Saying cello to a new role
Senior conducts a piece of music for the winter orchestra concert
December 9, 2021
At the high school level, many musicians get a feel for what it’s like to be a member of an ensemble working towards mastering their instruments, but once that goal is achieved, what comes next? For senior Sophia Ollis, the answer was simple: she would transition from orchestra member to conductor.
Ollis, a member of orchestra, choir, Tri-M (Millard West’s honors music society), show choir and the president of the Orchestra Leadership Team is no stranger to the music department. However, after three years in orchestra, her position has evolved. Throughout the second semester of her senior year, she has been working with the Philharmonic Orchestra on a piece of music she had the opportunity to select and conduct.
“My love for music and ambition to constantly learn more about each aspect of music are what originally made me want to get involved,” Ollis said. “I talked to Mr. Zeleski one day and he offered me this opportunity, so I was super excited because I’d never done anything quite like this before. More than anything else though, I wanted to hear the music from a different perspective. In orchestras, choirs, show choirs and other music-related opportunities I’ve experienced, I’ve always been one of the people performing, so this has been an entirely new experience for me.”
Although Ollis brought with her years of experience as a member of the orchestra, there were still aspects of the conducting role she had yet to learn. However, that did not slow her down. In fact, she’s taken to these obstacles in a fervent way with the hope of learning from them which was apparent to orchestra director Samual Zeleski.
“She’s overcome the challenge of having to make all her mistakes in front of a group of people and still command their respect and learn,” Zeleski said. “The only way to learn how to lead an orchestra is to lead an orchestra. No amount of preparation will be perfect the first time. Something unexpected almost always happens and as a conductor sometimes those mistakes are your fault. Learning to accept that, own the mistake, improvise a better plan and then execute it, all with 30 sets of eyes on her is a monumental social challenge of which I am particularly proud of her for accomplishing.”
Zeleski works with Ollis to find more precise ways for her to lead the group. The guidance he provides is a strong foundation for her to learn through trial and error, and it has been crucial to her success as a conductor.
“We’ve had several sessions after class where we planned new rehearsal strategies and made adjustments based on what the orchestra did that day,” Zeleski said. “Most recently, I’ve been working with her while she’s conducting the group to make sure she is clearly communicating through her body gestures what she wants the orchestra to do. The rest is a lot of trial and error and helping her reflect on what she’s doing and how that affects the orchestra.”
Even with the switch from member to conductor challenging Ollis, her hard work and dedication to mastering the role can be seen and felt by many. Whether it be in big or small ways, the guidance she provides is appreciated by each member of the orchestra.
“I love how when Sophie teaches the class she is very understanding and is always very happy,” freshman Philharmonic member Tatum Shoemaker said. “Even if the piece isn’t sounding the best that day she always keeps a positive attitude. Sophie has helped me personally with this piece by taking it at a slower pace. In my section she has helped us when we are rushing on our part, focusing on just our group and helping us do it multiple times correctly to know for sure that we have it down.”
As the group gets closer to their performance date on Dec. 14, Ollis is able to reflect on her time conducting the group.
“I think that overall it’s helped shape me to become a more well-rounded musician,” Ollis said. “I was able to pick the piece and direct the entire song, so it has been a very rewarding process to see everything coming together. I still have a lot to learn, but I know that the skills I’ve picked up from this class will greatly shape how I work with all music and other musicians in the future.”
What Ollis is able to take away from her time conducting will most definitely set her apart from her peers. Having the experience of both an ensemble member and conductor will surely open up her approach to music in the future.
Band concert collaboration
Middle schools join Millard West band for winter performance
The band held a concert on Tuesday, Feb. 1 in the auditorium. They were joined by the Millard West choir, Beadle Middle School band and Russell Middle School band.
The joint high school and middle school concert is held every year. The goal is to inspire future Wildcats to join the band once they come to Millard West. In the non-competitive, low pressure environment, experienced high school musicians assist and mentor the younger middle school musicians. The middle school musicians got a taste of what a high school concert looks like, and all involved groups showcased the pieces they’ve been rehearsing for the past couple months.
The performance started out with two pieces done by the Russell and Beadle bands. Putting together the performance required months of planning and collaboration between the band directors at all schools involved.
“[Millard West band director John Keith] gets in touch with us back in November and we decide what literature to play,” Russell Middle School band director George Parker said. “We prepared two songs that we’re going to be playing with the Millard West wind ensemble. It’s always a good recruitment tool. It’s one thing for an adult to say ‘come join Millard West band,’ but it’s another for peers to say ‘come join us.’”
After the middle school pieces, the Millard West band performed three songs on their own. The selections encompassed a variety of musical styles and cultural backgrounds.
“The first one was ‘Galactic Fanfare,’” Keith said. “It was actually commissioned by a school down in Kansas, and that was a lot of fun, very much the style of Star Wars. The kids had a good time playing that one. The second one, ‘Crossing the Bosporus,’ had a totally different feel, a lot of Turkish styling in there with the different drums and everything so that was cool. The last one was called ‘Four: On a Remix of Beethoven,’ and they took Beethoven’s fifth classical theme and did a lot of variations on it.”
The band decided to extend the spirit of musical collaboration by inviting the choir to participate in the concert. Before the concert, the two groups got together to rehearse the song, “Be Thou my Vision,” a few times. The traditional Irish hymn allowed both the choir’s vocals and the band’s instrumentals to shine through. Then, for their third song of the night, they performed together.
“I talked with the [choir] directors back in the fall about the possibility of doing that and they were excited about it as well,” Keith said. “We rehearsed the band part in class, the choir rehearsed the vocal parts in class, and then we got together about three different times to work out balance.”
The collaboration between the band and choir allowed for a more creative arrangement than the band would have been able to do without vocal accompaniment. It also showcased a spirit of unity within the music department.
“The performance with the choir was incredible and something I will remember for a long time,” senior clarinetist Courtney Dice said. “The combination of the band and choir created a unique texture to the music that can’t be achieved with just one musical group. This was the first time that the band and choir had ever collaborated in a concert setting. The collaboration of the band and choir was important in showing that the music department works together instead of competing against each other.”
For the last two pieces of the night, the middle schoolers joined the high schoolers. This served not only as a recruitment tool for the high school band but also as a learning opportunity for the middle school musicians.
“It was actually a lot of fun,” senior percussionist Jackson Schula said. “Playing with the middle schoolers gets a little bit stressful sometimes because you’re still learning in middle school, so all of the high schoolers are trying to help with that transition.”
The performance will inform middle school musicians as they make their decisions about what activities they want to participate in throughout high school, and it was a bonding experience for all music groups involved.