Delaware students band together to play Carnegie Hall

In the beginning, nearly a decade ago, Brandywine School District orchestra director Anita Pisano migrated from building to building, helping at most a handful of students in each school practice the violin, viola, cello and upright bass.

She would pull her pupils out of core classes such as math, English and science to help them with their string instruments. Some days she’d be in nearly all of the northern Delaware district’s six middle and high schools.

But the program took root, and grew. Buoyed by a “yes” vote on a referendum that provided funding for the orchestra program, two teachers were added. String classes became a separate period — not something to work on during the middle of another class.

Having a dedicated orchestra program separate from band or choral classes is a rarity in Delaware schools today, where precious dollars are focused on finding ways to make more students proficient in core subjects to prepare them for college or work.

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Unlike a magnet school like Cab Calloway School of the Arts,  in which students must audition in their specific talent, such as violin, piano, drama or visual arts to be considered for admission, Pisano will take any student interested in strings. Novices who must borrow instruments are just as welcome as budding virtuosos.

“We accept everybody,” she said. “We don’t audition. We don’t exclude.”

In Brandywine, the program has helped the district keep high-achieving students who might have chosen to attend Cab Calloway or a charter or private school.

Today, Brandywine’s string program is flourishing, with 200 students. Pisano has even formed a string ensemble of 80 students from the district’s three high schools — Brandywine, Concord and Mount Pleasant. It’s a unique collaboration, with the kids taking her classes at their respective schools, then gathering every Thursday night — often eating while they play — to rehearse as a unit.

Their efforts are now paying off in a major way. Not only has the ensemble continued to improve, they have been selected to perform in a symphonic series April 10 at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall.

Brandywine will join seven other schools from as far away as Texas and Illinois to take the stage at the original home of the New York Philharmonic.

Carnegie, which is renowned worldwide for its acoustics, has hosted many of the world’s greatest musicians for more than a century. Performers have ranged from from classical maestros and jazz greats to rock and pop icons such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Pink Floyd and rappers such as Jay Z and Wyclef Jean.

‘You have to find a way’

The trip to Carnegie evolved from dream to reality over the last several months, after Pisano asked the ensemble, many of them seniors she has taught since middle school, if they wanted to do something special.

“One of the girls said she wanted to play at Carnegie Hall,” Pisano said. “When you see that in a student’s eye, you have to find a way.”

Many students seconded that notion, so she asked many to write essays about their desire to play Carnegie. Pisano was moved by many of them, and decided to make the dream a reality.

She found a company putting on a symphonic series this spring, then submitted an audition tape.

And voila! Brandywine was selected.

“You celebrate for half a second and then you kick into gear,” she said. “You have no time to waste. We have to be the best players we can possibly be.”

Thirty-six students are attending, paying about $1,000 apiece for the trip, which will include an overnight stay and sightseeing.

On April 9 they will have a clinic with a university orchestra director who will critique their three pieces, which include “The Force Awakens” from Star Wars. The next day, they will perform in front of an audience and the other ensembles on the Perelman Stage of Carnegie’s 2,800-seat Stern Auditorium.

They keep improving but have lots of work before they hit the Big Apple. On Tuesday, March 28, the ensemble will get a chance to perform during a full dress rehearsal at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington.

‘Their story is terrific’

Matt Workman, director of concert development at Manhattan Concert Productions, which is organizing the Carnegie event, said Brandywine’s tape was impressive.

“Anita really has something special there,” Workman said. “Their audition recording was terrific and their story is terrific.”

Ben LaBarbera, a Concord High sophomore who has played the bass since fourth grade, is delighted to be able to perform on one of the world’s most celebrated stages.

“It means a lot to me, definitely,” LaBarbera said during a break from a school class one recent day. “All of my musical inspirations have played there at least once so it will be interesting to follow in their footsteps.”

For Concord senior Caitlin Mensah, the orchestra program was the reason she stayed at Concord instead of transferring to another school. In elementary school, her orchestra class totaled three students. By middle school, there were eight. Now her class at Concord has mushroomed to 30.

“I’ve been with Miss Pisano for like 10 years,” Mensah said. “So all of her hard work hard work and everything we’ve been through with the program, it’s really like coming together. And I’m a senior so it’s really nice to have that kind of closure, going to Carnegie Hall.”

As the clocks ticks toward the dress rehearsal at the Grand and the Carnegie clinic and performance, practices like the one WHYY visited at Concord are getting more intense. When the players are off-key, Pisano quietly corrects them. But each day in class, and at their Thursday night sessions, the sound improves, coalesces.

“It’s exciting and the kids are focused,”Pisano said. “They have an urgency.”

Pisano gets emotional as she talks about how far this ensemble has come, and where they are headed.

“They give everything to be able to do this,” she said. “to play on that stage.”

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