Orcas High School students return to Carnegie Hall

For the fifth year in a row, students enrolled in the Orcas Island High School strings program flew to New York City to perform at the High School Honors Performance Series at Carnegie Hall alongside talented peers from around the globe.

“We had students this year that came from 47 United States, Guam, three provinces of Canada, Bermuda, Hong Kong, Mexico, Qatar and South Korea,” WorldStride’s Honors Performance Series program director Morgan Smith said. “For a lot of them, this is the first time they’re around other students who are as passionate about this as they are, that share that same excitement and work ethic for music. It’s an honor to see them come together and find new friendships.”

Out of 270 performers at Carnegie, two came from Orcas this year — Kai Ross, who plays viola and Ashling Gordon who plays the violin. Kai’s mother, Vala Ross, recalls prior to the Carnegie nomination and application process, the day before school started, “we didn’t even have a strings program confirmed.”

Due to fluctuation in enrollment numbers and budget restraints, the strings program at the public high school was “on the chopping block,” as Ross put it. Concerned, a handful of parents worked with the school as well as Orcas Island’s Music Advocacy Group to rally behind the few students who were enrolled. To note: to be nominated for the Carnegie Hall program, students are required to be involved in their school orchestras. By the first day of school, Pamela Wright — the high school strings instructor — had a committed class of five.

“We really had to pressure the school into keeping that program available for these kids. I believe having the voice of MAG behind us really made it possible,” Ross said. “We really see the importance of keeping the orchestra curriculum — it’s taking the kids to global levels that wouldn’t otherwise be available if the strings class wasn’t offered.”

Wright has been nominating her students for the Honors Performance Series since 2016 when Paris Wilson was selected to perform violin. Wilson went on later that year to perform as part of the same program at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. But simply earning a nomination doesn’t land students a spot on stage, Wright said. Once nominated, the competitive application process requires each student to submit a musical performance resume and audition recording. Smith indicated the applications are then reviewed by a board of college and music professionals.

If selected, families must then supply the program expense of $1,975 as well as the additional cost for airfare and incidentals. Smith said the fees are put toward the student’s experience, which includes a multi-night stay in a hotel adjacent to Times Square, two, 8-hour rehearsal days with world-renowned conductors and a Broadway play or musical. Kai Ross says he chose to see Aladdin.

“The choice to audition is theirs, all I do is nominate them. It’s not for everybody, you’ve got to be motivated and you have to actually practice and put an audition in,” Wright said, who indicated she “jumped on the Honors Performance Series bandwagon” when she received a generic marketing email from the organization in 2015. Wright, a lifelong musician and dedicated musical educator, applies and is consistently selected to chaperone groups of students each year as well. This January, she says she was honored to chaperone a group of 15 students, including Kai and Ashling, in the High School Honors Orchestra.

“I’m super proud of them for following through and pulling their weight when they were there. They made lifelong friends in the small group I chaperoned. Two people from Guam, one from Shanghai, several from California, one from Arizona and one from Texas,” Wright said. “Kai and Ashling were excited to be there but stressed to be there. After the concert, we had a celebratory dinner cruise and dance on a three story yacht that took us right by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Watching them, it was like they were on a high from the musical performance.”

Ross said he was expecting to feel nervous at the sheer size of the Carnegie stage and stressed from rehearsing 8-hours a day, but ultimately being surrounded by peers of his skill level made things exciting.

Beyond GoFundMe accounts and writing to friends and family for funds, Vala Ross says MAG was instrumental in helping students achieve this dream by offering partial scholarships of $500 each to her son and Gordon. The scholarships came from the Joyce Burghardt Fund, established in 2017 in honor of Joyce Burghardt, a lifelong school music advocate and founding member of MAG.

MAG Board member Sharon Ho said, “We realized that some of our most promising students may hesitate to apply or participate in next-level opportunities that could be very beneficial for their musical growth because of financial considerations. Much of MAG’s work is focused on nurturing and growing the public school’s music program for K-12 grades. Our annual contribution from donors helps cover music scores, instrument and equipment purchase, transport for off-island music related activities and other essentials to keep the program thriving. This general fund supplements almost half of the school yearly budget for the school music program.”

Wright, too, says she excites her music students with regional, national and global opportunities.

“Our little island is great, but the students need more. I take them to a contest at Western Washington University. I get them off the island as much as I can. Global exposure is a much higher level of exposure. The music is harder, it’s more of a challenge,” Wright said.

Ross says she feels it’s important for the community to see where the money MAG fundraises each year goes, and that the organization does so much more than “buy ukuleles.”

“These kids are having these amazing opportunities to expand their cultural horizons and enhance their performance skills on a level that can’t be offered on the island,” Vala said.

MAG’s 23rd annual fundraiser titled “100 Musicians! 1 Great Cause!” is on the first Sunday of March every year. The Orcas Choral Society, the Orcas Island Community Band, Island Sinfonia and student musicians will perform at 3 p.m. on March 1 in the Orcas High School gym.

For more information about WorldStride’s Honors Performance Series program, visit https://honorsperformance.org/

What’s next? Gordon said, “I’m going to Disneyland to play there soon, so that’ll be fun! But long term? I’d like to go into music psychology and music to be a musical therapist. Music is practically my life now! And I’m happy that it is!”

Contributed photo | Carnegie Hall, New York City during the Sunday high school Matinee performance

Contributed photo | Carnegie Hall, New York City during the Sunday high school Matinee performance