NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - New Brunswick musicians - an orchestra of middle and high school students - got an experience of a lifetime, touring with violinist Lindsey Stirling for three of her performances these past couple weeks.
The eight-piece orchestra performed with Stirling at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park on November 9, the Beacon Theatre in New York City on November 14 and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia on November 16.
Stirling’s concerts showcase a combination of choreographed electric violin. Her music features a melodic combination of electric beats, dance, dubstep, classical music and electric violin.
The student’s tour was the latest in a years-long partnership between New Brunswick’s public schools and VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which has a goal is to provide a well-rounded, top-tier music program to schools which otherwise wouldn’t have had a music program.
That partnership stretches back about a decade, according to Chiho Feindler, the foundation’s senior director of programs and policy.
“Back then, the New Brunswick public schools did not have a single instrumental music program,” Feindler said. “And we’re really proud to say that we really were a big catalyst for them.”
Now, New Brunswick’s music program is “thriving,” Feindler said. When the chance opened up for students somewhere in the country to perform a mini-tour with Stirling, the student musicians were the clear choice.
“New Brunswick is really our model district,” Feindler said. “We started and finished in three years, and 10 years later, they’ve had a really thriving program.”
Earlier this year, VH1 gave the district two $15,000 grants to purchase musical instruments and equipment for the music programs at Paul Robeson and Lincoln Annex, as well as a Martin Ukulele for the Lincoln Annex.
In 2015, the New Brunswick Jazz Band performed live with violinist Regina Carter for its American Graduate Day Broadcast.
Preparation for the three concerts wasn’t exactly easy; the students had just over three weeks to practice the eight songs they were scheduled to perform.
School officials worked for three days straight to sort through the hundreds of students in its music programs,identifying who would be able to nail the complex musical arrangements.
“The arrangements that we played are the professional arrangements on her recordings,” said Lee Neamand, who supervises the district’s music, visual and fine arts programs. “They weren’t written for middle and high school students.”
The eight students put in roughly 35 hours practicing together, during which different staff members in the music program took turns leading students through the rehearsals.
That was on top of the potentially untold number of hours students spent practicing the material on their own.
“Not only did they have to be already familiar with the positions and technique that the music called for, they had to be able to learn it really quickly,” Neamand said. “They had to have good intonation; they had to have a really nice, round tone.”
Three of the students in the orchestra were in high school, but the other five were in grades 6 through 8.
“The younger students of course haven’t been playing as long, so of course it was a little more difficult,” Neamand noted.
Although the orchestra only performed four songs, they had to practice all eight that they were told might be on the set list.
The four songs the orchestra performed were “What Child Is This,” “Crystalize,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Carol of the Bells.”
Scheduling for the students was fine-tuned to a science; a nearly 12-hour period, spanning from getting picked up at school to making it back to their homes.
They’d arrive at the venue by 2 p.m., set up and do a soundcheck at 3 p.m. From there, they’d work with the musical director and go over what to expect.
Seating and lighting arrangements were different at every concert. Sometimes there’d be props like a fog machine, program features that could be distracting for anyone new to performing at large concerts.
Then students would have a dinner break at 5 p.m., then have a small pep event and meet and greet with Lindsey Stirling shortly after 6 p.m.
For the next three hours before curtain call, the students would study or catch up on homework or sleeping.
“Teachers emailed it to me, and I would print it all out and I’d have a folder of work, so I could make sure the students were up to date on that,” Neamand said. “It’s a very difficult balance and a good lesson to learn.”
The show would start around 9 p.m. and the students would be on within the next half hour.
At the Asbury Park concert, Stirling gave a shout-out to the orchestra, who were seated at the far end of the stage but still within plain view of the entire audience.
If they’re lucky, everyone made it back home by midnight.