The orchestra program in Forsyth County Schools started in 2011 with just 10 students.
Julie Rosseter, a professional violist who has performed in orchestras across the country, said she started the program by accident at the time when one of her private students said they did not have an orchestra program at Lambert High School and wanted to start a club for string instruments on campus.
She offered to help get the club started and sponsor it, meeting with the group of 10 students after school for short lessons and practice.
“By the end of the year, [Principal] Gary Davison came to me and said, ‘This really needs to be a class,’” Rosseter said.
Now, 10 years later, the program has grown, seeping into schools across the county. And at the end of March, the district held its first United Forsyth Orchestra Day at the Forsyth County Arts and Living center, inviting more than 200 strings students from 22 schools across the county to perform on stage together.
Rosseter, along with other orchestra teachers and mentors in the district, planned the full-day event in which elementary, middle and high school students were all able to come together to get to know each other.
Separated into three groups — elementary, middle and high — the students traveled around the FoCAL Center, taking part in lessons taught by the University of North Georgia’s faculty and music education students.
They also took part in fun activities and games, learning more about each other and the different orchestra programs in Forsyth County.
Students crowded the different practice rooms and hallways throughout the day, filling the FoCAL Center with music before UNG and FCS musicians and each of the ensembles performed a concert for the community, playing pieces they had rehearsed throughout the day.
At the end of the night, all of the orchestra students gathered for a photo, squeezing together so they could all fit on the stage.
“It [was] an absolutely amazing day,” Rosseter said. “I actually get kind of teary thinking about it because when they’re all on stage …. It’s like when this all started, I could fit everybody in the orchestra program on the front row. That was it.”
Rosseter was excited to see students come into the FoCAL Center, shocked by just how many other orchestra students were in the county. She said that is one of the main reasons she wanted to invite students and teachers out to meet each other and perform together.
“I think all of us in the county have felt like we’re all by ourselves,” Rosseter said. “This is not a band program. We don’t have orchestra in the schools.”
While Rosseter began the orchestra program at Lambert, she did not start out as a full-time orchestra teacher, and an orchestra program did not exist in the school system at the time. The students in the class all paid dues to allow her to be there and teach lessons.
It wasn’t until 2018 that Rosseter became the only full-time orchestra teacher in the district — a title she still holds today.
The program at Lambert created a template for other high schools in the county to create their own programs. Since then, orchestra classes or clubs have been established at West Forsyth, South Forsyth and Forsyth Central High schools.
Rebecca Gerstenlauer, a general music teacher at Chattahoochee Elementary School, also brought the orchestra program to the elementary school level in 2015.
She went to school in Gwinnett County, going through the orchestra program there before heading to college. When she started her student teaching at Chattahoochee a few years later, she said she was surprised to find out that many school systems in north Georgia, including Forsyth, didn’t have their own orchestra programs.
She eventually decided to start an after-school orchestra club, bringing in 35 members for the first year. She now teaches two orchestra classes at the school and began teaching another at Chestatee Elementary this year.
While both the elementary and high school programs have grown in the last several years with students showing more and more interest in string instruments and classes, many orchestra teachers in the county agree that there is a gap in learning when students enter middle school.
Rosseter leaves Lambert after the school day to also teach at an orchestra club of 30 students at Riverwatch Middle School, and for now, it is the only middle school orchestra program in the county.
Elizabeth Alvarez, a professional chamber musician and orchestra associate director at Lambert, said students typically begin music lessons in middle school, learning the instruments before delving into more advanced music in high school.
Alvarez said she personally went to school in Cobb County, learning the violin in sixth grade before moving on to the orchestra program at Lassiter High School.
“I’m a professional musician now because of that opportunity,” Alvarez said.
She emphasized how important it is for middle schools to have these opportunities not only for students to get a head start on lessons but also to help feed students into and build up high school programs.
“Until that happens, we’re going to struggle at the high school level,” Alvarez said.
Gerstenlauer said she worries, too, about young students not being able to continue with lessons after leaving the elementary orchestra program.
“I hate that it’s kind of a dead-end for a lot of them,” Gerstenlauer said. “Especially being a Title I area, a lot of kids, they can’t afford private lessons or to do some of these extracurricular orchestra activities that cost money.”
Rosseter explained she and the other teachers are working hard this school year to build that bridge by creating middle school classes and clubs that will hopefully help to grow the orchestra program in the county.
Gerstenlauer already plans to start a new club at a middle school in the 2022-23 year, and she has been working closely with East Forsyth High Principal Jeff Cheney and the east Forsyth school cluster to help grow the program in the area.
At the beginning of this school year, they started the East Forsyth Youth and Community Orchestra, meeting every Sunday on East Forsyth’s campus for lessons and practice sessions. The group started with 35 members and has since grown to 50.
"It’s just another way to get some people in the community who play, hopefully high schoolers and middle schoolers, an opportunity to play as a group,” Gerstenlauer said.
Parents in the group have also considered starting a nonprofit or booster club to help raise funds for a teacher to begin a club at East Forsyth for the students.
Moving by school cluster, Gerstenlauer and Rosseter both hope to eventually see orchestra programs in every school in the county.
Looking at how much the program has grown in the last several years and how many students attended the inaugural UFO Day, Rosseter said there is clear interest and excitement for the orchestra program in Forsyth.
“Obviously, the string players are here,” Rosseter said. “They’re already here. Now, it’s just creating programs for them to have more opportunities. That’s what this is all about.”