WHITEFISH – Orchestra in Whitefish’s schools began with 30 violins, 11 kids and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“It wasn’t even really a class,” Jenanne Solberg, a Whitefish high school and middle school teacher, said. “The kids chose to take a little orchestra during their lunch period. They’d have their peanut butter and jelly and then we’d play.”
Six years later, that initial group of students – seven of them are still in orchestra – is graduating. Theirs is the first graduating class at Whitefish High School that’s had orchestra through its entire high school career.
One of only four Class A orchestras in the state, the Whitefish program has changed as well, growing from the opening 11 students and a lunchtime class to nearly 100 kids spread over three classes – two in the middle school and one in the high school. This fall, the school district will add another class in the middle school to meet growing interest.
“It’s just grown every year,” Solberg said. From the community to the school administration, she said, “I didn’t have any roadblocks when I came up with that crazy idea.”
When Solberg moved to the Flathead in the summer of 2002, there was no orchestra music at Whitefish’s public schools. She had been hired to teach general music to fifth- and sixth-grade students and choir to seventh- and eighth-graders.
But at North Valley Music School, a nonprofit, community-based music school, Solberg saw young students showing interest and an opportunity to build on their enthusiasm.
“They had these tiny kids doing Suzuki violin and cello,” Solberg said, “and it just didn’t make sense to me that we had kids over there taking private lessons but when they got into the school system there was no group for them to perform with.”
Solberg wrote a grant to start an orchestra program and went to Whitefish Credit Union asking for help. She got enough money to buy 30 violins.
The fifth- and sixth-graders got the violins first, rotating through in small groups so that by the end the year, every student had gotten to try the instrument for a few weeks.
The next year, those first 11 students were interested enough to take it a step further, creating the lunchtime orchestra, and by the time they were seventh-graders an orchestra class was added to the regular schedule.
When the core group moved on to high school, then the orchestra program started there, too.
“I don’t know if they even really understand the legacy that they are making,” Solberg said. “Those kids, they had to agree to start something from nothing. They had to say, ‘Sure, we’re in,’ and then stick with it for seven years.”
In addition to those intrepid first students, Solberg says the community – endlessly supportive of arts and culture and keen on fundraising – and the school administration are responsible for the program’s success.
“As many times as I can say, these sorts of things don’t happen just every place,” she said. “It really could not have happened if the town didn’t go for it, starting with the school and the Whitefish Credit Union.”
Students, however, all offer another single reason for the orchestra’s success: “Ms. Solberg.”
They describe her as “kooky and fun,” “caring” and willing to spend hours of extra time to help them. She combines her humor and laid-back personality with a drive to make them do better, taking them from sounding like a “herd of cats” to a superior rating – the highest score – at the state music festival this year.
A handful of them will go on to study music in college. All of them say they’ll continue playing.
“Ms. Solberg has definitely been a big influence in my life – pretty much changed my life really,” senior Sam Wiley, a violinist, said. “I look forward to orchestra everyday.”
When senior Austin Berscheid joined the lunchtime orchestra in sixth grade he was a kid from an “unmusical family” who had never played an instrument. Now, he’s an accomplished young cellist, playing with the Glacier Symphony.
In the fall, he’ll enroll at Montana State University to study music education.
“Ms. Solberg has done so much for me – she’s like my second mother,” Berscheid said. “She introduced me to what I love. I don’t even know if there’s a thank you big enough.”
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