More than 320 students from East Columbia schools came together last week to make sweet music as part of Oakland Mills High School's annual String-A-Palooza.
The concert, put on by the student orchestras of Oakland Mill's feeder schools — Cradlerock, Jeffers Hills, Stevens Forest, Talbott Springs and Thunder Hill elementary schools, and Lake Elkhorn and Oakland Mills middle schools as well at Oakland Mills High — was held at the Bridgeway Community Church and drew a crowd of nearly 1,000 people.
"It's deafening and amazing to see all these kids at so many different levels all coming together to play one masterpiece," said Debbie Flanigan, a mother of two performing students, during the final rehearsal Thursday, Nov. 15 at Oakland Mills High School.
On Thursday night, after the individual orchestras performed their pieces, all the musicians came together to play the pop hit "All Star." The high school students were on the stage and the middle and elementary students filled the wings, the pit and the first rows of auditorium seats.
Performing together means students as young as 8 years old can play with high school seniors, said Philip Hale, director of Oakland Mills High's orchestra.
"When they're young, they don't necessarily see the end result of all their hard work," he said. "That's what they need to see, and they get an opportunity (through String-A-Palooza) to see that they're not the only ones enjoying what they do. There are so many people here that play, and play well, that you see there's something to continue doing when you're in high school."
Oakland Mills seniors Maya Thakar and Alicia Wooten have been playing the violin in their school orchestras since the third grade, and have participated in String-A-Palooza over the years. Bringing together students from elementary, middle and high schools is part of what makes the concert special, they said.
"Now that we're here as seniors, we can include (the younger students) in doing something positive with the skills they have," said Thakar, 17. "This is something they enjoy."
Wooten, 17, agreed, and reflected on her early years rehearsing for String-A-Palooza.
"I remember the first time I sat next to the high-schoolers, and I thought, 'Oh my God, they're so good,' " she said. "My jaw was on the ground, and now we're the people they're looking up to."
Performing for the community, Hale said, gives the schools an opportunity "to do something really special."
Wooten and Thakar said any time they perform, including String-A-Palooza, is a chance to shine.
"We can share what we love with others," Wooten said. "Seeing how my part (of the music) interacts with others to create something beautiful, something that can move an audience and make someone feel something genuine, it's special."
Thakar said orchestra concerts mean the students come together "as a family."
"We feel complete up there," she said. "We are closer on stage because this is our performance and we're doing this together."
String-A-Palooza has grown by leaps and bounds since it started about 10 years ago, Hale said, as have the music programs at each of Oakland Mills' feeder schools. When he started at Oakland Mills 17 years ago, there were about five students in the orchestra, he said, and now there are three class periods dedicated to it in the school day. Part of the reason for the growth, he said, is the dedication of teachers at the feeder schools, like Jackie DeBella, who directs the orchestras at Lake Elkhorn and Cradlerock.
"This teaches them so many things," DeBella said during the final rehearsal. "It teaches them how to work together, how to accomplish a goal and how to persevere. There's math skills, learning how to read a foreign language (music), and they're teaching each other, too. ... Twenty years from now they may not remember what they learned in other classes, but they'll remember String-A-Palooza. It has an emotional impact on them."