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Musical movement: Orchestras slowly making return to Forsyth County schools
Lambert student Rachel Zhou plays the violin during orchestra class on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. - photo by Brian Paglia

Six years ago, Julie Rosseter made one of her viola students a promise. A professional violist, Rosseter has degrees from Indiana University, Wichita State University and Duquesne University. She’s performed in orchestras across the country, including the Atlanta Opera Orchestra for the last 24 years, and gives private lessons, which Rosseter continued to do after her family moved from Gwinnett County to Forsyth County in 2008.

Rosseter had seen the robust stringed orchestra programs in Gwinnett County’s public schools first-hand. As a member of the Kazanetti String Quartet, Rosseter had helped instruct the viola sectional of North Gwinnett High School’s stringed orchestra on a monthly basis. Those were all-day affairs.

“It’s so many kids, so many orchestras,” Rosseter said.

When Rosseter’s family moved to Forsyth County, her children attended Riverwatch Middle School, and she instantly noticed that something was missing. 

“We said, ‘Where is the orchestra program?” Rosseter said.

Riverwatch had none. Neither did any other public school in Forsyth County, including Lambert High School, where Rosseter’s viola student attended. So when her student wanted to start a stringed orchestra club at the school, Rosseter made a prediction: by the time she graduated, there would be a stringed orchestra class at Lambert.

Lambert orchestra director Julie Rosseter gives instructions during class on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. Rosseter became the first-ever full-time orchestra director employed in Forsyth County Schools this school year. - photo by Brian Paglia

“You should never promise students these things,” Rosseter said, “but I said that to her.”

Rosseter delivered. That school year, Lambert started a stringed orchestra club with 10 students. The next year, it became an official class, again with 10 students. Now in its eighth year, Lambert’s stringed orchestra program has more than 70 students. Rosseter was hired this school year as perhaps Forsyth County Schools’ first-ever full-time stringed orchestra director.

And where once Rosseter and Lambert were pioneers, stringed orchestra programs have been growing in popularity around the county. Forsyth Central High School started one three years ago. Clubs have formed at Chattahoochee Elementary School and Riverwatch and South Forsyth middle schools over the past few years. South Forsyth and West Forsyth high schools started offering stringed orchestra classes this school year.

“The interest has definitely picked up over the last several years,” said Catherine Keyser, fine arts specialist with Forsyth County Schools. “This is one area where we can grow and really add that extra strong component to fine arts in the county.”

Josh Tyree had heard rumblings in the county about interest in stringed orchestra programs for several years.

Tyree grew up in Gwinnett County where each middle school had an orchestra program. After working in the Walton County school system, he came to Forsyth County in 2005 and took a job at South Forsyth High School, where he worked for three years before teaching at Liberty Middle School for eight years. When Tyree interviewed for the director of bands position at West Forsyth in 2016, he told administrators one of the reasons he applied was the opportunity to start a stringed orchestra program at the school.

Lambert students Nathan Lin (left) and Justin Kim play the violin during orchestra class on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. - photo by Brian Paglia

“I’ve been thinking about it a long time,” Tyree said.

It was a common occurrence for Tyree to have a student move in from another county with stringed orchestra programs and want to continue to play their stringed instrument. The only thing he could offer them was marching band.

But Tyree knew marching band didn’t serve those students.

“It’s just a different tradition,” Tyree said. “Band’s more like military. Orchestra’s always been like an art performance.”

Tyree had been puzzled that a county as affluent as Forsyth didn’t have stringed orchestra programs in its public schools the way other areas of similar socioeconomic status like north Fulton and Gwinnett did.

But it hasn’t been an issue of funding, says Carrie MacAllaster, an assistant principal at South Forsyth High School. She, too, has experience in Gwinnett County. MacAllaster started teaching at North Gwinnett High School in 1998. From then until she came to work in Forsyth County, in 2012, MacAllaster saw the interest in stringed orchestra ebb and flow. Interest dropped as families and schools placed a greater emphasis on taking advanced academic classes to better prepare for college. More and more, families sought out private instruction to meet their child’s orchestra needs.

Lambert student Justin Kim plays the violin during orchestra class on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. - photo by Brian Paglia

MacAllaster saw that start to change in the mid-2000s. Keyser said the county’s growing diversity has contributed to the increased interest. MacAllaster also pointed to school systems emphasizing social-emotional learning principles and encouraging families and students to find a better balance between academic success and personal health.

“Being able to have a break in your day of 50 minutes or 90 minutes and play an instrument … they were seeing that that was actually a healthy thing for (students), physically and academically,” MacAllaster said.

MacAllaster started to hear interest in a stringed orchestra program at South Forsyth High School the past few years. Then, this past May, she got a call from Keyser, who said she’d been contacted by a local parent interested in helping South start a program.

Keyser introduced MacAllaster to Laurie Niedfeldt. Niedfeldt and her family had moved to Forsyth County from Illinois in 2017. Neidfeldt has a master’s degree in violin pedagogy from Brigham Young University and has taught private lessons. When the family moved, her son played cello but they found no orchestra for him to join. He was taking lessons from a member of First Redeemer Church. There she met Rosseter.

They talked, and with encouragement from her husband, Niedfeldt contacted South and Keyser, which led to a meeting with principal Laura Wilson, which led to a call to the community for interest in a string programs, which led to a modest class of five students that Niedfeldt sees twice a week as a lay strings coach.

“We’re just enjoying it,” Niedfeldt said.

Lambert orchestra director Julie Rosseter gives instructions during class on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. Rosseter helped start the program in 2011 with just 10 students. Lambert's stringed orchestra program now has more than 70 students. - photo by Brian Paglia

The challenge at the high school level is working to integrate students of mixed skill levels. Some are beginners, some are experienced; few are in between. The dynamic creates a challenge for directors to meld a group and teach in a way that meets the needs of every student.

Tyree’s first stringed orchestra class has almost 30 students. Many play other instruments, but almost none had played a stringed instrument before this school year.

“We’ve basically treated it as a beginning class as you would like a sixth-grade orchestra,” Tyree said, “at a much-accelerated level.”

Tyree and others say that will improve once stringed orchestra programs take off in the middle schools. That should lead to more cellists and violists and bassists of similar skill level moving on to the high schools. Keyser said the school system is looking to identify areas in the county at all levels where those programs are most needed and determining what resources are required to make them sustainable.

In the meantime, schools are currently relying on musicians in the community like Niedfeldt to help in lay teaching roles, and the middle school orchestra clubs are working with band directors to share space.  

“There are a lot of pieces that will fall into place,” Keyser said.

Still, it’s a fulfilling time for Rosseter to see orchestra programs begin to take hold in the county. Her full-time role now affords her more authority to make decisions, like on Thursday morning, when Rosseter’s class finished playing a few pieces, including one from West Side Story, and several rushed to the Lambert auditorium.

It was “push week,” where freshmen can see all the clubs and programs offered at the school. There a small group of Rosseter’s students played some more, hoping to persuade some freshmen to join the movement.