Arts & Culture Community Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange Towns

Columbia High School Orchestra Boasts Soaring Enrollment

For Columbia High School Orchestra Director Todd Van Beveren, it’s all about the kids—more than 150 of them in string, chamber, and virtuosi chamber classes, plus after-school programs like the Ravina Youth Orchestra. “We’re one of the top five schools in the state in terms of participation, with many more students expected as both the South Orange and Maplewood Middle School programs continue to grow,” he says.

It’s a big change from Van Beveren’s first year at Columbia, 11 years ago. “We had maybe 60 kids in the string orchestra and 12 in chamber,” he recalls, adding, “It seemed like a lot at the time. Of course, I didn’t have any children myself then, so my perspective was probably different.” (He now has four.)

Since his arrival, Van Beveren’s top priority has been creating a program where every student has the opportunity to develop a lifelong appreciation for orchestral music. “If they join the orchestra because their friends are in it, or they need an extra elective, that’s fine,” he says. “I’ve had students catch the bug and go to music school, others who join college ensembles or local orchestras, and still others who become appreciative audience members.

“Either way, classical music is a gift that enriches your whole life. The more people we give it to, the better.”

While several ensembles are open to musicians at all levels, the program also offers challenging, high-level opportunities to serious players. “We have graduates pursuing master’s degrees at Juilliard, the New England Conservatory, and Hart School of Music, among others,” Van Beveren says. “We also offer opportunities to budding conductors, along with AP Music Theory for future music majors.”

Like many burgeoning programs, the orchestra is experiencing some growing pains. “Our biggest challenges now are space” – classes rehearse in the high school auditorium but lose access to the stage when other groups need it to practice – “a growing need for individual instrument specialists, and scheduling,” Van Beveren says. “Because we lack the resources to offer orchestra for more than a few periods during the day, kids get shut out when available classes conflict with their core requirements. It’s especially hard on seniors who have been playing for three years and are forced to drop out just as they reach positions of leadership.”

Ironically, the problem is magnified by the orchestra’s unusually high retention rates. “An average of 95 to 98 percent of our students stay with the program, so we’re literally victims of our own success,” Van Beveren says.

Van Beveren and his CHS colleagues are working with district administration, including new Fine Arts Supervisor James Manno, as well as the Board of Education and parent groups like the Columbia High School Music Parents Association, to address these issues. “Families choose Maplewood and South Orange in part because of our district’s music program,” Van Beveren points out. We need to make sure it continues to thrive.”

Deborah Gaines is a member of the Columbia High School Music Parents Association, chsmpa.org. She writes for Huffington Post.

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