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UpClose: Karina Lindsey

Mike Lawson • Features • February 11, 2014

Music With Attitude: Karina Lindsey and the Award-Winning Fowler Middle School Orchestras

Karina Lindsey has the Fowler Middle School orchestras booming. Although the Plano, Texas school only opened in 2007, Lindsey has quickly and effectively built a thriving string program, which now features 200 children in grades 6-8 in four full heterogeneous ensembles: Beginner, Intermediate, Symphonic, and Advanced Symphonic Orchestras. Last year, the Advanced Symphonic Orchestra was named the TMEA Middle School Honor Symphony, which is no small feat considering the competition in Texas. And this year, the string section from that same ensemble again received TMEA honors, being named the “Middle School Honor Orchestra” and given an invitation to perform at the organization’s convention in San Antonio in February.

            SBO recently caught up with Lindsey to discuss the nuts and bolts of her program, as well as the approach that has garnered her such accolades as the 2012 Marjorie Keller Outstanding Young Music Educator Award from the Texas chapter of the American String Teachers Association.

 

School Band & Orchestra: Where does your program’s motto, “Music With Attitude,” come from? What does it mean, and how does that translate into the music itself?

Karina Lindsey: The phrase “Music with Attitude” comes from my philosophy about the relationship between performer and audience. The musicians have to connect with the listener by showing that they are into the music, such as moving while they play, using facial expressions, gently moving the bow in a way that can create a mature sound, and so on. Being a successful student musician is not about how many notes you can play, but how you play them. I try to teach my kids to play with passion and to be proud of what they are playing – hence, “with attitude.”

Also, we stress creating beautiful sounds from the instrument through feeling the music physically (mechanics of arm weight and bow speed of course) and also emotionally. I try to teach my kids to play with passion so that the music comes to life. “Attitude” is a fun word I use to connect this goal with the kids. This is very challenging for middle school kids – but I try!

 

SBO: Do your students generally have musical experience before they get to your class?

KL: We are in the city of Plano, at the cusp of Plano and Frisco, and we’re lucky in our district to have parents who are very involved with starting their kids in music early and taking private lessons. It’s not just music, either – parents here are really involved in early childhood education for their kids in a number of activities, like swimming, violin, piano, sports, and so on. By the time students get to middle school, I usually have at least a few players who already have several years of experience.

 

SBO: What’s your game plan for bringing the rest of the students up to the point where they can play advanced literature so quickly?

KL: I come from a competitive background myself. When I was in middle school, I always wanted to try out for all-region, I wanted to be first chair, and when I got to high school I was involved in youth orchestras and all-state. So due in part to my competitive nature, I try to get my kids involved in that same way. Every student in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade gets to play at a festival every year. This is their orchestral competition, whether in my beginning group or my top group. The sixth graders go to Sandy Lake Music Festival, the beginners go to Pride of Texas, and the top group gets to do Peak Music Festival, University Interscholastic League (UIL) concert and sight-reading competitions, and sometimes one other event.

I get all of the kids involved. The experienced kids get to do all-region competition in the fall. And in the spring, I do a Fowler solo competition for kids across all grade levels. For this event, I’ll usually pick a couple of kids from different levels who are prepared to perform in the concert, and then we have that little solo competition within our school.

The methodology that I have is getting my kids more opportunities to play and to feel that competition, because that is what they’ll experience out in the world.

Whether you’re in music or not, you’re going to compete for that job position or that college you want to go to, so it’s good for the students to go through that experience.

As far as the classroom goes, we’re always preparing for something, whether it’s a concert or a competition.

If you’ve got the key players in your group, and they’re very strong and have some leadership qualities, you can pretty much get the group to go along with them. Not everyone can be in the honor orchestra. It takes maturity, and I mean that in terms of performing ability, not kids versus adults. It’s that maturity of playing more than just the notes on the page, of really bringing the music to life. When you can feel the emotion, beyond just the written music, and make people feel that, then they’ll enjoy what they’re hearing.

 

SBO: So being able to build an emotional connection to the music.

KL: Yes, and that’s really hard. That’s where we are right now. We’re working really hard with the kids to get that emotional connection. It’s not an easy thing to do.

 

SBO: Are private lessons a major factor in your program?

KL: I encourage my students to take private lessons and I think that definitely helps our students move forward faster. You’ll naturally see in any orchestra, band, or choir that students who take private lessons move faster. If you’ve got a whole class full of people who take private lessons and just several kids who don’t, you’ll see those kids who don’t have the lessons aren’t developing as fast as the rest of the group. It’s not because they aren’t getting it in class, it’s just that they aren’t getting the extra push that the lessons provide.

 

SBO: How many of your students take private lessons?

KL: I want to say 85 percent. I know that’s a huge number, and I strongly encourage all of my students to participate. I’ve also developed a great orchestra booster club, where we raise money to get kids private lesson scholarships. We do one fundraiser here – sometimes we do two if we need to – and we also run concessions at the football games. All of the money goes back to the kids, and scholarships are one of the biggest areas we use that money for. Even if it’s only a quarter scholarship or a half scholarship, anything helps. That really props up the parents. Private lessons in our district are 18 dollars, and if they get a quarter off, they’re more inclined to pay the rest and encourage the kids to take lessons.

 

SBO: What are the biggest challenges you face as a music teacher?

KL: There are two challenges that I personally face each year. The first is to get students to take private lessons. Actually, it’s to get parents to buy into the idea that lessons are important – which they are. I make it a priority to fundraise so that we can get students on private lesson scholarships. I also make it the highlight of the evening at our first parent meeting of the year (in August, the third day of school). My parents see how important it is to me and they believe it is important for their child. They see the awesome results with all the success of the program.

The second challenge is retention. Though my kids love what they do, and I really do believe that, they are also faced with so many options. Sometimes they’re thinking about high school credits or maybe even just making room for other interests. Recruiting is a year-around thing for me. I have to continually encourage my students to stick with what they are good at. I have to help them make good choices so that they can balance their schedule, and take the classes they want. Sometimes, I have to tell them why taking orchestra another year is better than taking a different elective. In any case, I am always prepared to defend orchestra and why it’s the best choice.

 

SBO: With the success that you’ve had at TMEA, what’s next?

KL: The tough part comes once you’ve reached a goal like that. Fowler is such a highly driven school. We’re constantly going for the next award because our kids and parents are so involved. The rule at TMEA is that you can’t submit if you won the previous year, so we won’t be submitting this year, but I think the kids get driven, and they love the competition. They want to be a part of this orchestra. I think it’s fair to the students to tape for honor orchestra and just continue taping to see what happens. I don’t expect to win every year, that would be a silly expectation to have – but I do want to make sure that the kids have that chance. That’s really why I tape.

Last year our symphony won. After we performed last February, we were exhausted. I’m not going to lie. We had a huge year of preparation for that. After you reach that peak, you crash, and you get real tired. But after a couple of days, maybe a week, I thought to myself, “These kids are at their highest moment right now, they’re motivated, they’re playing their best, so why not tape.” So I picked out some pieces that I thought would catch the judges’ ears, and – who knew – we did it again! You have to continue doing that to be fair to the kids.

 

SBO: What’s your approach to choosing repertoire?

KL: When you’re programming, you have to have variety. If you have variety, you’re going to teach all kinds of musical concepts. You might have a piece that has all pizzicato, or a march, or a pop piece, and having that variety not only keeps the students interested, but it also keeps the audience engaged. I’ve been to professional concerts where I’ve been bored because the program may have had too many pieces that were too similar.

For the top group last year, we did a baroque piece and we did a modern piece, so that pretty much took care of the variety. For our concert at TMEA this year, I have a pizzicato blues piece, a baroque Handel Concerto, a tango, and some other really unique pieces. I have that variety because I want my audience to really be captured when they hear us perform. Programing is really important. We’re selling it to the kids – we have to tell them and show them why these pieces are so cool. I try not to do too many concerts that are themed, because when you get into themes, you don’t end up with enough variety. The only themed concert we do is the pop concert at the end of the year, and that is just something fun we put together to blow of steam.

 

SBO: In the first few years of your career, what was the biggest surprise about the profession that you encountered?

KL: I grew up in Houston (a big city) and went to Stratford High School, which had a big orchestra program. My first year in Frisco was a bit of a culture shock. The orchestra programs here were very small (about 30 kids total) and orchestra directors were teaching at two schools. I wasn’t used to this at all! I knew from the beginning that I had to recruit and I had to work hard to reach my goal.

 

SBO: If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would it be?

KL: If I could go back and give myself some advice, it would be to play easier music at UIL. I think I over-programmed my first year of teaching and my top group at Clark MS received a 2 on stage. I was really bummed because I thought we did very well, but I guess the judges thought differently. I’m happy to say that after my first year, my students received consecutive Sweepstakes every year after that.

 

SBO: What is it that you hope your students take away from the time in your orchestras?

KL: When you’re 90 years old, you probably won’t be playing football or doing gymnastics, but you can definitely play music. I want my kids to enjoy it. I want them one day to look back and think, “You know what, I had a good time in that class. I remember Ms. Lindsey. I remember she used to really push me to practice and I loved what I did.” And hopefully they stick with it. I meet so many adults who tell me that they wish they had learned to play an instrument. Or you see doctors, lawyers, and other people who played music who move onto other careers but will still continue to play music in their church or community. I hope my kids do that. I hope they are able to give back with what they’ve learned.

 

At a Glance

Location: 3801 McDermott Road, Plano, Texas

On the web: www.fowlerorchestra.com

Students in Orchestra: 200

Students in School: 880

Staff:

· Karina Lindsey (Director of Orchestras)

· Marina Glava (Assistant Director)

· Yumiko Endo Schlaffer (Harp Director)

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