Supporting Music in Alexandria Schools

Supporting Music in Alexandria Schools

Award-winning violinist helps Alexandria Public Schools play its biggest concert.

Mark Wood with students at the Electrify Your Strings concert.

Mark Wood with students at the Electrify Your Strings concert. Photo by Vernon Miles.

Every elementary, middle, and high school in Alexandria, 18 schools in total, came together on Janu. 7 for the biggest concert in the school system’s history: 370 students, 200 of them from local elementary schools, 170 from middle and high schools, participated in Electrify Your Strings (EYS). After months of practice, the students had an opportunity to practice and perform with electric violinist Mark Wood, an Emmy-award winning composer and a former member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

The concert at Francis C. Hammond Middle School almost didn’t happen. The original plan was to have a practice session on Jan. 6 and to host the concert the following day. A snowstorm Jan. 6 forced Wood and the students to go through two days’ worth of practice in one afternoon before the performance.

Wood prides his concerts as being different from the traditional orchestras. All of the students in this concert face the audience. If they ever want to live in a world where people attend and fund orchestras, Wood says the next generation of musicians is going to have to learn how to perform as entertainers as well as musicians.

“Look at orchestras as a business, which you have to, we can’t rely on the arts funding,” said Wood. “None of them are looking at the audience. The conductor’s back is to the audience. Could you imagine Michael Jackson performing with his back to the audience? If you’re not interacting with them visually, socially, and passionately there’s a disconnect, your audience disappears real fast.”

Wood exudes the influences of ‘70s’ rock legends like Jimmy Page. Most of the music selection reflects this. In practice before the show, after the cacophony of instruments tuning, Wood taps the side of his electric violin to get the students’ attention. The room fills with an orchestra version of the Queen classic “We Will Rock You,” complete with stomping and clapping from the orchestra and the middle school students whose gym session was interrupted by the practice.

Wood’s concept of an audience-focused orchestra caught on with many of the students in attendance. Ava Tucker, a 4th grader at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School plays the violin, but says she loves the movement of other art forms.

“I’m a dancer. I love jumping around and just doing theatrics and gymnastics. I like jumping around on ‘zombie hunters’,” said Tucker, referring to one of the songs the elementary school section of the orchestra would be playing later that day. On hearing someone mention that orchestras can often be boring, she shook her head and responded, “This won’t be.”

But if EYS wants to make a mark on the schools, it will have to impress more than the students.

“When the teachers call me and say, ‘Mark, we’re going to be cut’ I go in there with the scientific evidence to reassure [the administration],” said Wood. “We do a concert, like we’re doing here.”

This is, more or less, how the concert came about. Like a vampire, Wood emphasizes that he can’t come to the schools himself, he has to be invited in. Veronica Jackson, an orchestra director at Hammond Middle School, said she’d worked with Wood and the EYS program in the Henrico County schools and thought his program would be great for the Alexandria public schools.

“[EYS] inspires students, gives them an alternative style of music to play and they feel motivated to practice,” said Jackson, taking a moment to sit on the bleachers and breathe after a full day of corralling nearly 400 students. “It brought our school community together because the teachers got to see these students perform in a different setting with a different style of music. The parents were extremely excited about how motivated their children were to play and it brought attention to the schools and the school system for this high energy performance.”

The connection with parents is another vital part of the performance.

“Music closes the generational gap,” said Wood. “A kid can come home and play Eleanor Rigby and the parents will recognize it … Being a kid in the Woodstock generation, everyone was scared of rock. Now look what’s happening: they’re playing AC/DC in church services now.”

This is why most of the music in the EYS concert is rock music from the ‘70s and ‘80s. According to Wood its music that the students still listen to, but it’s also music that will connect with the parents in a way most modern pop won’t. Many of those parents were the ones who got the students involved in music in the first place, and Wood hopes this concert will help show them that their encouragement and interest can pay off.

At her father’s encouragement, Kira Pierce started playing bass for her middle school in 4th grade, though she says she played electric bass long before that. Her father plays bass, and she was named after bass player Kira Roessler from the band Black Flag. Pierce acknowledged her parental influence on her choice of instrument, but also said in other ways she came to it herself, namely because “it’s just awesome.”

In prior years, Alexandria’s music departments have struggled in the budgets to pay for replacement instruments. Last year, $240,000 was allocated to replace many of the schools’ instruments, and the schools are requesting another $240,000 to complete this process over the next three years. Whether or not they get this funding will be revealed in the new instructional and capital improvement budget unveiled Thursday, Jan. 15. The EYS concert was self-funded, with a small participation fee from students and the rest paid through ticket sales. It’s a rare event for the schools and one the participating students said they were grateful for.

“We don’t get very many chances to express ourselves through music because it’s not like you can just organize a concert every month,” said Pierce. “We only get them about two times a year. And so, whenever we get a chance, I always sign up for it. I think it’s really great that we have a rehearsal program, because I know not a lot of places do, and it gives the kids a chance to express themselves and also meet up with other people with the same interests, which don’t always happen.”

For Wood, giving students a chance to express themselves is the primary purpose of any musical program and is part of what makes them vital for schools.

“There’s nothing more exciting than finding yourself in music,” said Wood. “When a kid finds his voice in clarinet or violin, there’s no other feeling like it. Music gives us a sense of empowerment that’s all emotion. Because science should not be set up as an emotional experience and math should not be set up as an emotional experience, where do you get the emotional development from? The arts. And talk about a cockamamie culture, right now we’re the most emotionally retarded country in the world. I find these kids have a struggle with communication and deep emotion that’s not rage or anger.”

Students cited emotional expression as one of their favorite things about getting involved in music.

“I can share my emotions,” said Jacob Rosario. “When you’re angry, you can play hard. But when you’re happy, you can make everyone else happy too.”

Rosario and his best friend, Diego Flores, are 6th graders, who are also in advanced math classes. They enjoy math and science, but they expressed a special love of music, though they were both nervous about the concert that evening. Rosario said he was so stiff and excited all day that his dad had to crack his back that morning before he left home, and Flores’ said it’s his first time ever getting to play in a concert.

During the practice, Wood moved through the orchestra and told the musicians to smile and sway together with the tune of the song.

“You can’t be frozen,” said Wood. “Everything in life moves. Music has to move.”