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December 22, 2017
The holidays are cram time for the members of the music department as they prepare for a horde of winter concerts and talent shows. Among the mix this year is freshman Alex Steil, the first ever ninth grader to feature their talent in the Con Amici orchestra.
Along with a handful of other eighth graders, Steil auditioned last spring for the Con Amici chamber orchestra. This is the first year the selective group has extended participation to freshman as they transitioned from the junior high to the high school. This orchestra is unique because it is student directed, therefore it demands excellence from each of its members and calls for group rehearsals twice a week.
While it is a constant struggle for high school students to juggle their personal interests with school, work and other activities, Steil has no problem prioritizing orchestra into the mix. It is of such importance to him that he commits to practicing an hour to an hour and a half each day.
“I know a lot of other teachers would say homework before practice, but practicing is homework for me, and it’s homework that I really like to do,” he explained.
Steil first began his musical career in fifth grade with the cello as his instrument of choice. It was after this first year of learning how to hold a bow and play scales that he became hooked.
“Right around the middle of sixth grade something just clicked. It became a lot of fun and it still is today,” Steil said.
With the desire to further express his musical passion and talent, Steil auditioned for Con Amici, a process that proved to be more mentally challenging for him than the scales and excerpt he has to play.
“I was really nervous because I’d never done any audition before,” he said. “I just thought to myself ‘why not?’ because the worst thing they could say is that you didn’t get in.”
In the end, Steil’s efforts paid off as he is now playing his cello as a member of the selective orchestra in addition to his role in the Symphonic Orchestra. While many similarities are shared between the two groups, the vibrant atmosphere of Con Amici stood out to him the most.
“I prefer chamber because it is more energetic from what I see,” Steil said. “People are moving all the time, they never stay put. It’s really fun to play with a different caliber of students.”
This ability to convey emotion and a sense of self is what Director of Orchestras Zach Sawyer calls musicality, one of three major attributes he looks for in the audition process. Technicality and the ability to communicate through music are also equally important to the functioning of the student lead group.
“I try to let the musical souls of students guide the process,” Sawyer explained. “It’s easier to do that in a smaller group of spectacular students like Con Amici.”
Steil is no exception to this excellency. By getting his eyes off the music page and onto the conductor or others in the orchestra, he demonstrates his skill in communication during rehearsal.
Sawyer added, “He’s always looking up; it’s almost scary.”
Yet this big role comes with some pressures for the freshman of the group as it requires greater maturity and focus.
“For me, because I’m the youngest kid, it’s hard. You’re the youngest so you can’t do a lot of screwing up,” Steil said.
However, hard work and focus on the task at hand pays off for the students during Steil’s favorite time of year: the concerts.
Steil compared the process of concert preparation to a unit in school. He explained, “You’re working on this big thing and the concert is like your test, but it’s the best test.”
For Senior Ben Shantz, who is in the group for the second time as a bassist, the value of Con Amici is in the relationships made among its members. His description is very fitting of the literal Italian translation of Con Amici which is “with friends”.
“The idea behind Con Amici is that we’re supposed to be a family… that way we operate as a good orchestra,” Shantz said. “I think the whole intermixing of grades makes it more of an accepting thing.”
The transition of ninth graders into the music programs at the high school has sparked an excitement in Sawyer as well. He said that he is already enjoying his first year of working with Steil.
“As a music teacher it’s really fun to watch students to grow and develop over their time here,” Sawyer explained. “I think [Steil] is just a great student, a great person, and a fabulous musician. I’m really excited that he’s going to be here for four years.”