A Family Affair

Mike Lawson • Archives • January 19, 2009

Lassiter High School of Marietta, Georgia, features one of the finest high school music departments in the country. While much of the acclaim has gone to the school’s stellar marching band which, under the direction of Alfred Watkins, was crowned Bands of America Grand National Champion in 1998 and 2002 the orchestra program, led by Carol Doemel, has been outstanding in its own right. In fact, Ms. Doemel and the Lassiter Orchestra just finished their second appearance at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, and they are only a year removed from being named the Grand Champions of the National Orchestra Cup at New York City’s Lincoln Center.

Carol Doemel has been the directing the Lassiter High School Orchestras since 1993. Prior to that, she spent eight years as an actively enlisted member of the military, touring the country and playing the trumpet with the Armed Forces Command Band. In this recent SBO interview, Carol shares how the idea of a musical family (from the literal piano-playing mother, violinist brother, and horn-playing, string-teaching husband, to the larger family of military bands and orchestras she has played with) has served as an inspiration in building this thriving high school orchestra program.

School Band & Orchestra: What was your initial introduction to music?
Carol Doemel: My mother is a pianist and a church piano player. My brother (a violinist) and I used to lay under her piano while she was practicing and we just thought it was wonderful. Her playing was so beautiful; it was really inspirational for me. When I was in second grade my mother started me on piano lessons. In third grade, she encouraged me to take up cornet with the local high school band director, Robert Greatwood. I immediately fell in love with the cornet as soon as I started playing it. It was my thing!

SBO: When did you realize that music was going to be something that you might pursue as a career?
CD: The piano, for me, was an instrument that I loved to listen to, but I did not really enjoy practicing it. I studied piano throughout high school, so I have some keyboard skill, but the trumpet was just fun for me, and I was good at it. You get those rewards that come from being able to do something well, and playing the trumpet was very rewarding for me. I guess it was probably in middle school that I knew music would be an important part of my life. I was playing with the West Coast Symphony Youth Orchestra at the time, and this is where I fell in love with the symphony orchestra.

SBO: After high school, you continued to study music at Florida State University?
CD: At FSU, I studied with Bryan Goff and took additional lessons with William Cramer, the incomparable trombone instructor. He was known for his terms “blow freely,” and “dynamic motion” important concepts that we brass players all wanted to learn. They were both a big part of my success at FSU. Dr. James Croft, the Wind Ensemble director at the time, tried and tried to convince me to become a Music Education major, but I resisted! Now when I see Dr. Croft, he gives me a hug and a look that says, “I knew you’d come around!” When I finished there, I was accepted into the Cleveland Institute of Music as a masters-degree student, but that’s when I met my husband, Chris and we decided to serve in a military band instead. We both auditioned and won positions with the Army Forces Command Band in Atlanta.

SBO: Why the Army Band?
CD: It sounded like a great job. We thought that touring and performing, while serving our country, was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss.

SBO: And you were an active member of the military at that time, as well?
CD: Correct, we joined the Army in 1984. I went through boot camp, crawled through the mud, shot machine guns, tossed grenades• it was great!

SBO: What exactly does being in the US Army Forces Command Band entail?
CD: Basically, we were ambassadors for the Army. We went out and did performances all across the nation. The person who hired me, and my husband, actually, was the former commander of the Army Field Band, Colonel Finley Hamilton. He was my first boss, and he was just a wonderful person and exemplary commander. He was inspirational for me, especially his excitement on the podium, and he loved and really cared about the troops. I learned a great deal from watching him work with us.

SBO: Was there an educational component to your work?
CD: Oh, yes. There was a lot of outreach. We performed at the Georgia MEA and did various school performances for students at all levels. We also performed for dignitaries in town opening of the Carter Library and that kind of thing. I also played in the brass quintet, so we had shows put together for various ages and performed for elementary- through college-level students.

SBO: At what point did you consider transitioning from performer to educator?
CD: I began to consider teaching after being discharged from the military. I was freelancing, playing in the Columbus Symphony, and I was principal trumpet with the Cobb Symphony. I had a family, and I was driving around all over the place it was just difficult to keep that going. My husband and I began to consider if we wanted a high school or middle school job as band directors, or possibly if we wanted to get into the orchestra field.

The Lassiter High School Orchestra Program At a Glance

Location: 2601 Shallowford Rd, Marietta, Ga
On the Web:
Number of Students: 120
Lassiter Chamber Orchestra: Lassiter’s most advanced string ensemble. They have received numerous awards and have been invited to many prestigious venues. The Chamber Orchestra performs approximately 10 performances per year. They rehearse weekly after school and meet in section rehearsals before school. Members of the orchestra perform in the GMEA All-State Orchestras, Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, Emory Youth Symphony Orchestra, and many area youth organizations.
Lassiter String Ensemble: The String Ensemble is comprised of 2 orchestra classes (String Ensemble I, String Ensemble II). They combine in after-school rehearsals prior to performances. Both orchestras require an audition.
Lassiter Symphony: Lassiter’s most advanced instrumentalists from the Lassiter Band and Lassiter Orchestra Programs, approximately 98 students. Repertoire performed includes Mozart “Symphony No. 25,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Cappricio Espagnol,” Chadwicks “Symphonic Sketches,” Shostakovich Finale to “Symphony No. 5.”
Lassiter Small Ensembles: The Lassiter String Quartet has performed at the Governor’s Mansion, Georgia Republican Convention, and many community events. Other performing ensembles are: the Lassiter Cello Ensemble, and the newly formed Lassiter Rock Ensemble, combining strings and rhythm section.

Recent Notable Performances and Awards
2008, 2001: Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic, Chicago, Ill.

2008, 2007: Invited to perform with Barrage, internationally acclaimed string ensemble.

2008: Heritage Music Festival, University of South Florida, Grand Champion and Adjudicator’s Award

2007: Lincoln Center’s National Orchestra Cup, New York, N.Y. The Lassiter Chamber Orchestra won Grand Champion and Best String Section. The String Ensemble placed 5th Runner-up and won award for Most Original Work (“Japanese Lullaby” by Keiko Yamada).

2006, 2003: Georgia Music Educator’s Conference in Savannah, Ga.

2006, 2001: Heritage Music Festival, Washington, D.C., Grand Champions and 1st Place in Orchestra Division

2004: American String Teachers Association National Orchestra Festival, Dallas, Texas (Placed in the country’s top 3 orchestras and presented an Encore Performance to conclude the ASTA Conference.)

2000: Lassiter High School earns distinction as a Grammy Signature School.

The orchestra was very appealing to me because I love orchestral and symphonic music. So I went to Georgia State University and started taking some classes. I had a string techniques course with Michael Dunlap that was very informative. He simplified it so that I was comfortable tackling the teaching of string instruments. It was kind of history from there. In 1993 Gary Markham, Cobb County Instrumental Music supervisor, hired my husband at a middle school and me here at Lassiter High School.

SBO: And your husband still teaches at the middle school level?
CD: [laughs] I made him take a job at my feeder school, Mabry Middle School, when it came up. He is just an awesome teacher and he is a horn player, so both of us went from a brass background to teaching string instruments.

SBO: Do the two of you coordinate curriculum?
CD: Absolutely. I know exactly what I have coming into the program. We discuss method books and what skills students should have by the end of eighth grade. It makes it almost seamless for the students entering into the high school program.

SBO: Tell me a little bit about your orchestra program. How is it structured?
CD: Basically, we have about 120 students divided into three orchestras, in addition to small ensembles. The top group is the Lassiter Orchestra, or Lassiter Symphony (with winds). Then we have the Lassiter String Ensemble A and String Ensemble B. I put all the freshmen into one class, and grades 10, 11, and 12 in another. We’ll combine the String Ensembles in concerts to form one large group.

We try to reach out and do different types of music with our orchestral instrumentation, like bluegrass or pop music. The Symphony has performed twice at the Georgia Music Educator’s Association Convention and the Midwest Clinic (’01, •08). We just returned from our second performance at the Midwest. There’s nothing like performing for your colleagues and other students who are doing what you are doing. [Band director] Alfred Watkins [featured in SBO June, 2003] conducted on the program in 2001 and was back stage running interference for us for the performance this year. Alfred is an inspiration for me. He is just a wonderful teacher and his focus is completely on giving his students the best music education possible.

SBO: Do you and Alfred Watkins work together?
CD: Yes, we do. I work closely with all three of the band directors. We confer and philosophize together. We also listen to each other’s groups and watch each other teach. The feedback we give to each other is so helpful and a big part of my growth as a teacher. That connection is invaluable for me. I learn from the band directors and pull information from every direction I can to make myself a better teacher.

SBO: Was it a rough adjustment to go from performing and having your own responsibilities within an ensemble to all of a sudden having all these eager minds looking up to you?
CD: I think “scary” is the most accurate description of that transition. It was probably at least eight years where I was just nervous coming to work and hoping that I was doing a good enough job, giving the students what they needed. I spent a lot of time talking to other orchestra directors and reaching out for help and guidance. That’s how I built the program by looking to others and asking those questions.

SBO: How did you get over that feeling of fear? At what point did you step back and think, “You know what? I guess this is going pretty well.”
CD: That’s such a funny question. I started here in 1993 with 22 students. Each year we received superior ratings at Festival, and we were accepted to perform at the Midwest Clinic in 2001. When the Midwest acceptance letter came, I finally looked at myself and at the program and thought, “Maybe I am doing a good job!” It took me that long to really feel like I was doing what I should be doing for my students. I know how important my high school band director, youth orchestra director, college directors, military, and symphony directors were to my growth as a musician. I hope that I am giving my students the best musical education I can every day.

SBO: Could you elaborate on what exactly that is?
CD: Being able to inspire my students to love their instruments and to love music. To have them go out and want to maybe teach or maybe not, maybe just to go see a symphony concert and appreciate it. I think that’s it, just to inspire them while, of course, teaching them technique, history, all the other proponents of a good music education along the way. I strive to make my students want to come back every day, five days a week, and be eager to learn.

SBO: How has your time in the military influenced your teaching career?
CD: Performing with military bands definitely had a big impact on my teaching style. I learned a lot about rehearsal technique and really brought that to my teaching. Things like starting on time the military bands start on time. They post a rehearsal schedule. There is definite leadership in all sections and a personal commitment by each player to perform their best. All of these things are necessary for a constructive rehearsal. Of course the leadership comes from the top. I was very fortunate to have commanders that felt they worked for you, not the other way around. I try to reflect this mindset to my students.

Another aspect where military bands excel is in programming. This is such a vital part of what we do as teachers. You must pick literature that makes your ensemble grow, that features the best of your ensemble, that is appropriately selected for the audience, and that takes your audience on a musical journey. It is not an easy task! Some of our band concerts went upwards of two hours, which is an awfully long time to keep an audience interested. Sometimes we made bad choices, but we always worked to improve each concert.

Carol DoemelI am currently a member of the Air Force National Guard Band stationed at Dobbins Air Force Base. These folks are another great resource for me, in addition to being great people to work with. The military bands have a camaraderie that I don’t think can be compared to any other organization. They are like a family and you know you can count on them in any situation. That camaraderie is something I work hard to instill in my students. When I see the friendships these students foster, it is so fulfilling. One of my happiest moments was looking at pictures the students shared on Facebook after their performance at Midwest. Developing that sense of family, of being part of a team, is what we all strive for as educators.

SBO: After your students move on from your program, what do you hope they look back on and think about from their time with you and the orchestra?
CD: That camaraderie and feeling of being part of a team. Enjoying the music. Enjoying the feeling of being a part of a musical organization. Work ethic. You know, playing a stringed instrument is not easy. You have to want to work at it. You have to want to practice and that spills over into everything. If my students can learn a G melodic minor scale and play it well and in tune with a beautiful sound, then hopefully they can take the same work ethic that they used to accomplish that and apply it to their job and their future, whatever it might be.

SBO: Oftentimes, orchestra programs in particular can have difficulty achieving fiscal goals because they don’t always have the exposure of the marching bands, which play on the football field every Friday night. Have you experienced this?
CD: If you’re giving your students something that’s excellent, if you’re making sure that what your students are producing and what you’re putting on the stage is excellent, if you’re reaching a high level, it’ll work out. Of course you’ve got to get performances out there and it is harder for us because we don’t have that Friday night appearance that everyone is seeing, especially considering the phenomenal Lassiter Band! We have to get the word out there somehow: concerts, getting the program in the newspaper, letting people know where the performances are, and it is an outreach. We haven’t done anything super special, anything that different from what other programs do, but I think that putting something excellent up on stage is the best way to sell your program. Those performances make sure that people know that we’re doing a good thing.

Orchestras are fortunate to have a wealth of literature by the world’s most notable composers. I believe people do appreciate classical music. Who can resist barber’s passionate “Adagio for Strings,” or the beautiful symphonies of Tchaikovsky? How about the young, hip conductor of the L.A. Phil by the name of Gustavo Dudamel? He is making classical music “in” and appealing to our youth.

We’ve also done collaborations with Barrage, an international ensemble that plays all kinds of alternative music. That’s something a little different, something that might draw in some prospective students who may not have been thinking about picking up a stringed instrument.

As far as outreach in the community, our “A Night at the Movies” concert is a really big community event. We show a dramatic part of a movie, and then we perform the film score. It’s really neat, and we have hundreds of people show up for it. This is probably our biggest community-based event, and we do that every year in the spring.

SBO: That sounds like a lot of fun. What other methods do you use to you help build your students’ interest in classical music?
CD: Another way we’re fortunate is that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is very supportive of the schools. They have an outreach program where you can bring in a string quintet and they’ll talk about their lives, what their instruments mean to them, and perform some classical music. I think, frankly, it’s appealing. I think someone playing a Bach Partita beautifully just enamors the students. There’s so much beauty in classical music that I really don’t have to twist students’ arms to sell them on it.

SBO: What’s your take on competition in music education?
CD: Well, we do perform in competitions. In 2006, we went to the National Orchestra Cup, which is held at Lincoln Center in New York. I just think that competition is part of what drives us, and kids like it. If you have a positive outlook on it, even if you lose, if you did your best, you can use the experience to teach your students. I think it’s a great teaching tool because one day you are going to lose in life that’s part of living. Our group has lost before. But did we come out feeling good? Yes. Did we come out of it and not have sour grapes? Can you bring your kids around and say, “You go pat those kids on the back and tell them what a great job they did”?

I know there are a lot of negative aspects of competition, and I’ve seen those, too, but if you are also teaching character and sportsmanship, competition can be a very powerful tool.

SBO: Where do you hope to take your program in the next few years?
CD: I would like to do a little more with some of the alternative music. I would like to get into that a bit more for the interest of the students, especially, now that we’re in this computer age with all this new technology. Luckily, one of the assistant directors, James Thompson, is phenomenal with technology. We are in the YouTube generation. Now there is even a YouTube orchestra set up by Tan Dun, who did the music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The kids are all tuned in to that stuff. We need to not push it away, but use it as a tool. It’s one more thing that can keep these kids interested in music.

SBO: Speaking of new technology, are there any new hi-tech tools that you are incorporating into your teaching routine?
CD: We are really trying to get into Smart Music. We have dabbled in it, and the band already uses it. I think it’s a really nice tool. It is just a tool you still have to instruct and you still have to check finger positions and all of that but it’s fun to use and I hope by next year we will have it going pretty well.

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