Sophomores Jag Lally, Colby Conner and Vanessa Previsic tune their instruments during a combined band orchestra rehearsal. (Photo by Elena Lipman)

Orchestra, band electives merge into single group

Freshman Daniel Hernried sits in front of the school’s drum set. The warm-up pieces begin, but there’s no part for the drums. He taps his foot restlessly.

After the Concert Band has practiced for about 10 minutes, Hernried finally gets to join in.

But even then he plays the triangle, not his drum set.

This limited participation is why Hernried is happy that being in Concert Band is no longer a requirement for Jazz Band.

Junior Micaela Bennett-Smith, who plays the trumpet in Jazz Band, likes the change too, but, for her, the problem was her workload.

Bennett-Smith said that she needed a free elective in order to keep up with her schoolwork.

She didn’t mind coming to school three times a week at 7:30 a.m. for Jazz Band. However, she wanted to use the Concert Band elective period (12:45 – 1:55 p.m. every other day) for homework instead.

“If I couldn’t switch out of Concert Band, I was considering dropping out of both,” Bennett-Smith said.

Junior Ethan Ham, a percussionist, was in the same situation as Bennett-Smith. In fact, Ham was the first to approach band teacher Bob Ratcliff about the problem.

If he could drop Concert Band and focus on just Jazz Band, he could be more dedicated to Jazz Band and still manage his four AP classes and other extracurricular activities, Ham said.

While Ham likes the change, he admits that there’s a downside: without Concert Band, students may practice less.

“There are fewer people now than in the past who want to put in the effort and time and enjoy practicing and getting better,” Ham said.

During a Concert Band rehearsal Ratcliff discussed how he felt about the change. According to junior Grant Miner, the baritone saxophone player in Jazz Band, Ratcliff is upset that students are leaving Concert Band because in previous years students were very committed to band. Now many students have put their priorities elsewhere, Ratcliff said.

Last year there were 18 high-school students in both Concert and Jazz Band and three middle-school students. This year there are 11 students in Concert Band. Students who play percussion, trumpet, saxophone and clarinet have left Concert Band, resulting in Ratcliff’s disappointment.

“The band is starting to get so small that we just cannot do traditional Concert Band music anymore,” Ratcliff said.

Ratcliff was previously able to rework the music (typically written for 30 to 45 instruments) to fit his class. Now he is unable to do so, he said.

That means that songs like “Sleigh Ride” and “The Last Ride of the Pony Express,” a band class favorite, can no longer be part of the repertoire.

So Ratcliff and orchestra teacher Felecia Keys have come up with an innovative solution. The small band size is ideal for the percussion and wind section of a full orchestra.

Consequently, orchestra and Concert Band will be practicing together every other week as a full orchestra.

“The full orchestra is a way to utilize the instrumentation that we have to its full potential,” Ratcliff said.

Keys agrees with Ratcliff. She has always wanted to try a full orchestra. But Keys is not willing to completely merge the two and give up her string orchestra.

“I just love that group so much. They are like my babies,” Keys said.

Senior Ryan Ho, who plays the violin in orchestra, likes the idea of the combined groups. He said he enjoyed a previous concert in which the orchestra and band played a Christmas carol, “White Christmas,” together.

“The best part of working together would be playing a different style of music and having the different instrument sounds in the music,” Ho said.

For example, he said he loves the sound of the percussion, which is traditionally not in an orchestra, when they play together.

However, junior Emma Williams, who serves as concertmaster (the most important violinist in an orchestra), is against the change.

Williams is in the first violin section of the  Premier Orchestra in Sacramento Youth Symphony where percussion, wind and strings all play together as a full orchestra performing pieces such as “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

“I think you get the most out of having a combined band and orchestra when you play pieces more difficult than traditional high-school pieces,” Williams said.

“One difficulty when playing together is that band members traditionally play in keys such as F major with B flats (note), which is hard for us. We are more accustomed to playing in keys such as D major which has F and C  sharps (notes),” Williams said.

For sophomore Adam Ketchum, a trombone player in Concert Band, the jury’s still out on the change.

“(The band has) to be really careful not to play louder than (the orchestra) and that makes it difficult,” Ketchum said.

Combining orchestra and Concert Band causes concern among some students, but Keys is confident that the change is for the better.

On the  other hand, the fact that Concert Band is no longer a requirement for Jazz Band, is a relief for most students.

At Jazz Band rehearsal, Hernried  joins in with everyone while they play “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

His foot taps out the rhythm on the bass drum pedal, as his sticks move rapidly from drum to drum.

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