From a Note to a Symphony: The Growth of the Oyster River Orchestra Program

In her first year in the Oyster River Cooperative School District, Andrea von Oeyen had her work cut out for her. Assigned to be the district’s String Orchestra Director, von Oeyen was responsible for designing, implementing, directing, and growing the Oyster River String Orchestra at both the high school and middle school.

Five years later, nearly 220 students filled the gymnasium at Oyster River High School, holding violins, violas, cellos, and basses. After a year’s worth of hard work, students playing a stringed instrument from grades 5-12 gathered together to perform one last piece. This year’s district concert, held on May 8th, triumphantly concluded the program’s fifth year in the Oyster River Cooperative School District.

May 8th, 2019

Since the program’s creation in 2014, the Oyster River String Orchestra at both the high school and the middle school has grown in popularity, size, and programing. The orchestra, although having faced some obstacles, continues to evolve at both the middle school and high school.

Now that the orchestra has hit its five year mark, von Oeyen is looking to implement more opportunities for students to engage with their instruments in new and thought-provoking ways. Collaborations with the band program at Oyster River and the University of New Hampshire as well as trips to create a cross-cultural and musical experience will occur in the following years. With a new middle school for the ORCSD coming soon, the orchestra program is optimistic that certain issues such as storage and rehearsal space will become problems of the past.

From OREO to Orchestra

Although the string program in the district officially began in 2014, a small group by the name of OREO, Oyster River Elementary Orchestra, laid the foundation for a successful orchestra future at Oyster River. The program was taught by current ORMS Band Director, Sarah Kuhn.  Beginning in January of 2012, practices were held once a week for about an hour and a half, and the program was open to students through 6th grade enrolled in private lessons.

When I came to the ORCSD in 5th grade, I was hopeful that I could continue to play the cello. Because I was the only one in that section, I was given the trombone part to play on the cello. I found it very difficult and challenging to grow as a cellist in 5th grade when no one else was playing my instrument. Kuhn adds, “my hope was that parents would see how inequitable that was as compared to the band experience.”

The creation of the Oyster River String Orchestra came after a group of interested parents addressed the issue to the school board. One of these parents was Brian Turnbull, who wanted to see an orchestra program in the district. In another interview conducted in 2017, Turnbull explained that he was surprised that Oyster River was lacking a music program offering band, chorus, and orchestra continuing through to the high school level, considering the resources that were made available from the University of New Hampshire, right up the street from ORMS and ORHS.

“Adding orchestra to the existing band and chorus offerings seemed a no-brainer — a logical step — and, given the success and popularity of OREO, I felt the time was right to ask the schools and community to support taking things to the next level,” says Turnbull.

What was once a conversation among few has become a large part of the culture of the Oyster River Music Department. With so much growth occurring in the last five years, many are interested  about how the program will be developing in the next five years.

Growth and Challenges

In the school district, all middle school students are required to participate in a performing ensemble: band, string orchestra, or chorus. On the alternating Blue/White day, the students will have von Oeyen every other day.  At the high school, music is optional, with band and orchestra occurring during E-period on Blue and White days. As String Orchestra Director, von Oeyen travels to the high school to teach two out of three days, forcing her to account for travel time.  

Von Oeyen leading the 5th grade orchestra

In its fifth year, von Oeyen is very impressed with the orchestra. “The growth of the high school program has been wonderful and the level of music we can play due to that growth and increase in skills has been far faster than I could have imagined. It’s extremely humbling and exciting!” stated von Oeyen.

One very exciting aspect that has grown in the past five years has been the development of the bass program. Von Oeyen said, “I have tried to add an increase in our double bass section in the past couple years. It’s hard because we don’t always have the staffing to make that happen, but it’s very important in our ensembles, so I’m making an effort to do that. We have three bass players in the 5th grade orchestra, so I’m excited about that.”

Emily Schuman (‘20) has been a part of the orchestra for the past three years as a cellist and said that the biggest difference she has noticed is the size of the group. “[The growth is] very evident in the cello section specifically. My freshman year, there were four of us and this year there are 11. That is obviously a huge difference in both the sound and social dynamic of the orchestra.” Schuman concluded, “we have a lot of freshman that join every year, so we just keep growing.”

One of the biggest challenges that the orchestra has faced both at the middle school and the high school has been space. “Storage and space are always challenges in music programs. Because both of our buildings weren’t built when the orchestra program was around, there is no designated space for it in either school.” She explained that storage at the middle school is in the cafeteria and locker rooms and teaching occurs in the cafeteria, MPR, and auditorium. “It’s challenging to not have a designated teaching space because there’s not only a lot of equipment to house, but there’s also a lot of time devoted to set up and take down of chairs and stands.” Additionally, temperature of the storage space can act as another problem since “instruments can be thrown out of whack due to even slight temperature changes.”

The impact that von Oeyen has had is evident in how fondly her students speak of her. “She’s so supportive and she always can diagnose a problem, and that’s really helped me grow as a player. I’m very glad I joined the orchestra,” said Hoag, who started playing the viola in 8th grade. She explained that when she first began, Hoag was the only violist in her music class and when she came to high school, she was one of three violists. Now, the viola section has grown to be more than 12 players.

In addition to the increase in size that Hoag has noticed, she has also seen how much she has grown as a player in the last five years. Notably, Hoag was accepted into the New Hampshire All State Orchestra this past spring and had the opportunity to join musicians from across the state for a weekend of rehearsal and performances.

“The music we played was far more challenging than anything I’ve ever done before,” said Hoag, adding. “I was around people who have been involved with, not only music for a very long time and come from very musical families, but have been playing that one instrument for almost their entire lives.” For more information about All State, check out a video made by Alana Ervin at our website at mor.news.

Morgan Keller (’18), Jordan Zercher (’19), Iris Iglefinger (’21), Aila Crossman (’21)

Five Years Later

For the middle school, von Oeyen hopes to continue improving the way the program teaches  technique as well as improving music reading ability in Grade 5. “I am also hoping to improve assessments to even further reflect the competencies that I grade on so that students have a transparent idea of what they excel at and what they need to work on.” She added that specifically for the ORMS chamber orchestra, the hope is to continue to attend the Great East Festival, a middle school competition where orchestras and bands can perform for comments from judges, as well as other festivals as a reward for coming to extra rehearsals.

In regard to the high school’s program, von Oeyen is focused on, “continuing to increase the level of music that we perform and to increase numbers if possible. If numbers continue to grow, the group may need to be split into two sections and possibly leveled or auditioned.”

Von Oeyen added that another goal will include a trip to London and Scotland next May as well as other traveling opportunities in future years. “I’m really looking forward to incorporating travel into the curriculum at the high school level. These types of trips can be so meaningful and help us to think outside of our world and ‘bubble’ and really make extraordinary connections with other cultures through music.” She added, “whether [they are] competitive in nature or not, playing will always be involved in these trips,” von Oeyen stated.

The trip that will be occurring next spring will be in collaboration with the University of New Hampshire as well as their Youth Symphony Orchestra and will focus on exploring the culture and music of a different part of the world. More details will be shared as the groups begin their preparations. Carly Hoag (‘19), a violist in the orchestra, stated, “it was really cool to hear Mrs. von Oeyen say that she was planning on doing this trip after 10 years, but we’ve made so much project after five that she’s like, ‘we’re ready,’ so that’s really great.”

Other goals include collaborating as much as possible with the band. “I would like to explore the possibility of doing some symphony orchestra pieces with select wind/brass/percussion players as this is a genre we haven’t explored yet. This would give our classical wind players a chance to play orchestra music which is an experience that many of them don’t get.”

In addition to the potential opportunities that may present themselves in the future, von Oeyen is excited about the students’ growth. “I am also looking forward to seeing more students learn to love music and play at a high level. It’s a joy to watch this occur!” she said.

Looking to the next five years, von Oeyen states, “I hope to remember all of my students that have gone through the program and to continue to enjoy watching students grow from when they are 10 to when they’re 18. It’s one of the most special parts of my job. Also, if facilities are improved and changed, I hope to never take that for granted in the future and always remember where the program came from at its youngest stages.”

In light of the program’s success, von Oeyen gives thanks to many for their support. “First and foremost, my colleagues in the string department (Louise Kandle and Autumn Riley): they are my rock! They are always here to help with whatever I need at a moment’s notice and are there for our students. We are all so different yet we work very well together! I also want to thank my music colleagues (David Ervin, Marc LaForce, Sarah Kuhn, Pam Felber, and Beth Struthers) for accepting me into their world and being so supportive of the program. I also am very thankful for the administration who are constantly supporting the program and the parents who pay for lessons, rentals, and drive students to and from those lessons and our rehearsals. I have so much support from all of these people!”

Autumn Riley, Jill Goodman, Jordan Zercher, Louise Kandle

Andrea von Oeyen graduated with a dual Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education and Violin Performance from the University of New Hampshire in 2005 and completed her Masters of Music in Orchestral Conducting at UNH in 2018.  She worked in the Alton School District for eight years as a music teacher and began a string program that is actively continuing and evolving. Other credits include guest conducting NHMEA District Festival String Orchestra and “Strings Fest.”

As a cellist in the orchestra, I have known von Oeyen for all five years that she has been a part of the ORCSD and have learned so much from her. She is truly a kind, gifted, and passionate teacher who is dedicated to taking this program to new levels. The effort that she has put into this program in the last five years has paid off and I am honored to have played a small role in the success of the orchestra. I am so excited to see the countless opportunities that will present themselves to the future instrumentalists and the role that music will play in their lives. I truly believe that the Oyster River String Orchestra shapes participants to be better listeners, learners, musicians, and individuals.