Up Close: Teaching “The Real Thing”

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 19, 2006

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By Christian Wissmuller

For the past 17 years, Sarah
Fitzgerald has been a string
orchestra teacher in Charleston
County, South Carolina. The
Charleston County School of
the Arts (SOA) High School
Orchestra, which she currently
directs, is an acclaimed group
made up of extremely driven
students who have chosen
strings as their art major and
who receive 100 minutes of
instruction on their instrument
every day.

Ms. Fitzgerald recently spoke with
SBO about leading the award-
winning SOA orchestra, and
shared her thoughts on repertoire,
fundraising, rehearsal, competition,
and other factors essential to
successfully running a music
program – whatever the size,
scale, or context.

SBO: How did you first become involved in music education?
Sarah Fitzgerald: I really feel that I was called into teaching. As a Music major at Appalachian State University (Boone, N.C.), I decided to concentrate in education because it was the only major which allowed me to learn a little about all the instruments. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that I loved music and playing the viola, so I majored in Music Ed. I had no plans to teach, per se.

SBO: How did you end up teaching,

SF: When I was doing my student teaching, I received an Honors Teaching Award from the university and, after graduating, I got a job at the same schools where I had student taught. Thus began my career in music education. Since then, I have taught general music, grades K-4 and string orchestra, grades 5-12. I also have a private studio where I teach violin and viola to students from grades 3-12.

SBO: How did you end up at Charleston School for the Arts?

SF: After teaching general music for eight years, I realized I wanted to go back into teaching strings. I took a position as an itinerate strings teacher in the West Ashley district of Charleston County. In my five years in West Ashley, I traveled to five elementary schools, two
middle schools, and the high school.

SBO: Quite a busy schedule. Seemingly you were a success, though.

SF:Well, the orchestra program grew from just a few students to over 150 in 2000. The high school program grew from three students to over 40. In 2001, the Fine Arts coordinator for our county told me of an opening at the Charleston County School of the Arts. I applied for the job and got it. It was really hard leaving West Ashley and the kids that I had gotten to know and love, but the change was good for me. I have grown as a musician and a teacher at this school. It is a challenging job, but worth the extra work.

SBO: What do you feel makes SOA’s programs stand out?

SF: The support of the administration and the parents makes this a very strong orchestra program. Also, the students are very talented and motivated to become proficient on their instruments.

SBO: How, exactly, do the parents aid the overall program?

SF: They support their children’s music education through private lessons, extra-curricular activities, purchasing quality instruments, and assisting the school.

SBO: Do you have any official booster program, fundraising efforts, et cetera?

SF: I started the high school boosters club the first year I was here and it has been a great addition to the orchestra class. The parents are happy to be involved with their children’s school experience and they get to know the other students as well. We have some very happy fundraisers: an annual oyster roast at a local restaurant located on a river with a gorgeous marsh view, and an annual contra dance – a Celtic square dance with a fiddle band composed of students from our orchestra. They have both grown into community events.

SBO: You also feel the administration backs you up?
SF: Certainly. The principal of our school, Rose Maree Myers, understands the value of arts in education and supports our program with adequate funding and facilities. She’s wonderful about funding our arts programs. I have been able to build a respectable library of string orchestra, symphony orchestra, and chamber music since I have been here. Ms. Myers makes sure we have adequate equipment for the class needs: stands, chairs, basses & cellos, bows, rosin, rock stops, methods and etude books, et cetera. She promotes collaboration between the academic faculty and the members of the arts faculty. Without that kind of backing, the programs that exist at our school would not be.

SBO: What’s your relationship with the other music teachers?
SF: The middle school orchestra director is a strong teacher who brings the students to a solid level of playing. The kids come into the high school orchestra with a good sense of rhythm, intonation, and good tone production. They are prepared to perform more advanced music when they reach the ninth grade. Also, the high school band director, vocal director, and piano director work closely together to create an excellent music program overall. The outstanding performances that come from our school are because of this collaboration.

SBO: Your string orchestra has really made a name for itself – how has the program changed since you came on board?
SF: In my years at the Charleston County School of the Arts, the orchestra program has grown from 30 students to 49 in the string orchestra. This year, we were able to implement the full orchestra as a regular class during the school day, which has expanded the class to 64 students. The orchestra is now the largest performing group in the school.

SBO: Your performances have even been featured on NPR, I believe?
SF: Yes, our concerts have been broadcast on National Public Radio’s “Carolina Concerts” program, aired on Monday nights.

SBO: How many concerts does the string orchestra perform, per year?

SF: We have three major concerts during the year: a winter concert, a Masterworks concert in the spring, and our Senior Thesis concerto concert at the end of the school year.

SBO: What does the Masterworks concert involve?

SF: The Masterworks concert began three years ago when the high school vocal director and I put together Mozart’s Requiem Mass for the spring. We rented the large auditorium downtown and gave the students the opportunity to experience a professional performance in a professional venue. It was so successful that
we decided to continue. Last year, we performed music from The Romantic Masters, Beethoven’s sixth Symphony (1st movement) and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, with Schubert’s Mass in G as our collaborative piece. This spring we will celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday with a Mostly Mozart performance. A partial list of pieces we will be performing are the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, the Regina Coeli, the Concertone for 2 violins, and the Horn Concerto with the high school band director on French Horn.

SBO: I see. And the Senior Thesis concerto concert?
SF: Well, seniors who wish to graduate with a Senior Thesis certificate must prepare one movement of a concerto, to be performed with the orchestra, and a chamber piece, usually a quartet or trio. In addition to studying these pieces during their senior year, seniors must have reached a certain level of performance before they are considered for the Senior Thesis program. During the freshman, sophomore, and junior years, students must pass a jury each semester and reach one of four playing levels: Proficient, Commendable, Distinguished, or Accomplished. In order to be considered for the Senior Thesis program, students must have attained the distinguished level by the end of their junior year.

SBO: What competitions do your kids participate in regularly?
SF: Competitions include our state events, SC Concert Festival and SC Solo & Ensemble Festival. High school students audition every year for Region orchestra and All-State orchestra.

SBO: What other festivals or competitions have you taken part in?
SF: We have also been to the Grand National Adjudicator’s Invitational in Chattanooga, Tenn. where our string orchestra took top honors and five students received the outstanding soloist awards for their performance of Vivaldi’s Four Violin Concerto in B minor. This year we have been invited to represent South Carolina in the Festival of the States in Washington, D.C.

SBO: How about travel?
SF: Each year we take a trip up to Boone, NC to Appalachian State University to have a side-by-side rehearsal with their orchestra. The students get a good taste of university life and the next day we go snow skiing. We have also traveled to Chattanooga for the Grand NAI and we will be going to Philadelphia and Washington DC this spring. Additionally, the students travel around the community to perform benefits and civic performances. The kids seem to enjoy the bus ride together as much as playing.

SBO: What do you hope the kids take away from travel outside of the local area?
SF: I feel a trip with the orchestra helps the students to bond together, become friends, and facilitate the “group mind.” An outstanding orchestra cannot survive with constant quarreling and animosity between the members. As often as possible, minor disagreements and problems should be solved by the students, without the intervention of a teacher. Everyone needs to feel like a part of the team and traveling together is a good way to promote closeness and a family-like atmosphere.

SBO: How do you select repertoire?
SF: I spend a lot of time listening to National Public Radio and when I hear a piece that is interesting, I check it out. I am performing with a symphony in a town near Charleston and when we play pieces that are fun, I bring them to my orchestra. I also remember which pieces I really enjoyed playing during my high school and college experience and I bring those pieces to the kids. I play the viola and I figure if the viola part is fun, the rest of the piece is fun, also.

SBO: How often do you rehearse the students?

SF: At the School of the Arts (SOA) students have their major art area for 100 minutes every day. On A days, I meet with the students in small classes according to their year in school. During the small classes we work on technique and chamber music. On B days, the orchestra meets as an ensemble and rehearses symphony music.

SBO: Do you ever perform with your students? If so, do you feel there’s an upside to that approach?
SF: I have been known to play either viola or second violin with the students when another director is conducting. I particularly enjoyed sitting in the back of the viola section during Mozart’s Requiem while the high school vocal director conducted the orchestra and chorus.

SBO: Though yours seems to be a story rife with success, there must still be frustrating aspects to teaching.
SF: I’d say that the most frustrating thing for me is when students give up without even trying. It is so hard to see students who have so much potential, but waste it by not practicing or making the effort to become better on their instrument.

SBO: A successful and growing program, community and administrative support – You’ve already accomplished so much; what hopes do you have for the future?

SF: I am looking forward to becoming a better conductor and seeing the growth of the symphony orchestra class. I am hoping to add a chamber music class for quartets and trios. I have started teaching a music technology class this year and I love it. I hope to be able to add a Music Tech II class next year as well.

SBO: What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of your job?
SF: First and foremost is my paycheck (laughs). Just kidding! I truly enjoy being able to come to school each day and listen to great music. This group plays the real thing…not arrangements or editions. It is awesome to be able to hear Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn, and others during the school day. Also, I love being able to watch the students’ progress from the time they enter the orchestra in 9th grade and have that “deer in the headlights” look, to their senior year where they are leading the group and criticizing the 9th graders for havingthat very same “deer in the headlights” look.

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