The Adult String Ensemble, introduced during the 2021-2022 school year, provides adult string students of all levels the opportunity to come together and play pieces they enjoy in a group setting. We talked to the ensemble’s creator and coach, PCM string faculty member Erika Walczak, about what it has been like to watch them grow over the past year and why this group is so special.
Tell me about the string ensemble — what is the general skill level and how many people are in the ensemble?
That sort of depends on the day you catch us – it ranges from about 8 to 10 people at a time. The general skill level is intermediate to advanced. It’s actually mixed-level – there are some more advanced players, and some intermediate players.
What’s the age range of the ensemble?
About 20s to 80s. It’s a really big age range, but they all get along really well!
What kind of pieces does the ensemble play?
Initially they all said they wanted to do classical music. We started with a Mozart quartet and a Haydn quartet. In the beginning group, we also started with a three-part Renaissance piece. I am constantly asking them what they want to play, and one of the violinists, Sarah Nisperos, said that she wanted to play Can’t Help Falling in Love. One of our participants, Ted, actually arranged Can’t Help Falling in Love for the three-violin group, so that was a really sweet moment.
Our first recital was in December in Barrett Hall, and we performed a Mozart and a Hadyn quartet, Andante Festivo by Sibelius, a Telemann four violin concerto, and Ted’s arrangement. They were really terrified to play in front of people, but they were great!
Second semester, they gained a little more confidence. In January, we started working on the Holberg suite by Grieg and we discovered the music of renowned music educator Richard Meyer, who is actually married to our second violinist Rose. He has written a lot of arrangements for middle school, and also a lot of original compositions. We played two of his original compositions this year – Fiddler’s Fancy and Fantasia on a Theme from Thailand. He visited one of our rehearsals and coached us as well!
What would you say is the purpose of the adult string ensemble?
I noticed during the pandemic, when I had a zoom recital with some of my adult students, that they all started talking to each other on zoom. I realized that there was a need for a community. I called Stephen (PCM’s Executive Director), and pitched this idea to him. He said yes immediately! So that’s how the group came about.
The idea was to create a community, as well as performance opportunities. Often, people take lessons, but that’s just a once-a-week contact with a teacher. That’s really just a piece of the puzzle. We wanted to fulfill that need for a community and ensemble playing, along with a little bit of theory and music history, which goes along with learning a string instrument.
Why do your students take your class, and what should they hope to take away from it? Did any of them play string instruments when they were younger?
A few played string instruments when they were younger. Some of them started as adults. It’s a bit of a spread level-wise. Some of them even have their own ensembles outside of PCM. I believe it’s really important to play music with other people — not just go to concerts. It’s one thing to watch high-level players, but it’s another thing to experience it for yourself and really understand the level of preparation that it takes. They’re all so willing and they work really hard. It’s been a beautiful thing to watch this develop. It certainly has a life of its own now.
What have been some of your most memorable moments while teaching the string ensemble?
We went to the Villa Esperanza, which is an independent living residence and service provider for the developmentally disabled nearby. We’ve played three concerts there already. Those have been really special. The most recent one, we actually went with the PCM Glee Club and played an arrangement of Homeward Bound that Dmitris Dodores wrote. Lindsay Dodoras conducted the Glee club and the strings accompanied them. It was really magical.
Another really memorable moment was having Richard Meyer come in and coach the group, and watch how responsive they were to his direction.
What do you hope this class looks like in five years? How would you like to see it grow?
Firstly, I’m hoping to bring in a cello instructor. Cellist Simone Vitucci recently visited the class and helped the cellists with their fingerings and bowings – something I can’t do as a violinist/violist.
I’d like to see this grow into a larger conductorless string orchestra. This summer, we’re experimenting with some pop tunes. We’re going to work on Eleanor Rigby and probably some film themes. I envision it being a broad string playing experience for more people to all play together and not worry so much about level, but focus more on harmony amongst themselves and then bring that into the community. I observe my students, see what they like to do, and follow them in that direction.
Quotes from students:
“ASE with Erika is such a unique experience. It’s fun to play in a group and what I enjoy the most is the challenge Erika brings to us to encompass all the many parts of playing that make us sound good together. That’s not an easy thing for amateurs. Erika’s class is always the highlight of my week.” – Barbara George
“I joined the Ensemble mainly for the opportunity to make music in a professional setting with others who have similar levels of ability. It’s casual and allows for lots of learning as well. Erika provides education while having fun and providing enjoyment to selected audiences.” – David Reynolds
“Our Adult String Ensemble class is amazing! There is this mutual learning that we receive from all the questions and Erika instructs us with a sense of relaxation, experimentation, and encouragement. At our concerts, I feel that we are well rehearsed so that we perform at our best. We have already performed in Barrett Hall, the Auditorium and at Villa Esperanza. There was an opportunity to rehearse and perform with the PCM Glee Club, as well, which was a great learning experience.
We’re excited to challenge ourselves with a variety of musical styles and Erika has a wide range of knowledge as to what is possible for our ensemble.
Although I don’t like performing as a soloist (and have never used this opportunity with my private instruction), I do like performing as an ensemble player. This group is perfect for me. I’m so glad that PCM added this class to their roster in the Fall of 2021, because I have been waiting to play with a small ensemble for some time.
And, string players have awesome personalities!” – Rose Meyer