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Beginner Orchestra Students Adjust to Learning New Instruments

North Belton Middle School sixth grader Sara Parks thought about her grandmother when she selected the instrument she would learn to play in her orchestra class this school year.

“Whenever I went to visit her when I was younger, she would have classical music playing because she liked hearing the cellos,” Parks said. “That influenced me to really like the cello.”

Parks narrowed her choices to cello and double bass because she likes their deep sounds. 

“But the bass, because I’m super short, was too big for me,” said Parks, who is 4 feet 11 inches tall. “So I chose the cello. My grandmother was really excited and happy that I’m learning to play.”

Parks is among about 340 orchestra students in Belton ISD at middle and high school campuses.

Jenna Burchell, the head orchestra director at NBMS, said participating in orchestra offers many opportunities for the district’s students.

“It allows them to have a community environment throughout middle school, high school and beyond,” she said. “Students learn how to work with others, build their cognitive skills and learn a lot of physical coordination. They grow in character, confidence and have experiences they will remember for the rest of their lives.”

It’s a privilege, Burchell said, to introduce her beginner students to their instruments.

“I love watching the progress they make over the course of a single school year,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, their faces light up when they first learn how to unpack and make sounds on the instrument. By the end of the year, they are playing beautiful music as part of a large orchestra group. It is an amazing process to witness.”

In Park’s beginner class this fall, Burchell started by teaching the students pizzicato, or making sound by plucking the strings instead of using a bow.

“We slowly progressed to learning notes and then learning how to put our fingers down and which notes those make,” Parks said. “If we don’t push hard enough it makes a really bad vibrating sound that doesn’t sound good. Oh, and we have to have good posture.”

Burchell said playing a string instrument requires a lot of right and left hand independence and coordination so she runs her students through exercises to practice this.

“It takes some time to build up the muscle strength and memory in each hand,” she said. “By the time we begin to put the two hands together, students have built up their strength and it is much easier for them to play with the bow.”

What’s surprised Parks the most about becoming a cellist is holding the bow.

“The bows are a lot heavier than you’d think,” she said. “The way you have to hold them is really hard. It takes a lot of practice.”

The beginner students have been putting in the practice time as they prepare for their first concert next month. 

Parks hopes to see her grandmother in the audience.

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Sept. 27, 2021