with their orchestras and that, I’m finding, I’m able to do with my orchestra.

SBO: How long has the orchestra program been in existence?

Meitz: This is the 11th year the orchestra program has been at Clements. District-wide, I think it might be 12 or 13 years. It’s a pretty young program. The band and choir program have been here forever. I’m so lucky to have an absolutely fabulous band director to work with. Not only is he a wonderful teacher and a fine musician, he is also a really good person. And I know that not every orchestra director can say that. I really have to say that our symphony orchestra would not have achieved the things that we have without the involvement of my band director. He is at every single symphony orchestra rehearsal. He is my co-conductor. His name is Larry Matysiak. He is a key player in the growth of the symphony orchestra.

SBO: Please describe the structure of the orchestra program, including each of the different ensembles.

Meitz: The three ensembles are based on level. I audition the kids in the spring. It’s a live audition. I place really high importance on scales. In order to make one of the top two string orchestras, the students need to be able to play three-octave scales proficiently.

The top group is the Chamber Strings, and that has about 24 students. Membership in that group is restricted to sophomores, juniors and seniors. The next group is Sinfonia. It’s a little larger than I want this year — I think I have about 42 in that group. Chamber Strings and the Sinfonia Strings combine for the Symphony Orchestra. The third string orchestra is made up of two different classes. I had actually started out with four string performing groups this year, and in one of them, the numbers are just too small. Philharmonia and Camerata are the names of the other two string classes and those two combine for a third string orchestra. Hopefully next year they will both be free-standing groups. I have a really small senior class this year and a pretty good sized eighth grade class. This fall, we just opened up a brand new middle school and within the next couple of years, we should really feel the results of that. Up until this fall, we’ve had only one feeder school. With just one middle school, we’ve got that many kids in the string program.

SBO: Is there a set instrumentation?

Meitz: Instrumentation is determined by how many kids want to play beyond the minimum. For instance, six clarinets in an orchestra is more than usual, but we had a couple of really good kids who really wanted to play. Rather than exclude them by saying, “We only need four,” we try to make room for those kids who express an interest.

SBO: How do you retain students in the orchestra?

Meitz: The challenge is that because the kids are so academically focused and orchestra is not a class for which they get honors credit, the almighty grade point rules. Some of the kids will drop out of orchestra in order to take another honors class to build up their grade point average. This is also a problem with band and choir, all of our music classes. There are three levels of credit offered at the high schools in Fort Bend ISD. There’s honors credit, advanced credit and academic credit. The music students do get advanced credit, which is the middle one. But it’s really hard to convince the kids that four years of the same elective will look better on their transcript than that half a grade point or whatever it would be for dropping orchestra and taking another honors science class. From what I’ve learned from talking with counselors and college recruiters, the commitment to the activity is more important, but it’s really hard to convince the kids and their parents of that.

I sit down and talk to them. I tell them stories about a couple of students I’ve had through the years. One private student of mine, who’s now at Columbia, ended up graduating third in her class because she stayed in orchestra for four years. She truly sacrificed being first in her class because she stayed in orchestra, but she was the only Houston-area student the year she graduated to receive an early decision from Columbia. She was a National Merit Scholar. Sacrificing that grade point and that number-one place didn’t hurt her at all.

Another student who had been in orchestra at a different school dropped it her senior year and she was not accepted at Harvard. Her guidance counselor called their admissions counselor to find out just what had happened — they really thought that this young lady was a shoe-in — and the admissions counselor at Harvard told the guidance counselor that they questioned her sense of commitment because she dropped orchestra her senior year. So I tell the kids those two stories, and I know that they raise their eyebrows and think I’m just making this up, but as they’ve worked with me longer and gotten to know me better and understand my values, I think that they believe it a little more.

Another thing I do is I tell the kids, “If you stay in orchestra for four years, I will write you a college recommendation that will make you look like a god. I will tell them that I know that you have sacrificed to stay in this program and that you have a strong sense of commitment.” I make a point, when the seniors ask me for recommendations, of trying to make them look as good as I can and be honest. I really do admire these kids’ commitment to excellence and to high standards, and when they stick with the program for four years, I know that they have given up something in order to do that.

SBO: What characteristics make a good orchestra ensemble participant?

Meitz: Willingness to be part of a team, to be able to work for common goals. Sometimes the best players are not always the best orchestra members. Kids who are willing to do the extra things like help set up before the rehearsal or give kids who don’t drive rides to and from extra rehearsals. Kids who are willing to do what needs to be done, and not necessarily musical things.

SBO: How often does the orchestra rehearse?

Meitz: We have class every day. We’re on a seven-period day. The seven-period day is the saving grace of our program. Other schools are on a six-period day and that makes it so difficult to keep students in the program. Block scheduling presents another whole set of problems.

All of the string classes practice five days a week. We have symphony orchestra usually once a week after school unless we’re working for a particular performance. Now that marching band season is over, we’ve begun rehearsing symphony twice a week. I have some sectionals scheduled after school. I try not to do those in a week that we already have two symphony orchestra rehearsals scheduled. Again, the kids’ time is so valuable and I know that orchestra is not the only thing that they do, and I try to be respectful of that. In turn, I ask for them to be committed to coming to the rehearsals we have and making maximum use of that time so we don’t feel like we have to be scheduling extra rehearsals all the time. I think it’s really important for me to let the kids know well in advance when we do have things outside of the school day, so I give them a schedule at the beginning of the year. When I add things in, I try to give them at least a week’s notice so they can shuffle things around. It’s really easy to burn kids out when you have something every day after school.

SBO: Texas has a reputation and the perception of being a big marching band state. How does orchestra fit in?

Meitz: I think the perception of Texas being a marching band state goes hand in hand with the football aspect. There are many really fine school music programs that have wonderful orchestras. There are so many fine programs that are thoughtfully structured from an administrative point of view, well set-up — structured to succeed. The tradition of strong orchestras in Texas is — I don’t know if I’m going out on limb to say this — as strong as that of the bands. I think if you go back over programs from the Midwest Clinic from past years, you’ll find that Texas orchestras are well represented. I can think of — just in the Houston area — four or five string programs that are less than 10 years old. The program where I am, being one of those examples, has just blossomed very quickly.

In the state as a whole, I would guess there are more new programs than programs folding. I think that the state of orchestras continues to rise both in quality and quantity. I really don’t have a perspective for outside of the state. Though I have friends that teach in other states, I don’t know how their programs compare to others in that way.

SBO: What is your approach to teaching the orchestra ensembles?

Meitz: For one thing, I do approach the different levels differently. In the younger levels, I spend quite a bit of time trying to teach technique — shifting, upper positions, vibrato. For every orchestra teacher everywhere, intonation is something you work on teaching all the time. Bowing styles, bow use and distribution, tone production — this is very basic. In my younger two classes, I spend a lot of time teaching those kinds of skills, both with technical exercises — for lack of a better term — and through the repertoire. I try, with those younger classes, to choose repertoire that will continue to build the skills that we’re working on through the technical things that we do and stretch the kids, but not so much as to overwhelm them, to still allow them to sound well prepared and well trained in performances. With the more advanced classes, I spend less time specifically on the technical aspects of playing, but teach that more through the repertoire. We still, daily, start with either a scale or a technical warm-up. The decision of what I start with is often based on what repertoire we’re going to play first. If a piece is in the key of F and has a lot of high work for the violins, we’ll play an F-major scale and drill that third octave, that kind of thing.

SBO: How do you grade student participation in the orchestra program?

Meitz: The students are given a daily grade for participation, and that’s basically having their instrument and their music there. When we have an outside-of-school rehearsal, they’re given a grade for that. If they’re absent, they can make up that rehearsal. My make-up policy is that they make me a tape of the music that we rehearsed. I grade it totally on completion of task. I tell the kids, “Unless I think you’re trying to torture me” — and that has yet to happen — “I give you credit.” If it’s an excused absence, they get full credit. If it’s unexcused, they get partial credit.

The grading structure in our system is daily grades and major grades. The major grades are weighted more heavily. Usually if I do a test, especially in the more advanced classes, I’ll have them do that on tape. I’ll have the younger classes do it live. We’ve most recently been working on learning the high octave scale, so when we test in both of the younger classes, I’ll have them play it through once. Then I’ll give them immediate feedback and have them play it again, and sometimes a third time so that they’re right away knowing what they need to do, and oftentimes, they can hear the difference right away.

I’m really trying to focus on the younger classes. Our objective in these classes is to give students the skills so that, come spring, when they audition, they can get into one of the classes that’s in symphony.

SBO: What is the most challenging aspect of directing the orchestra program?

Meitz: Finding the time to do all of the detail things that need to done — everything from my own score study to preparing parts, putting in bowings and fingerings, having time to do things like planning trips, ordering T-shirts, fundraising, assigning uniforms, making sure you have printed programs for a concert. The biggest challenge is finding time to do all of those things that go into making a program successful.

SBO: What are your goals for the orchestra program?

Meitz: That’s something I’ve been thinking of because we’ve just achieved two of the goals that I’ve had much sooner than I thought we would — those being Midwest and TMEA Honor Orchestra. One of the goals is to establish traditions for the Clements Orchestra, things like trips and those kind of traditions. Also, TMEA chooses both a string and a symphony honor orchestra and I would love to achieve having a string honor orchestra. I would love to take my kids to perform in Carnegie Hall. Before we can do that, we’ve got to establish traveling as a priority with the majority of the kids, which it isn’t right now.

UpClose appeared on pages 22 — 28 in the January issue of School Band and Orchestra.

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