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A Forward-Moving Orchestra

Mike Lawson • Archives • June 6, 2012

By Eliahu Sussman

At a time when headlines regularly bemoan orchestras nationwide struggling with thinning audiences and mounting budget deficits, Dr. Walt Temme is managing a thriving nest of young string players at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Arizona. Now featuring over 200 students split into five ensembles, the Mountain View Orchestra program seems immune to the perception of string groups as stuffy or outdated, and that is no accident. Although Temme credits his community as artistically vibrant and music-loving, he has also aggressively shed the constraints of conservative classical performance, engaging and challenging his students to utilize their musical talents in a wide variety of genres and settings.

In this recent interview with SBO, Dr. Temme, the Arizona Music Educators Association’s 2011 Music Educator of the Year, reflects on the challenges facing string educators, including balancing repertoire and building musicianship in the next generation of orchestral music lovers and performers.

School Band & Orchestra: What have you done to engage so many students in music?

Dr. Walt Temme: I have to admit, I kind of live in paradise. I have really good feeders that are bustling and growing. The teachers that feed students into my program are wonderful teachers and they do a great job in their programs, respectively, of recruiting and building the numbers. We’re also fortunate that the parents around here value their children being in music. We’re not the only place in the state like this, but we wish all of the other communities in Arizona valued music as highly as we do here.

SBO: There are reports nationwide of declining audiences for classical music and professional orchestras are struggling for funding, yet, here you are with a bustling and robust string program. How do you explain your success?

WT: Not everything I do is classical. One of the successes I’ve had is programming. No matter how you arrange the levels of your ensembles, make sure the music is appropriate to their technical level. Following my last concert, I received one of the best compliments from one of my colleagues that I’ve ever been given. I had five different groups play material that ranged from grade 2 up through the hardest string literature available, and the comment was that it was really difficult to tell which one was the least experienced orchestra and which one was the most experienced group, because they all played their music so well.

If you pick the right material for your students, they should all sound brilliant with what they’re playing. Picking the appropriate level of music is the greatest success for the educator. Hopefully, within that level there’s going to be at least one piece that not only stretches the students musically, but also is something they love so much that they practice the heck out of it to the point where they sound brilliant in performance. And when they do that, it seems to transfer into everything else they play.

SBO: Do you feel that getting kids excited about playing string instruments is increasingly challenging these days? 

WT: In our area, I don’t have to fight that. I do know other areas where there is an image problem. If you over-program for the string orchestra and they just sound bad all the time, nobody is going to want to be a part of that program. But if you get the right music that is appropriate for their level, you’ll see people thinking, “Oh, that’s cool! I can do that, and I’d like to!” But if students crash and burn all the time, I don’t think you’ll ever grow a program that way.

SBO: Speaking of repertoire, do you integrate pop music into your curriculum? 

WT: Absolutely! As a matter of fact, our last concert of the year is going to be a rock concert. We have a rock band coming in and I have all my students performing together to accompany this rock band. We’re all just going to have the greatest time – my students will probably remember it for the rest of their lives!

SBO: That’s one way to dispel the image of the orchestra as a stuffy, elitist art form! 

WT: There are a lot of community groups that are so stuffy that they won’t consider doing anything that’s pop, and yet, they can’t seem to find an audience. It doesn’t always have to be pop, either; there’s a lot of great movie music that is every bit as complicated and demanding as a Dvorak symphony. Our movie music today plays the same role as the opera overtures of the 18th and 19th centuries. Those were just popular tunes back then! Here we have these movies with fantastic orchestral settings, and I’m thinking, “Why aren’t people playing this stuff?” Because there are some really great scores.

SBO: Where do you stand on using simplified transcriptions?

WT: I absolutely use those. As a matter of fact, I’m doing one now with one of my groups. The Symphony is going to festival and we’re doing the real version of the “New World Symphony.” Well, my next group is going to the same festival, but they can’t play an original Dvorak, so we’re doing a great educational arrangement of the finale of the 8th Symphony. It’s perfect for them, and they do a great job with it and they make it sound just as much like Dvorak as the full symphony does. It might be a simplified version, but if you play it like Dvorak, it’s still Dvorak.

SBO: Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of your program for a moment. How has the orchestra at Mountain View High School evolved in the time that you’ve been there?

WT: This is my 17th year here. When I first got here, there were two orchestras and a small country band-style ensemble. I wasn’t going to teach country band, so we started a chamber orchestra. Everything was in the fledgling stages, and it was all about quality – my philosophy was if we can raise the quality of every group to a specific level, we’ll see what happens. And once we started doing that, more and more kids started signing up for the program.

Within a couple of years, I had four orchestras and that worked really well for quite a while. The area will only generate so many string kids. It seemed to level out at a number that worked well for the four orchestras.

Up through last year, we were a three-year high school. This year we added ninth graders, so we’re now a four-year high school. With that, we added an extra orchestra. I used to have four orchestras and a guitar class, and now that we have more students, we opened up a fifth orchestra, and enrollment jumped from about 150 kids to 210 kids.

SBO: How has your teaching evolved in that time?

WT: I’m not going to make anything up; I’m more of a rehearsal technician than I am a nuts and bolts string teacher. I certainly demonstrate and model proper technique, but I’m not the guy who will go around to each student and bang on them about sitting up straight and holding the bow just right. I’m not that kind of a teacher. My approach is more to say, “We’re rehearsing this piece and I need you to play with a particular bow stroke, and to do that, it needs to be held this way.” Most of my teaching of technique comes from teaching the music, not teaching the technique and then learning the music.

Not everyone who comes into my program is the greatest player, so I certainly get my share of students who I have to lift up and help play better. The first and foremost thing I do with my kids is hammer scales. If they don’t play in tune, they aren’t going to enjoy it, and neither will I. We practice scales religiously. I take time to tune the scales and make sure students play scales with a good sound. That just does wonders once we start working on the tunes. If I had to pick one thing that I think I do that works well, it’s working on scales.

SBO: Do your students rely heavily on private lessons for more advanced technical aspects of the musicianship? 

WT: I have a fair number of students with private lessons, but that number is declining. Part of that is due to economic factors and I think that will actually change in the next few years. I have seen a small decline in the technical ability of incoming students over the last couple of years as well.

SBO: How do you counter that and maintain standards of quality?

WT: I go back to the scales and I teach technique through the scales – things like bow technique and articulation.

SBO: What would you say is the biggest challenge facing your program these days?

WT: Kids are spread so thin these days, and it’s not just the class work. It seems like every year there’s yet another state-mandated test, yet another requirement they have to take, and it starts pushing things out of their schedule. Students want to stay in our music program, but when push comes to shove, something’s got to give. Some kids almost get forced out of music because the schedule is so packed with other requirements. There just isn’t that much time for electives. That’s happening, and slowly. It’s such a slow trend that you almost don’t notice it, but I have been seeing it get worse.

SBO: Is there anything you can do about that?

WT: We try to work with our students and show them other possibilities, like fulfilling some required courses over the summer or during the A Hour, which is before the first class of the regular school day. By expanding their day, kids can keep music in the schedule.

But also, kids just seem busier and busier. They’re into sports and community activities – I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a kid these days! A lot of those options are great – I just see that kids don’t have as much focus with what they’re doing in my program because they’re spread too thin doing so many different activities. It makes them well-rounded people, but they may not get that one passage practiced as much as I’d like!

SBO: When you go to festivals and see ensembles from other schools perform, are there common things that you see the best programs doing that other programs might want to take note of, other than simply focusing on the basics and programming appropriately?

WT: A lot of that will come from the individual director. I know most of the people in the top programs around here. Many of them are, in their own right, master teachers. Our personalities are clear across the board. I don’t sit in on their classes, but I hear the outcome, and obviously, they take care of all the nuts and bolts and they certainly program in such a way that their students will sound really good. Whatever they program, their students are excited about performing.

It’s about finding ways to get students engaged and into doing the work. I’m sure we all come at it from a different angle. I have a few colleagues who do playing tests all the time. I don’t do a lot of that, to be honest. For me, it bites into my rehearsal time, and I’m too focused about lack of rehearsal time. I’m a rehearsal monger and I don’t want to give up my rehearsal time. I do testing on a periodic basis, just to keep my students honest and focused. I try to instill in them that they’re in here because they want to be in here. The ensemble relies on each student knowing his or her part, and if they don’t know their parts, the ensemble suffers. There’s a certain pride in that and I think most of my kids get it. Obviously, not everybody does – but enough of them do that the ensemble doesn’t usually suffer. If we run into problems, I let them know and then we have a surprise playing test.

SBO: Have you incorporated any innovative technology into your teaching?

WT: I would love to tell you that I have all of the latest and greatest tech things that make teaching so much easier, but I’m just not that kind of guy. I’m Mr. Old Fashioned. I have a stick in my hand, and we get down and tune notes. I have a computer, but I don’t use it during my instruction. I know a few colleagues that have gone that way, implementing all kinds of devices, but I have yet to see them achieve anything more than those who do not incorporate technology.

I don’t want to sound like I’m down on innovation, because I’m not. I wish I had the time and energy to invest in putting that into my program, but I’m pretty comfortable doing what I do. Until someone can show me how technology has made their program the latest and greatest thing, I’m not sure that I need to change how I do things.

There are some really neat things out there that work in certain places. There was a time when I thought maybe having some electric instruments around would be really cool. And we actually experimented with some things here, but it really never came to much. I haven’t instituted it into any kind of a class, and no one seems to have suffered.

SBO: What’s the bigger picture about music education these days?  What are your overarching goals as educator?

WT: The bigger picture is the students’ enjoyment of performing music. You can go just about anywhere and find a community orchestra, so there are some opportunities to play. And it’s really about appreciating the music; appreciating it enough so that they will go to the symphony and see Joshua Bell or Yo-yo Ma when they come to town; appreciating it enough that as adults, once they go out into the working world, they’ll help support the foundation of music, whether it’s classical, pop music, or something else.

Mountain View High School Orchestras At a Glance

Location: 2700 East Brown Road, Mesa, Ariz.

On the Web: www.mpsaz.org/mtnview/staff/wftemme/

Students in School: 3,300

Students in Performing Arts: 1,000

Students in Orchestra Program: 211

Ensembles:

  • Chamber Orchestra: 23
  • Symphony Strings: 65
  • Sinfonia Orchestra: 54
  • Pops Orchestra: 47
  • Concert Orchestra: 22

Recent Honors and Notable Performances

  • Midwest Clinic: 2001, 2010
  • Vienna, Austria 2009
  • • “Celebrate Haydn Festival”
  • St. Petersburg, Russia 2006
  • • “Meetings on the Neva River”

Superior with Distinction Ratings:

  • Area Concert Festival • 2010-2012
  • State Concert Festival • 2010 – 2012
  • AMEA Honor Performances • 2003 2005, 2009, 2010

Student Honors:

2012 National High School Honor Orchestra:

• 2 students placed

2012 Central Region Honor Orchestra:

• Concertmaster and Principal Viola

2012 Arizona All-State Orchestra:

• Concertmaster and Principal Viola

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