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In Her Own Words: Jirah Montgomery



A former member of the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra, Jirah Montgomery also received musical training through the Symphony's Northwest Residency Program. Now, as an assistant with the Charlotte Symphony helping with the Youth Orchestra program, Jirah shares how early access to music education has shaped her into the person she is today.  

My name is Jirah Montgomery, and I've been playing the violin for close to 13 years. Throughout the years, I've learned countless things about how to play the violin both skillfully and artistically. I've learned that playing every note in a piece of music perfectly does not equate to you mastering the piece. There may be a number of "rules" as a violinist, but it's the sole act of playing the violin that helps me feel liberated as I continue to grow up. 

I started playing the violin in 3rd grade in a community program at my elementary school. It's where I met my first violin teacher, a woman I still learn from and now work with today. I had liked the act of playing/learning the violin, but I was not too keen on learning how to read sheet music. I would simply remember how a piece sounded as the class played it all together, go home, and play around on the violin until I found the correct notes by ear. I didn't get very far with this method, as the more challenging the music grew, the more challenging it was to "fake it till I made it". However, once my teacher found out my method, she made sure to spend time with me, showing me how to read music. Not only did she teach me how to read music, but she helped me find my passion for music. She taught me how to take the joy and motivation I felt from actually learning the notes and apply them to the music, literally. 

That feeling continued throughout elementary to middle school, from middle school to high school, and then on. That joy I felt from my first year of playing the violin continued to grow through intense music camps/events, music auditions (both the successful ones and not so successful ones), good seating auditions, and not so good seating auditions. No matter what challenge I encountered and no matter how I came out at the end of the challenge, that joy stayed there, and eventually, through opportunities I was blessed to receive, I was able to share that joy with others. 
 

Jirah Montgomery performing side-by-side with the Charlotte Symphony as part of the Northwest Residency Program

I mentioned those music camps/events where I would be able to share my joy of music with others, but those were usually for a weekend or a week (at the most). It was the events through CSA, CSYO, and my middle/high school orchestra that helped me make longtime friends who also have a passion for music. I would look forward to the days where I would leave school and head to "reunion class" or CSYO rehearsals. Some of my fondest memories come from my reunion class days where we would have potlucks every once in a while. We would all bring our food of choice (it didn't matter whether it was homemade, KFC, or a cultural dish) and we would all sit and eat like a huge family (which we definitely were). I also have countless memories, all of them fond, from CSYO. The rehearsals were held at my high school, so every Tuesday my friends and I would meet in the orchestra room (where the rehearsal took place) before walking out to my car in the student parking lot. We would drive through after-school traffic to a cookout not too far from the school, and we would do this every Tuesday without fail. We would get back to the school, eat, and then help set up. It may seem simple to some, even a little "too much" to others, but it was something I genuinely looked forward to every week. What's better than a meal with close friends followed by playing beautiful but challenging music alongside other friends? 

Even in the hardest times, I vividly remember music always helping me in some way. It could be listening to music, playing music, or downloading random sheets of music from IMSLP; without fail, music has always been there for me. A lot of people wonder where they would be had they not done something when they were younger; I have never wondered what my life would be like had I not continued to play the violin in elementary. 

Right now, as a junior in college, I major in Criminal Justice and minor in Psychology. I've been asked what made me "stop liking the violin". I stand by my answer that I never stopped liking the violin and that I just found something else that I'm also passionate about. Music has always been, and will always be, a monumental part of my life. It's because of music that I've made the friends I have today, who in turn have shaped me into the person I am today. Music has quite literally had an effect on everything in my life, and I honestly wouldn't have it any other way. 

~Jirah Montgomery  Read more

Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as CSYO, Education.

Welcoming Back Our Youth Orchestra Musicians

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The Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra is back for the 2021-22 season! On September 7, our Youth Orchestra Programs returned to in-person rehearsals at Park Road Baptist Church. Rehearsals resumed in the Gymnasium allowing for a greater number of students to socially distance while masked. Despite the larger rehearsal space, our attendance has grown and necessitated splitting the orchestra into two smaller groups for rehearsal purposes. Those mini orchestras are rehearsing the same repertoire and will later be combined for full rehearsals and concerts. Everyone on site was overjoyed and smiling beneath their masks at the prospect of making music again. Read more

Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as CSYO, Education.

Youth Orchestras Get Back to In-Person Rehearsals

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Dr. Jessica Morel leads the CSO Youth Philharmonic in their first rehearsal of the seasons.
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The CSO Youth Orchestra in their first rehearsal in more than a year.
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Dr. Jessica Morel leads the CSO Youth Philharmonic in their first rehearsal of the seasons.
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The CSO Youth Orchestra in their first rehearsal in more than a year.
 
 
 
After 12 months apart, the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestras got back to in-person rehearsing thanks to the generosity of Park Road Baptist Church, which allowed the groups to safely gather in their parking lot. Spirits were high as the groups came together to rehearse works by Chance, Mozart, Mackey, Bryant, Beethoven, and more! The outdoor location allowed for lots of music while still adhering to social distancing guidelines. 

The Youth Orchestra's sounded so wonderful that neighborhood families came by to watch them rehearse from a distance! 


CSO Resident Conductor, and Youth Orchestra conductor, Christopher James Lees shares his excitement at the first rehearsal


Read more

Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestras, CSYO, Education.

Representing Project Harmony


We couldn't be prouder of Kaleb, Shreya, and Micah, who join our Director of Youth Orchestra Programs Aram Kim Bryan in representing the Charlotte Symphony's Project Harmony at the 2021 El Sistema USA National Symposium and Seminario. This year's theme is "Connect, Adapt, Thrive!" with a focus on racial diversity and cultural understanding, musical excellence during the pandemic, and team and family support pre- and post-pandemic. 

Kaleb, Shreya, and Micah performed the premiere of "What We Will Be," a work composed by Danielle Williams of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids, as part of the 2021 ESUSA National Seminario Orchestra. Along with her PRESTO (Program for Rising El Sistema Organizations) Cohort members, Aram Kim Bryan will present on the core values of El Sistema, USA.
 
From left to right: Shreya, Micah, & Kaleb

A powerful after-school intensive program serving families who face challenges and seek to provide greater opportunities for their children, Project Harmony provides free instruments, ensemble music training, and homework help to Charlotte area students. Together with our project partner, Arts+, the CSO serves more than 200 Charlotte area students. 

Project Harmony is inspired by the revolutionary music-for-social-change organization, El Sistema, which began in Venezuela in 1975. There are more than 100 El Sistema USA member organizations and programs throughout the United States. The CSO is one of only five in the state of North Carolina, and Project Harmony is the only affiliated program in the Charlotte region. Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as community, Education, Project Harmony.

A thank you to arts educators, from CSO Musicians

This week we're celebrating Arts in Education Week, a national celebration recognizing the transformative power of the arts in education. As professional musicians, Principal Clarinetist Taylor Marino and horn player Andrew Fierova have been profoundly affected by their music education. We asked them to share their stories. 


Taylor Marino, Principal Clarinetist:

"Having grown up in Charlotte, I owe this city and its music educators a great deal of gratitude for supporting me and inspiring me to pursue a musical life, which ultimately led me back home to be a part of the Charlotte Symphony. 

My middle school band director at South Charlotte Middle School, Carl Ratliff, had a profound influence on me and taught me to pursue excellence, stay focused, and enjoy the beauty that music has to offer. I think of him often, and his great playing and musicianship as a saxophonist was inspiring as well.
At Providence High School, my band director Paul Jackson was an incredible man with a work ethic and drive like I had never seen before. Even while battling cancer, he showed up to rehearsal every day and gave every ounce of energy to the music. His devotion and commitment has stuck with me forever and even though he very tragically passed away 8 years ago, his passion and love of music lives on every day in myself and all the students he influenced. 

My private clarinet teachers, Jim Ruth and Michael Hough were also very important figures in my life. Jim Ruth started me on clarinet at the Music and Arts store and taught me great fundamental exercises that jump started my proficiency in music. Michael Hough, who is band director at Providence Day School and plays with the symphony often, really fine-tuned my playing and prepared me for the rigorous journey that a life in music would be. 

I am beyond grateful to be back in my hometown sharing music with the community that has given me such wonderful musical support."

Andrew Fierova, Horn:

"Music was an important part of my public schooling from elementary through high school in South Carolina's School District 6. It led me to discover a love of performing that set me on my current career path. I loved singing with our elementary school chorus, especially when the songs had corresponding motions. My second elementary school provided the opportunity to join a recorder ensemble, where I learned my first wind instrument. When I got to middle school, I started learning the horn. Band in middle school provided a confidence booster, as I found something that I was truly good at. This helped me to succeed in the rest of school and also find my friend group.

Dorman high school had a very well-supported music program and nice facilities. I was given the opportunity to perform in multiple ensembles, from orchestra to jazz band, as well as outside opportunities like honor bands. These continued opportunities solidified my desire to become a performer.  Without the amazing band directors that helped me along the way, I would not be a member of the Charlotte Symphony today!" Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as CSO Musicians, Education, Musicians.

Celebrating Arts in Education Week

This week we're celebrating Arts in Education Week, a national celebration recognizing the transformative power of the arts in education. To learn more about the positive effect music education has on students, we caught up with Crystal Briley, a music teacher at University Park Creative Arts School.


How were you introduced to music as a child?
I grew up in a musical household -- one where many of my memories are tied to singing together at family gatherings. Music was a natural influence in my life. While many others were outside playing games or riding bicycles, I was learning piano or singing various songs my family had taught me. I am extremely grateful I was able to have the experience of private lessons and that my natural gifts leaned towards music.
My experience is not like those of many of my students and this is what leads my teaching -- that every student deserves an exemplary arts education even if they cannot have private lessons to receive it.

How do the CSO's Education programs help you to achieve that?
Many of my students have never been exposed to the arts outside of our classroom or their own home. The partnership with the CSO through the Link Up program and other various educational programs has offered our students the opportunity to see real life musicians and given me a way to introduce my students to classical music in an accessible and relevant way. When students step foot into the concert hall and hear the insistent call of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or sing along with the eerily forceful O Fortuna from my education mentor, Carl Orff, it does not go over their heads -- it settles deep within them. They experience the music in the classroom and then bring their 'practice' to the hall and go home forever changed. Our time with the CSO is one of the more requested things we do ... "when do I get to play with the CSO at Link Up?" I must admit, the experience of listening to over 1000 students play recorder together with the CSO is an experience very hard to replicate!

Do you have any specific memories of music inspiring or affecting one of your students?
Many of my students have been inspired by music. But one really strikes my mind. We were sitting in class one day learning the recorder parts to The New World Symphony melody. It is a simple theme and one which I thought would be lost on my students. We had spent time working on the piece through listening, playing, and movement. It was finally at the time where I asked them to reflect on what this music meant to them personally. Her response was one that I will never forget. "This music makes me calm. When everything around me seems crazy, I can listen to this song and find peace." When a child can bring such wisdom to a simple and haunting melody, I find that I too am inspired.

Why do you think it's important to keep the arts in school?
We can talk about how the arts are important to our student's education or to our economy and industry. But it is Suzuki who said, "teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music ... and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart." At a time where the social emotional well-being of all humans is at stake, we must take care to teach students to have beautiful hearts.

Link Up 2017
Our students need a place to safely express themselves and we, as their teachers, are the ones who can provide the pathways for them to do this. What better place than the arts classroom to provide this creative and imaginative space? Beautiful hearts are at stake!

What inspires you to teach?
I pursued a career in opera before teaching-- I still love singing and listening to the genre but my heart is with my students. I absolutely love teaching and it is hardly a "job" to me. Through all the difficulties, there is nowhere else I'd rather be. My students give me such joy and they are the reason I get up and go to work every day -- even if it is in a crazy virtual space! Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as Education, interview.

Education Goes Virtual


Planning a school year full of informational, diverse, and engaging music education programs can be challenging in a normal year, but as school instruction has moved online, Charlotte Symphony musicians and members of the education team went into overdrive -- adapting content that teachers, students, and families can access virtually. 

"The biggest challenge is the ever-changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes it very hard to plan ahead," said Director of Education & Community Engagement Chris Stonnell. "The way we've planned and structured our year in the past is all out the window, which has been a hard adjustment."

But Stonnell would rather focus on the opportunity for innovation, and what he and his team can offer this year. Since last spring, they've been testing out various virtual programs -- a trial run to help them determine what the CSO can offer on a wider scale this school year. 

Students in grades K-5 will have access to Musician Informances -- a 30-minute interactive program with CSO musicians that blend live musical performances with discussions about their instruments.


Students in grades K-2 can experience CSO Associate Concertmaster Kari Giles and pianist/composer Leonard Mark Lewis join together virtually for an engaging performance of solo violin selections culminating with the famous children's book Ferdinand the Bull told through both words and music. 

CSO musicians are also eager to connect with aspiring student musicians by providing invaluable feedback directly through Zoom or other video platforms. These virtual coaching sessions are available either as a 1-on-1 or in a master-class format, where the CSO musician works with an individual student while the rest of the class observes, and learns techniques to apply to their own playing. 


Stonnell's plans for the future are ambitious. "Right now we are ready to go with programs that send individual musicians into virtual classrooms, but are working on ways to make ensemble performances, and even full CSO educational concerts, accessible virtually -- so stay tuned!" Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as Education.

Congratulations to our CSYO Grads!

Although we weren't able to gather together for our final concert, we still want to honor our graduating seniors by acknowledging their accomplishments, and thanking them for their dedication to the Youth Orchestra. 

In the video below Christopher James Lees, Principal Conductor of the Youth Orchestra Program, highlights each graduating student's achievements and gives them the opportunity to talk about what they love about the program, and where they are headed after graduation.

Best of luck to our 2020 graduates, we're so proud of you!

Read more

Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestras, CSYO, Education.

Educating from a distance

During this time of social distancing, our Education & Community Engagement team and Youth Orchestra Programs team have been hard at work creating and adapting content that teachers, students, orchestra members, and families can access from their homes.



As school instruction has moved to online classrooms, so have our musicians. They're providing virtual instrument coaching to students in local schools. In this Zoom meeting students, teachers, and CSO musicians follow along with the music as a violin student from Northwest School of the Arts performs solo.

Musicians and members of the staff have also participated in coaching and career panels, answering student's questions about what it's like to be a professional musician and what their career options are, both onstage and off. These panels are funded by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. 



Our Youth Orchestra's 2020-21 season auditions are complete! Everyone adapted quickly to conduct virtual auditions for over 200 students over the course of four days. 



The rehearsals must go on! Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion players from the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra get together virtually to check-in, discuss their music, and see familiar faces again.



Youth Philharmonic conductor Jessica Morel recorded lectures on Brahms and Beethoven, covering everything from the composers' childhood, personalities, and most famous pieces. 



In lieu of the special shout-outs they would have received at their final concert, Resident Conductor Christopher James Lees recorded special videos for the seniors, thanking them for their commitment to the program and sharing their plans for next year. 



For in-home learning, musical coloring pages and word searches are available at #CSOatHome, in addition to a series of virtual Education Concerts that include digital guides paired with audio playlists. Teachers and parents can choose the elements that best meet their needs to introduce young learners to classical repertoire. The program themes cover everything from fairy tales to math concepts and take participants on journeys into outer space and backwards through time. 

The Charlotte Symphony's staff and musicians are eager to find even more ways to stay connected with our community and provide educational resources during this time. Keep checking #CSOatHome for more content. Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as Education.

14 years of passion for arts education & outreach with Chris Stonnell



Chris Stonnell, Director of Education and Community Engagement for your Charlotte Symphony, has a long history with, and passion for, the arts in Charlotte. We sat down with Chris to learn more about why he chose this profession, and to find out what's next for education and community engagement at the CSO.


Chris, you've been working for the Charlotte Symphony longer than anyone else on staff. What was your path to the CSO?
I started working as a chorus and drama teacher in Cabarrus County where I grew up. I spent a little over 4 years teaching in public schools but found myself getting a little burned out from the grind. I loved the teaching part of it - the rewards of seeing the finished product - but didn't enjoy the classroom management, the paperwork, the endless meetings. I knew there had to be something else I could do with my knowledge of the arts and education so I took a chance and quit my job - three months before getting married.

Wow. And how did your significant other react to that?
Well, she still married me!

So, what came next?
Either through luck or divine intervention the School Programs Manager position opened up at the CSO! I started in January of 2006 and haven't looked back.

What changes have you seen in the Charlotte community through your years here?
It just continues growing; and with it so does the diversity of the community! The CSO has really been responding to all of this growth. We're reaching new populations and our community outreach has really taken off in the last few years.
Healing Hands performance
We're now able to go out into the community more instead of mainly presenting concerts in uptown Charlotte.

Is that important?
Yes! It shows that we value our community. Music should not be a luxury; it should be accessible for everyone. 

That's a beautiful idea. Do you think the CSO's community programs are having that effect?
We're really starting to see the long-term successes of programs that we've been doing for a while. I was around for the very beginning, when Project Harmony started at Winterfield Elementary. We've had some success creating a pipeline for students from there to Northwest School of the Arts through to our Youth Orchestras.


Project Harmony students
And it's all about providing that pipeline, because down the road, we'd love to see our community reflected onstage. It's difficult because it all comes down to access. If you don't start playing an instrument until middle school you're already at a disadvantage to those that could afford private lessons at an earlier age. The idea is trying to help bridge that gap. 

What's next for education and community engagement at the CSO?
I'd like to see us take the successful programs that we have and expand upon them - deepen their impact. I also want to look at other areas of the community that we haven't reached yet. We're starting to look into sensory friendly concerts. Again, it's about accessibility. Coming uptown at night to sit in an assigned seat for 2 plus hours in a darkened theater can be challenging for patrons with disabilities, but there's no reason why they shouldn't have access to be able to experience the CSO.

So, what do you do when you're not sharing classical music with the world?
I really like singing and acting in community theatre shows, but when you work in the arts, Friday and Saturday nights are when the magic happens, so it's hard to find time for my own performances! I also enjoy sports; I go to a lot of Panthers games. I'm also a proud Appalachian State University grad, so I've been really happy with their success in football. I also really like movies - especially scary ones! 

Then I have to ask, which horror movie score would you like to hear the CSO perform?
Oh, that's tough. I'd have to say Psycho. The score is great - I'd love to hear that played by the CSO! 

Well, we'll have to try to make that happen! Thanks so much for allowing us to get to know you a little better.
Any time. Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as Education, interview.

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