Only about 820 people attended a Friday, April 21st, students’ concert that had social media, Sunday school conversations and phone lines buzzing through the weekend in New Albany.
The lucky few were 720 New Albany public school students and approximately a hundred adults who were in the New Albany High School auditorium Friday afternoon. The event was a performance by second through sixth grade students, who played and sang with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. Such an event had never happened before in Union County.
The performance was in large part the result of several years of work by a small group of New Albany music lovers, money donated by New Albany individuals and organizations, and the support of a $3-billion non-profit foundation based in New York City. There was at least one other critical factor: the decision about a year ago by the New Albany schools superintendent and the elementary school principal to hire a single music teacher away from the Tupelo public schools.
One year ago few of the 720 students who performed with the orchestra Friday had had any exposure to a large orchestra, and the likelihood was that few ever would have the experience of hearing classical music played by professional musicians. They would, of course, hear country music and probably some blues and jazz and show tunes and pop. They could be guaranteed to hear a great deal of rap “music” However, the chances were very poor that many of them would ever hear serious music played by a 60-piece orchestra.
The New Albany students got the opportunity to play with a professional symphony orchestra because of work done over a number of years by a relatively small number of people. Here’s how it happened:
Joyce Sumners of New Albany has been deeply involved with the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (NMSO) since it was founded in 1971. All of the musicians in the orchestra are paid professionals, many of them music educators in colleges and universities around the country. The conductor, Stephen Byess, is a professional, who, besides being the music director of NMSO, also travels every year throughout the United States and Europe, to serve as principal conductor and guest conductor of several other symphony orchestras, including the one in Portland, Oregon, where he lives.
About seven years ago Joyce Sumners formed the New Albany Symphony League (NASL), a group of local volunteers, who have raised money from local donors to sponsor several New Albany performances by NMSO. About two years ago, the NASL began its efforts to give local public school students experience with classical music through the Link Up program sponsored by Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute designed the Link Up program to give elementary students around the country a hands-on exposure to serious music. Carnegie furnishes teaching materials, including teacher curriculum guide, teaching videos, student workbooks, musical scores. Link Up provides professional development workshops for local music teachers and connects them with Carnegie staff resources. The North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra is one of many orchestras around the world with whom Carnegie implements Link Up.
The New Albany Symphony League presented the Link Up program to New Albany Superintendent of Education Jackie Ford, and Ford quickly recognized that the Link Up program would be beneficial to New Albany students. To start the Link Up program here, Ford needed to hire an elementary school teacher willing and able to implement it.
About a year ago, Ford recruited Celia Thompson House, a life-long New Albany resident, who had been driving to Tupelo daily for about 15 years to teach music at Lawndale Elementary School. A graduate of the music department of Blue Mountain College, she had been working with the Link Up program and the NMSO for many years. After interviewing with Ford and New Albany elementary principal Jamie Wright and middle school principal Damon Ladner, she went to work teaching music at the elementary school at the start of this school year.
House started her work with the elementary music students last fall. New Albany Elementary students practice to play with symphony.
Several times during the school year Conductor Stephen Byess traveled to New Albany to work with the Link Up program. He spoke to at least one civic club in New Albany. House also spoke to several civic clubs and regularly attended meetings of the New Albany Symphony League, which worked throughout the last several months to raise the money to pay the orchestra and for other local expenses related to the event.
Teachers, students, school officials, donors, symphony conductor, volunteers who raised the money — everyone had high expectations of the event last Friday afternoon at the high school auditorium. Even they were surprised by how well it went.
Speaking by phone from his home in Portland, NMSO Director Stephen Byess told NAnewsweb.com Sunday afternoon, “It went phenomenally well.
“Celia House really did a very good job,” said Byess, who works with the Carnegie Link-Up program in small cities around the U.S. “In other parts of the country I see enthusiasm from the students, and that was certainly present Friday in New Albany. What I saw in New Albany went beyond enthusiasm. The focus of those children in New Albany was amazing.”
Byess said he had never seen a better Link-Up concert anywhere. “What Celia accomplished with those kids is amazing,” he said. “What I saw Friday was life altering for those children. It was inspirational for everyone there. It was also inspirational for the orchestra. Most of the orchestra members are professional music educators, and they were very impressed.”
Byess wasn’t the only one impressed with what Celia House had accomplished in less than nine months.
“It was a win, win for our students,” said Superintendent of Education Jackie Ford. “It was an experience they will never forget.
The five active members of the New Albany Symphony League — Joyce Sumners, Jean Ashcraft, Collett Cross, Joanne Lesley, and Sandy Shaddinger — were all present for the event.
“It was well done, well prepared, very impressive, very encouraging,” said Joyce Sumners.
New Albany philanthropist Anne Stephens has been a strong supporter of the New Albany symphony performances over the years. “It was a wonderful thing,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe how great it was. I was so proud of our kids, the way they behaved and the way they performed.
“I have supported many different things,” said Mrs. Stephens, “But the symphony program in our schools, especially the performance Friday afternoon, is one of which I am most proud and pleased. I feel like with what I gave I made a really good investment.”
Celia House said she was happy with the way her students performed. She gave a lot of credit to Heather Higgonbotham, her student teacher, who is enrolled at Ole Miss. House said that, in addition to the second through fifth graders, about 12 sixth grade students came to practice sessions on their own time after the school day ended.
The space limitations of the auditorium meant there was not room for parents or many other adults to attend the Friday concert. However, the media class at the high school had several video cameras in use at the event, and intend to produce a feature-length video of the performance. Movie Reel owner Mike Beam has committed to showing the video at his theater, so it can be seen by parents and others. Details on the video showing will be posted here as they become available.
New Albany Schools’ Link Up Symphony Concert, 2016
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