Last year, Ashley Gardner was getting ready to perform in a concert with her fellow fifth-graders.
This year, though she’s now in sixth grade at Mount Nittany Middle School, the 11-year-old will still have a role in the Partners in Music Elementary Band and Orchestra Concert: She’s composed a song for it.
Even when Ashley was younger, her father, Robert Gardner, noticed that she had a creative interest in music. Around the house, she sang melodies that she’d made up, or alternative lyrics to songs.
“So from the early start,” Robert Gardner said, “she showed a really strong musical aptitude, and a creative side where she liked to create her own things.”
With parents who had careers in music — Carolyn Triozzi is an instrumental music teacher in the State College Area School District, and Robert Gardner is an associate professor of music education at Penn State — all of their three children were encouraged to pursue it, but Ashley found a deep interest.
She began playing the violin when she was 4 years old, according to Triozzi, but her musical aptitude quickly became even more apparent to her family when she picked up another instrument: the French horn.
“I think (her musical ability) is also highlighted by the fact that the horn is kind of a rare instrument to start at a young age ... and the horn’s a bit notorious because the notes are very close together as far as how you have to produce them, and she showed very little difficulty in that, even from the start,” Robert Gardner said.
12 years of Partners in Music
Robert Gardner and Linda Thornton, a music education professor, teach music education classes to their undergraduate Penn State students, and those undergraduates use that knowledge to teach elementary students around State College.
At the end of six weeks of practice every Wednesday morning during the fall semester, the elementary students perform a concert which the Penn State student teachers also conduct. The Partners in Music program, Robert Gardner said, is a “win-win” for everyone, because it allows student teachers to gain experience, and the elementary students to gain ensemble experience which had previously been unavailable before the spring semester.
After it began 12 years ago, the program attracted interest from schools throughout the district. Now, the program is also inviting students from Our Lady of Victory Catholic School and the Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School to participate.
Composing ‘Stellar Waves’
Robert Gardner has composed original songs for the concert before, and was thinking of doing it again until he realized Ashley had written a song, “Stellar Waves,” that was just as worthy of performance. Ashley had composed her song on the piano, so her dad offered to assist her in translating it into a orchestral piece. As the song was transformed from one medium to several, Ashley made the executive musical decisions to transform the piece she’d written.
Robert Gardner is proud of Ashley’s musical ability, and the fact that she composed a song without him having taught her anything previously about composing.
The song, Triozzi said, “was kind of the first (opportunity) of this kind for (Ashley), to actually take it from a song that she made up to something that’s quite big.”
The concert features a string orchestra, a “Gray Concert Band” and a “Maroon Concert Band” (based off the State College Area School District’s colors: maroon and gray). The orchestra will play Ashley’s piece, and the students count it as one of their favorite pieces, according to Mary Krohn-Smith, an elementary instrumental music teacher who is involved with the program.
The students were impressed that someone could compose a lengthy arrangement in different instruments, Krohn-Smith said, rather than just for one instrument.
“She wrote it for the violin, the viola, the cello, and the bass, (and they didn’t know) that that could be done, so it was inspiring to them,” Krohn-Smith said.
Making music together
In addition to seeing her current students play Ashley’s song, Krohn-Smith also taught Ashley last year, and remembers how Ashley performed in not only band and orchestra, but choir as well.
Now, Krohn-Smith is looking forward to watching these connections come together.
“It’s a fun evening,” Krohn-Smith said. “It’s a fun evening for the kids, for the parents, just to make music together, and for all the children to do community building and get to know someone from across town. And the whole thing for Ashley — for the kids to actually see her, it’s like ‘Oh, she’s (actually) the composer.’”
This year’s program will also be a homecoming of sorts for another former member: Emma Van Allen. Van Allen is now an elementary orchestra teacher in the State College Area School District, but, through the Partners in Music program, was also a student teacher and conductor for the concert before graduating from Penn State in 2014 with her degree in music education. This is the first year Van Allen has been a teacher in the district since graduation, and she said it’s been “wonderful” getting to experience both sides of the program, first as a participant and now as a teacher.
“As a teacher in State College Area School District, I find this opportunity extremely valuable for my participating fifth grade students,” Van Allen said via email. “As a pre-service teacher, the Penn State Partners in Music Program gave me authentic field experience conducting and teaching orchestra students.”
The program, she added, allowed her an opportunity to direct students during each rehearsal and perform a full piece at the concert — experiences that helped her develop different rehearsal techniques and learn how to teach efficiently.
“Seeing students excitedly progress in each rehearsal and work together to make music reinforced my dream of becoming an orchestra teacher,” Van Allen said.
If you go
What: Partners in Music Elementary Band and Orchestra Concert
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 14
Where: Park Forest Middle School, 2180 School Drive, State College