St. Norbert College has facilities and organizations for interests of all kinds, but for the first time, there will be a place on campus for students who play stringed instruments. As a string player myself, I will admit that one of the few regrets I had about my choice to attend SNC was the lack of a strings program. It’s been a long-standing gap in opportunities for the musically-inclined, filled only by the college’s partnership with the Green Bay Youth Symphony Program. Now, with the Youth Symphony celebrating its 50th anniversary in May and the college offering String Ensemble and Group Guitar as courses for the first time, it’s a good year to play the strings.
Dr. Michael Rosewall, Associate Academic Dean and Professor of Music, provides some perspective on why strings have been almost missing from the curriculum. Though courses in string bass have been offered in the past, students who play the violin, viola, cello, or guitar have been left with limited options to use their talents or learn new skills, let alone perform. In addition to extracurricular participation in the Youth Symphony for students through the age of 21, Knight Theatre’s annual musical production usually has a place for one or two string musicians in the pit. Sometimes students even share their talents by providing the parish with service music, but there has been no outlet for, as Dr. Rosewall put it, “string orphans on campus”. There is no lack of enthusiasm from students, who have been inquiring about guitar lessons, a class or two, or even a credit exchange program with the Green Bay Civic Symphony for as long as Dr. Rosewall has been a part of campus. He points out that a major obstacle to establishing a program for strings at St. Norbert is the infrastructure required to support it, including the avenues for purchasing and maintaining instruments which do not now exist.
The nearest collegiate-level program is not at our cross-town neighbor UW-Green Bay, but at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton. While to my knowledge there are no plans for a Mulva Family Orchestra Hall at this time, the two new classes being offered this spring to gauge interest across campus are a fantastic step forward for musicians who miss their strings.
MUSI 100 Group Guitar is a beginner-level class requiring no previous skills or experience, and according to the count on Knightline, it’s already filled to capacity and ready to begin adding students to the waitlist. MUSI 025 String Ensemble, on the other hand, is not designed for any particular skill level. The repertoire will depend on the abilities students bring to the group. Students interested in the ensemble are expected to have foundational skills, but Dr. Rosewall, who will take charge of the group, notes the importance of choosing music that challenges everyone without excluding anyone. After meeting with the members, he will select repertoire to respect a variety of proficiency levels. With the ability to read music and some experience, students of the ensemble can expect two hours of rehearsal each week and an opportunity to perform at the close of the semester, likely with other small ensembles at the chamber music concert in the spring.
Students looking for a more intense experience ought to explore the possibility of playing with the Youth Symphony. Before the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra disbanded in 2015, the Youth Symphony, the Philharmonia, and the String Orchestra which comprised the youth program became the Youth Symphony at St. Norbert College. Students grade 10-age 21 play at a very high level in the Youth Symphony, while younger students gain skills and work their way up through the other two ensembles. St. Norbert students even enjoy a waiver on program tuition as a benefit of the partnership between the college and the program. Concerts are held in November and March, with rehearsals taking place on Sunday afternoons from 3:30-6:00 in the months preceding. As a participant who has sat onstage in the middle of the piece voted the saddest music in the world (Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings) and in the middle of the exhilarating and well-beloved strains of the theme from Star Wars (John Williams) pouring out of the instruments around me, I can assure any musicians, whether woodwinds, strings, brass, or percussion, that the experience has been worth every minute. The opportunity to be a part of an ensemble, this or any other, is to be weighed with careful consideration.
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” –Victor Hugo