How to Sit in Orchestra

On Thursday, Harmony Project students walked into orchestra rehearsal with the chairs completely rearranged – instead of designated sections with rows and the usual seating assignments, they were in 2 giant semi circles, where everyone was playing side by side. This was inspired by:

  1. An experience I had a couple years ago in which a group of first graders redefined my assumptions about orchestra seating formation (you can read about it here)
  2. Our awesome Teaching Artists who do things like write improvisatory pieces for the kids called “Cows Love it Too” and write a sitar line for our Son Jarocho ensemble
  3. The call I received an hour before rehearsal from our conductor whose car had broken down (I needed a Plan B, fast)

Orchestra is brand new to our program – up until this point the winds and strings have been separate. Putting everyone together has taken a lot of creativity and flexibility, due to different levels of playing and instrumentation (e.g. a very large and strong saxophone section combined with violas who had never held their instrument until the first rehearsal). But having all the different instruments in one room felt important, at least back in August when my idealism still lived in the drawings and outlines of my big yellow notepad, not yet shaken by the harsh reality of squawking clarinets, hyperactive kids, and a music stand shortage. So a plan was drafted for 2 ensembles, and it was our older orchestra that was subject to this new seating formation last Thursday (post to come on our younger orchestra, which made this older one seem like a walk in the park). The week prior, one of our clarinetists had commented that he felt really far away and often couldn’t hear what people were saying up front. This lead to a discussion afterwards between teachers about how we could create a more inclusive setup. We debated the possibilities, imagining scenarios where kids would walk in and freak out when they saw the new seating formation, or get confused and lose their ability to follow along, or even cause complete anarchy.


But the funny part is, none of the students even blinked when they walked in. I even made a whole announcement about how we were trying something new, and if we didn’t like it we would change it, but how it was important to experiment and we could discuss it afterwards, blah blah blah. Not a single comment. As a side note, also no comment on the recycling bin that I was using as a music stand as I conducted. And no commotion either when I altogether stopped conducting and just listened to them play, starting to realize that for a young musician, orchestra can be anything. For the adults in the room, it may mean watching a conductor or having a real music stand in front of you, or copying the bowings of the principal player, or always having certain people behind you and certain ones in front of you. But for our students, I’m pretty sure it just means everyone playing together. So now I am back to my big yellow notepad. I haven’t yet worked out details for where this orchestra is going, but I know my goal for our students:

  1. Teach them to navigate the traditional orchestra system
  2. Give them the tools to change it

Joining forces


On Sunday a group of 15 Harmony Project students gave a concert at the Museum of Ventura County, as part of their Free Family Day. Over 250 people visited the museum that day, and we were proud to introduce many of them to New West Symphony for the first time ever. The museum is such a great resource in our community and we hope to continue to collaborate!