It is quiet in the orchestra room, and sinfonietta orchestra students slowly start to file in before class starts. Sinfonietta orchestra at Greeley West High School consists of students who have already been in concert orchestra or were advanced enough to join the higher-level class.
There is no way someone couldn’t know this is the orchestra room. The ramp heading to the rehearsal space is lined with basses and cellos and leads to lockers with violins and violas. Inside, there’s even more instruments with guitars leaning against a wall and more instrument cases inside a storage cabinet.
It’s 8 a.m. and the morning announcements start playing from the intercom, and the room sounds like chaos. It’s muscle memory for the students to take their instruments out of their cases and start setting up. Students are talking, music stands are clacking against each other and some are tuning. Only the occasional word from the announcements can be heard over all the noise in the room.
Tom Nugent is the orchestra director at Greeley West. His orchestra classes are only string instruments: bass, cello, viola and violin.
Nugent has the whole class tune together. After the class is tuned, the warm-ups begin. He said that the warm-ups help the class get in the right mindset to play their instruments.
“If I don’t have something to do to get everybody paying attention and hooked, it’s going to be 15, 20, 30 minutes to get everybody in a headspace to learn something musically,” Nugent said during a recent interview.
The warm-ups are laid out in a basic way, but everything in them is something that students will encounter in music literature. The warm-ups get students thinking about their left-hand placement on the strings, how to efficiently use their bow for different techniques and their intonation.
The room fills up with a cacophony of sounds again as students individually practice an arrangement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is the first time Sinfonietta will be playing the piece as a group. The students play the composition together for a few measures before it starts to come undone and they stop. Nugent asked the students to simply clap their parts, strip away the notes and tone and solely focus on rhythm. Once each section was more unified, Nugent asked them to play it on a G note on their instruments. Nugent said that there is a method to playing and getting the rhythm right is the first step.
Class is coming to an end and students start packing up their instruments and getting ready to leave. At 9:30 a.m. the bell rings and students quickly make their way out of the door and start the walk to their next class. The room is quiet again.
Concert orchestra class is after lunch. Concert orchestra consists mostly of ninth-grade students. Concert orchestra is the entry level orchestra at Greeley West, where most students start. Students can also audition to be placed in one of the higher-level orchestra classes. Nugent said that the pandemic put a pause on the growth of many middle school musicians, as there was no one to help or motivate them to practice during lockdown.
The students start to tune and then play a more simplified version of the warm-ups. They play long tones, a chromatic scale and some bowing practice before moving onto a recall method. Nugent takes out his violin and plays a short rhythm and asks the class to play it back for him. It takes a few rounds of this for students to gain their confidence and play back the same rhythm.
Nugent passes out the same Brandenburg arrangement to this class, and students take some time to individually practice. They only have a few minutes to get familiar with the music before Nugent asks them to play it as a group. The group slowly and timidly played the new piece, before they stop because the group wasn’t together anymore.
“I thought we were at measure 27,” one student said.
“I thought it was 29,” another said.
“Wait, weren’t we at 30?” a third one said.
That kind of confusion is normal when first playing a piece.
Nugent said that it is easier to see what’s wrong with technique on a string instrument because he can see it, whereas with other instruments it may be harder to tell.
“I don’t even necessarily have to hear them. If I see a kid’s bow going the wrong way, that’s wrong. I see that kid’s finger is in the wrong place, that’s wrong. Hearing makes the problems obvious, but it’s also obvious because I can see it,” Nugent said.
Nugent tells his students to use their pointer finger to push on the bow so that it can help with the tone, as notes were unintentionally fading out when students got to the top point of their bow. He has students play a measure, rest for one, and play again. This lets students pause and think about the music. Students continue this method, allowing them to think of one measure at a time and become comfortable with the piece.
Students start packing up their instruments as it’s time to leave, and the bell rings at 1:50 p.m. The room is quiet again, but it doesn’t last too long as the chamber orchestra kids start to come in. Chamber is the most advanced orchestra class offered at Greeley West.
The bell rings at 1:55 p.m. Chamber students set up their instruments, and only two minutes later they are tuned and ready to play the warm-ups. The warm-ups are the most in tune and unified that they have been all day.
Nugent handed out the Brandenburg piece to the students the week before, but the whole group has not played it together. He plays them the recording of the piece before they play it all together so that students know what the music should sound like. The students are still getting comfortable with the piece, but it sounds more put together than previous classes. There may only be one player in the complex sections, but they all jump back into the music when they feel comfortable.
They play all the way through the piece, and then the first chair of each section turns around to talk to the rest of their group. They give advice on how to play the piece and help their section annotate the music.
Aiden Datteri, a sophomore cello player, said that it just takes time and effort to play a piece well.
“It’s just a learning curve. You just have to learn the material,” Datteri said, “You figure it out along the way.”
Claire Willard, a senior violinist, said that thoughtful practice is what makes a good string player.
“I like playing along with recordings, and then I like recording myself and listening back to it,” Willard said.
When a student listens to a recording of themselves rehearsing, they can critique themselves and know what they can approve on. Nugent said that it is normal for higher level students to have more self-discipline and to have developed practice techniques for themselves.
They rehearse as a group for a few more minutes before starting a new piece called “Blue Ridge Reel,” composed by Brian Balmages.
It’s the first time that the group is playing the piece. Bow directions are messy, but the group stayed together the whole time. Nugent allows the students to individually practice the piece, and he goes to each section to give advice.
It’s 3:24, and students are angsty as they wait for the final bell to ring so they can go home. Once that final bell rings, they leave in a hurry in order to catch the bus or beat the after-school traffic. The room is quiet.