Learning to play together

New youth orchestra works to form chemistry

Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006

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Photos by Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
College Park Youth Orchestra Director Kenneth Whitley works with the young string ensemble on its technique during the group’s first rehearsal Sunday.

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Katherine Lowe (right) watches fellow violinist Kayla Shannon warm up with a lollipop in her mouth as the two get ready for the College Park Youth Orchestra’s first rehearsal.

For Alice Sprinkle, violin practice in the comfort and quiet of her home is a stark contrast with her biweekly rehearsals with the College Park Youth Orchestra.

Alice, one of 47 youngsters in the orchestra, said she is challenged to focus on her part, as she and her fellow orchestra members take on the demanding task of playing in an ensemble, many for the first time.

The orchestra, which held its inaugural rehearsal Feb. 5, gives local violin, cello and viola players a rare opportunity to learn to read music while perfecting their individual parts. And with a whirlwind of sound surrounding every ensemble member, that’s no easy task.

‘‘You have all these people playing different instruments and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with your part because other things are going on,” said Alice, 9, of University Park. ‘‘You have to make sure you know what you are doing.”

As a former student and instructor in the DC Youth Orchestra, Director Kenneth Whitley knows exactly how to extract the best from each musician.

‘‘My experience as a student reminds me of where the kids are,” said Whitley, who studied cello performance at the University of Maryland. ‘‘I can remember the excitement and challenge of being in an orchestra.”

Whitley, who oversees the Instrumental Department at Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr School, said the enthusiasm and demand for an orchestra in College Park motivated him.

‘‘It was clear from the start that the kids were motivated to do this as well,” he said.

As for the interest expressed by area parents, Whitley said, ‘‘It’s much more than I ever realized. I’m very excited about this group.”

With children ages 7 to 15, the orchestra operates with a wide spectrum of experience. Alice’s mother, Ann Johnson, said Whitley’s teaching style addresses the needs of every pupil.

‘‘It is geared for kids who are just beginning to sight read,” Johnson said, ‘‘and [Whitley] handles everyone very well, even though some kids are a little more advanced.”

Richard Biffle, whose son, John, plays violin in the ensemble, said musically inclined parents have clamored for a children’s ensemble for many years.

‘‘Everybody knows what College Park has for college students, but this is great for families who live in the area,” said Biffle, who is on the orchestra’s advisory committee with Johnson, Jean Provine and accomplished local musicians Jennifer Shannon and Claudia Chudacoss.

John Biffle said he looks forward to learning new music and dusting off the pieces he knows by heart.

‘‘My favorite part is learning new songs and maybe just welcoming back some old ones and learning to play them a little bit better,” said John, 9.

Shannon, a University Park resident, said the orchestra hopes to perform after its final practice on May 21. Next September, the orchestra will resume rehearsals, which will probably end in June, Shannon said.

As Whitley molds the group’s individual sounds into one crisp performance, he recalled his first experience in a youth orchestra. ‘‘For them, it can be a life-altering experience,” he said. ‘‘For me, it shook me to the core of my person. Being in the middle of this huge, tremendous sound and getting to share that experience with so many people is fantastic.”

E-mail Dennis Carter at dcarter@gazette.net.