Student symphony orchestra raises the bar School of the Arts conductor sees ‘potential for greatness’

Conductor and teacher Chris Selby conducts the School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra during a recent rehearsal.

The musicians are fully absorbed, attuned to the movements of their conductor’s baton, listening attentively to his comments during brief pauses.

Christopher Selby explains that “marcato” doesn’t mean the notes should be foreshortened, only emphasized. He picks up his violin to demonstrate. He tells the musicians that the end of this piece by Howard Hanson, “Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns,” is meant to be “taking on more weight” as it slows.

They play through it. Selby is pleased.

“For the first time through together, you sound amazing,” he tells them.

Selby and the Charleston County School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra are preparing for a concert and for an upcoming state competition.

They also will perform the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and Rossini’s William Tell Overture.

This is not easy music. Yet the students are tackling it with surprising determination and proficiency. The Tchaikovsky flows and sings in 5/4 time; the William Tell Overture raises the hair on the back of your neck.

The orchestra, 72 student musicians strong, is sounding so good, it’s attracting a couple of new fans: Yuriy Bekker, concertmaster of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and CSO Music Director Ken Lam. Both have worked with the musicians in rehearsal.

Selby, who has been in charge of the School of the Arts’ high school orchestras — the symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra and Symphonietta — since 2012, said his goals are ambitious. He wants to grow the program, enlarge the symphony orchestra and make the group one of the best of its kind in the country.

“Inherent in the SOA job is the potential for greatness,” he said.

Not that it’s without challenges. He’s dealing with young musicians who have other interests and concerns. They are striving to do well academically; they are managing increasingly complicated social lives; they are balancing school commitments with domestic obligations.

Nevertheless, Selby constantly is raising the bar. It’s fashionable these days to encourage students with positive reinforcement, “but sometimes kids need to be told, ‘That’s not good enough,’ ” especially at a school of young achievers, he said.

Selby came to SOA from Spring Valley High School in Columbia where he built the orchestra program over the course of seven years. In 2012, the Spring Valley ensemble won first place at the National Orchestra Festival.

That same year, Sarah Fitzgerald, then the orchestra coordinator at SOA, decided it was time for her to hand off the podium to a successor. In collaboration with band director Basil Kerr, she had built up the program over a decade. It had begun as an after-school enterprise but soon became part of the regular school day. She knew Selby and invited him to apply for the job.

“I talked him into following me,” she said from her desk in the music technology room, where she now teaches.

SOA Principal Shannon Cook said Selby’s skillset, experience and training put him in a good position to push for higher musical standards. The goal is to grow the size of the symphony orchestra to 99, she said. That would have ramifications throughout the school: enlarging student enrollment by perhaps 10 per grade would require additional resources, Cook said.

“Five years from now, we hope we would build to a place where we have the number of students and diversity that represent the best this district has to offer,” she said.

That’s an issue she’s discussing with her school district colleagues. Meanwhile, the emphasis is on recruitment. Cook and Selby both are trying to balance the need to attract talented students with the potentially corrosive effects of a school choice policy that can drain neighborhood schools of their young artists and achievers.

It’s a dilemma for the countywide magnet school, which is meant to provide arts-intensive programming and superior academics to a cohort of students who must audition to get in.

Selby said his wife, Margaret Selby, has tripled the size of the strings program at Laing Middle School in Mount Pleasant, which now has about 150 participating students. This is the answer, he said: Help all schools in the district strengthen their arts programming. Then there will be plenty of talent to go round.

“An orchestra doesn’t just belong at an arts school,” Selby said, thinking back to his days at Spring Valley.

At SOA, the students are seeking an extraordinary learning experience that puts the arts at its center, Selby said. In the orchestra room, he spends a lot of time teaching technique, indeed, he’s the co-author of the book “Habits of a Successful String Musician” and he holds clinics on technique all over the country.

“There’s lots of stuff to get past before you can make a beautiful tone,” he said.

Selby strives to create an environment akin to that in which professional musicians work. He wants to earn the trust of young players. He expects them to come to rehearsal prepared. He relies on them to play musically, observing dynamics and indicated phrasing.

He selects repertoire that’s hard, but not crazy-hard. He wants to challenge the musicians, not instill panic and anxiety.

“To prepare these kids for college, they are actually playing college repertoire,” he said.

His efforts have caught the attention of Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s Lam, who was invited to conduct the SOA ensemble recently, and Bekker, who has led sectional string rehearsals.

“The students were hungry to learn,” Bekker recalled. “They were ambitious, excited and very responsive to my coachings.”

He said many people have taken note of the improving quality of the SOA orchestra.

“There’s tremendous excitement from the students and from the parents, who are excited about where the orchestra is going, and the quality of the orchestra, how good they sound,” Bekker said. “Selby has vision, he’s elevated the orchestra. Students are challenged playing real repertoire. He obviously cares about them, and they respect him. It seems like he energized the program, but also energized the parents. ... It’s so good for our community.”

Elliott Weeks, a 10th-grader and viola player, confirmed Bekker’s observations.

“It really is a big treat to have (Selby) here,” Elliott said. The orchestra has come together as a family, more and more each year. Through bonding in the orchestra, we get better. ... I think the role of the conductor is not necessarily to bring together everything, he’s actually part of the orchestra.”

Bailey Southard, an 11th-grader and flute player, said Selby is a big presence on the podium to whom the students really want to listen. She said she feels lucky to work with someone of his caliber.

“It’s like we have an All-State conductor every day,” Bailey said.

Selby and the players are working on the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, a graceful waltz-like dance, except in 5/4 time. It has lots of flowing phrases, especially in the strings, and it’s not nearly as simple as it seems. Selby tells the students to remain aware of who, at any given moment, has the melody so that it might be allowed to come to the fore. Then they move on to the William Tell Overture, first discussing the tempo.

“Fast but in control,” Selby says. “A Ferrari at 80 is pretty exciting; it doesn’t have to go 120.”

It begins with a beautiful prelude featuring cello solo with string accompaniment. Then comes the storm, with its rolling thunder in the strings and flashes of lightning in the winds, first distant then overhead. The storm recedes, giving way to a lilting alpine melody in the flute and oboe. And then comes the finale so familiar to listeners.

The trumpets and horns blast their announcement, and then the young players are off and running. The violinists executing well that difficult ricochet bowing, the wind players fluttering up and down their range, the brass players bellowing, the percussionists pounding and crashing.
It sends a shiver of excitement up the spine.

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