The Dormouse switched to playing viola in the school orchestra late last year so she's been playing just under a year. Playing strings for just over two years.  One of the reasons I encouraged the switch is because in middle school and high school, strings get competitive and mean.  The Dormouse has a friend at a different school, also in sixth grade, who got challenged for her chair and lost it.  It was devastating for her.  I know sixth grade is middle school here, but it wasn't for me and I feel like this age is too early to start turning a love of music into some dog-eat-dog competition where only the rich kids who have money for private lessons and professional quality instruments get to be on top before they've even learned how to work together in a group.  This probably sounds like sour grapes, and maybe it is, but it beats the love of music out of so many kids and they quit playing in middle and high school partly because it becomes not so fun anymore.

The Dormouse's school doesn't challenge for chairs, which is nice, but having her switch to viola means that there's a) less competition in future years and b) it puts her in a group of people that's a little more relaxed about things while still caring about making music.  I realize that's stereotyping, but I've spent a lot of years in orchestras.  Stereotypes don't apply to everyone but they are sometimes there for a reason.  Viola players are just less high strung (pun intended).

The other thing it did was give her a greater chance for stuff like this.  This county has a middle school, audition-only honors orchestra.  I heard that 160 kids auditioned on violin for less than 40 available seats.  I know 8th graders who auditioned and didn't make it.  But there aren't that many viola players, so my too-young-for-sixth-grade sixth grader won a seat.  

This is cool, but not for the reason you'd think.  Yes, I'm a braggart, as I was told thanks to the FacePlace after I made the mistake of not considering my audience before hitting "post."  I'm proud of her.  That's my job as a mom, so while that comment was hurtful, I'm not gonna apologize for that.  But more importantly, what this did for my kid who has yet to play anything in her particular school orchestra that was more than about twenty seconds of Hot Cross Buns-type material, was to give her an experience of playing above her level and making real music.  Of playing with a group of musicians who all cared about making good music as much as her.  Of seeing a possible future for this instrument.  I never saw that for myself until I started auditioning for county and state orchestras and heard the difference in the level of musicianship.

I wish every kid who auditioned could get in.  I know that's not possible.  I wish there could be two orchestras. Or three.  If I had a butt-load of money to donate, I'd make that happen so more kids could have this type of experience.  Because even if these kids don't eventually go into music professionally, they just had the experience of a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts, which is an amazing life lesson.

A couple of months ago I got to go to see Ben Folds with the Baltimore Symphony orchestra.  It was amazing.  He stopped the concert to talk to the audience about the need for cities with good, professional music and why that makes a difference to the overall health of the city itself.  He gave a long speech about the things he learned while playing in a group as a kid.  I could have hugged him (I actually did after the concert, but that's another story).  And then he said he had a short version of that speech.  Here it is:

"Some cities don't have a symphony orchestra... and some cities have bad symphony orchestras... and... those cities suck."

Here's to a county school district that doesn't suck.