Ignoring the smells of lunch filling Homer Middle School’s hallways, nine students gather daily around Tia Pietsch and keep their focus on the task at hand — becoming skilled violin and cello musicians and shaping themselves into the Homer Youth String Orchestra Club. With instruction from Pietsch, support from Homer Foundation, encouragement of Homer Middle School personnel and the commitment of the students’ parents, they are doing just that.
“These kids are amazing and fantastic to work with,” Pietsch said. “Everybody goes, ‘Oh, junior highers.’ But they’re great. They have great attitudes. Definitely, if we can give them these opportunities, they’ll be fantastic string players. And they like it. They obviously like it.”
The nine members of the orchestra club, all middle school-age, have been studying music for two to five years in spite of having had no consistent string instructor in the area and little hope of having it taught through the school district.
Pietsch, who grew up in Homer, knows that situation only too well.
“I played violin as a student, but there were no outlets (for performing) other than my own private playing,” said Pietsch, whose interest in music led to a bachelor of arts degree in music from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. She will complete a master’s degree in music education from the University of Oregon this year.
Parent Lisa Whip was inspired by Sally Kabisch, her children’s original string instructor who died last summer, to ensure that these young musicians’ interest in music continued. Drawing on Kabisch’s expertise in organizing grassroots efforts, Whip contacted Bill Searle, the HMS band instructor, Mark Robinson, the school’s choir director, and Glen Szymoniak, the HMS principal, about the possibility of forming an orchestra club. The response was encouraging.
“Glen (Szymoniak) signed on the dotted line,” Whip said. “He was really supportive. Without him, we wouldn’t have done this.”
Also supportive was the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, through which the club has gained nonprofit status. “And we got a grant from the Homer Foundation in the late summer for $950,” Whip said. That financial support was used to purchase necessary materials, such as music stands.
Whip also approached Pietsch who, with her husband Joel, established the Harbor School of Music in Homer in 2003. “She said yes, and then we knew we could do it,” Whip said of the cornerstone in the club’s foundation.
The students — six girls and three boys playing seven violins and two cellos — meet for 45 minutes, five days a week, at Homer Middle School.
“I have them there every day,” Pietsch said. “And attendance is the best indicator of their interest.”
In December, the orchestra debuted at the HMS Christmas concert. “Bill (Searle) said, ‘We’re breaking tradition tonight,'” Whip said of Searle’s introduction of the orchestra. “Us parents had never heard them play. And it was a total hit.”
The students also performed both days of the Nutcracker Faire in December. With instrument cases open for donations, they raised $175 each day. And that led to numerous requests for other performances.
“We had to turn some down,” Whip said of the overwhelming interest. Their next performance will be at Bunnell Street Gallery on April 17.
The club’s vision for the future includes weekly string instruction offered through Community School and eventually growing into a full youth orchestra.
Pietsch, who privately teaches younger violin students and is open to teaching a Community School class, said, “If we can keep this program strong, it will be something (the youngsters) can look forward to doing. … It is only going to get better. I’m excited.”
On Wednesday, the Homer Youth String Orchestra Club is sponsoring a concert by the Sitka Music Festival, featuring Paul Rosenthal, Sungmi Im, Ik-Kwan Bae, Marcus Thompson and Armen Ksajikian, playing chamber works for string and piano. It will be held at 7 p.m. at Mariner Theatre. “This is our big fund raiser,” Whip said. Money raised will help purchase orchestra chairs. Tickets are being sold at Etude Music Studio, Homer Council on the Arts and the Homer Bookstore, and are $12 for adults, $10 for Pier One Theatre Raven’s Club members, $9 for seniors, $5 for students and $25 for families.
On the same day, the club is inviting young string instrument players with two years of experience to participate in a workshop with the Sitka Music Festival players. It will be held from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. at Homer Middle School.
“The kids are fortunate to get to spend time with the performers,” Pietsch said. “In places where music is accessible and music education runs rampant, workshops like this are common. As they progress, they turn into masters’ classes. So this is an important thing for them to do, to participate at this level.”
Cost to participate in the workshop is $5.
Enthusiastic about the orchestra club’s formation and the impact it is having, Whip said, “It is making a difference. Now, it is a way of life for our kids. Violin is something they do every day.”
“It’s a community thing,” Pietsch said of the widespread support the program has received. “We’ve got to do it for the kids. This is doing it for the right reason.”