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By Amy Falkofske
The Prince William County School system prides itself on providing students with a world-class education, and that world-class education extends to the county’s band and orchestra programs.
“Our focus is on trying to make the learning experiences, exposure to music and art, really, high quality in elementary school in hopes that as many kids as possible will continue to study in middle and high school because research clearly shows that the more consistently and intensely a child engages in the study of a fine art or performing art, the more successful they are in college, in the workplace, and in their personal lives as well,” said Dr. Ed Stephenson, PWCS Supervisor of the Arts.
As Supervisor, Dr. Stephenson oversees the strings program in all of the county’s 61 elementary schools and three K-8 traditional schools. Students in every elementary school can participate in their strings program starting in fifth grade. Some schools allow students to participate starting in fourth grade. Participation in band begins in middle school.
“The band and orchestra programs in our county are among the largest and most diverse in the state of Virginia. In addition to sporting successful alumni like Zuill Bailey, we serve around 13,000 students in these programs every year, providing a tremendous benefit to all of these students, regardless of whether or not they decide to pursue music as a career,” said Stephenson.
Many of the bands and orchestras in PWCS have an impressive list of accomplishments spearheaded by exceptional directors.
Colgan High School
Colgan High School is home to the Center for Fine and Performing Arts, one of the many specialty programs in PWCS. Colgan’s Band Director, Donald Magee, oversees three concert bands, the jazz ensemble and the Pride of Colgan Marching Band.
“The program has had many achievements, including Superior ratings at marching and concert assessments from the Virginia Band and Orchestra Directors Association. The Pride of Colgan has been a consistent first place winner at contests and has performed in the Main Street Parade in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World,” said Magee.
Ben Bernstein is the Director of Orchestras at Colgan. Colgan has five strings orchestras — the Concert Orchestra, the Chamber Strings, the Camerata Strings, the Ensemble Orchestra and the Philharmonic Orchestra — and one symphony orchestra.
“One of our orchestras (Philharmonic) was selected to perform at the Virginia Music Educators Association‘s 2018 Conference in Hot Springs, VA. This is a big honor, and they only pick a handful of orchestras from the entire state,” said Bernstein.
Woodbridge Senior High School
Taryn Wood is the Orchestra Director at Woodbridge Senior High School and oversees the Varsity Orchestra, the Concert Orchestra and the Sinfonietta Orchestra.
“The orchestra program at Woodbridge has a long history in the Prince William County Schools music programs. We have had many students graduate who have continued in music either professionally or as a hobby,” said Wood. In her 13 years at Woodbridge, Wood has created a special spring concert called Springstock.
“[Springstock] is an entirely Pop/Rock/Alternative style themed concert where students not only perform non-classical style pieces, but they get to plan and design the concert for their orchestra, including designing lights, the concert attire (costume), and some of the music,” said Wood. In the school’s fourth Springstock, alumni were invited back to perform. About 20 alumni performed with then-current students
A common sentiment among the directors of the band and orchestra programs in PWCS is how well their students weathered the COVID-19 pandemic and more than a year of online school.
Battlefield High School
The band program at Battlefield High School is directed by Michael Britcher and consists of the three concerts bands, two percussion ensembles, a winter color guard and the Marching Bobcats.
When asked what accomplishment he is most proud of, Britcher said, “I would have to say it is the effort that I am seeing from my students this year to recover from the impact that COVID has had on our program… No student joins the band to sit in their bedroom and play the clarinet by themselves. Band is a
community of performers. I have never been prouder of any of my students than I have been this year, watching them commit their collective time, energy and effort to reestablishing our program.”
Brentsville District High School
The orchestra program at Brentsville consists of Concert Orchestra (intermediate class) and Sinfonia Orchestra (advanced). Anna Henke is Orchestra Director at Brentsville.
“I am most proud of the achievements the students made during their year of online orchestra. It was such a challenge to stay motivated without the ‘surround-sound’ energy of an ensemble — music classes are very much a social experience, and students had neither social nor ensemble aspects during online classes. Despite all the challenges, orchestra kids kept working on their own, got creative with recording technology and composing, and kept their love for music, so we returned as a stronger ensemble this year!” said Henke.
Fostering Leadership and Teamwork
Playing in any music ensemble requires teamwork and, in many cases, leadership. The students in PWCS consistently rise to the challenge.
“Band may be the ultimate team-building activity. By that, I mean every single member must be committed to the group. There is no ‘bench’ in the band. Every single student is a starter from day one… When you give a performance as a part of the band, the result is truly dependent upon every single performer doing their part… Students may not realize this when they first start playing an instrument, but they figure it out quickly
as members of our program. The concern and empathy these students have for one another is truly admirable,” said Britcher.
Being part of a musical group offers students unique ways to grow and learn.
“I think it cannot be stated enough how special it is to have a group of young people who try hard, work together as a team, and have a common goal of achieving and presenting a high level of music. I love that the students and I are always pushing each other to try and get to that next level,” said Bernstein.
And while the group may be aiming for a certain level as a whole, within the group, experience levels vary, providing students opportunities to teach and to learn from each other.
“Orchestra classes combine students from each grade, a variety of experience levels, and a range of strengths into one team, and it’s really inspiring to watch the kids learn to work together and draw upon each other’s skills. Students learn to lead, follow, and listen in large and small groups,” said Henke.
Support from PWCS Administration and Community
The Prince William community and the PWCS administration are notably supportive of the PWCS music program. “We are fortunate to have very supportive leadership for music and orchestra both at Woodbridge and in Prince William County Schools,” said Wood.
“The community support for music in this area has been incredible, and I feel so fortunate to be part of the Brentsville team!” said Henke.
Ultimately, it’s the students who benefit the most from the positivity and support of this successful program.
“I am very happy that the orchestra program is the ‘happy place’ for many of these students. The orchestra room is a place where I believe the students know that all are welcome and that they are free to be themselves,” said Bernstein.
Amy Falkofske is a freelance writer and photographer. She has a Master’s degree in Film-TV with a concentration in screenwriting. She lives in Bristow with her husband, two boys and two Beagle dog