Gracie Gundlach and Sitara Shankar first noticed each other’s familiar faces during practice for the Rose City Youth Orchestra in Portland last year.
The two girls are both eighth-graders at Liberty Middle School. And both have been commuting to Portland once a week for more than a year to delve into their passion for orchestra.
Gundlach has played the viola for five years. Shankar has played the cello for four.
Shankar says she likes the melodious tone of her cello, the fun she has playing it and the fact that she gets to do it with her best friend by her side.
As their friendship grew, so did their love of orchestra. Now, Gundlach and Shankar want to share their interest with other Liberty Middle School students. Together, they have taken the first steps toward creating a brand new orchestra program at their Camas school.
Earlier this school year, the two students spoke to Liberty Principal Gary Moller about their idea. He helped them create a survey to find out if other Liberty students might be interested in an orchestra program.
Moller said there have been discussions on a district level in Camas, between middle school and high school staff, to see if creating an orchestra program was a viable option. Although he doubts they could make it happen at Liberty alone — more likely, it would be a district offering — the principal did say that he was open to a club or after-school program, if enough Liberty students were excited about the idea.
“I think (Shankar and Gundlach’s) efforts are awesome,” Moller said. “I think this is how change takes place, when kids express an interest in something and then put that passion behind it to build a program and present it.”
Gundlach said she wants other students to find something they really enjoy doing, or are passionate about, that can help them educationally. Orchestra, she said, provides a perfect opportunity for such learning.
Shankar also thinks participating in orchestra can help her peers learn a new skill, have fun with new people and build their teamwork skills.
Both girls say being in an orchestra is different than being in a concert band or choir.
Orchestra has its own personality, Shankar explained.
“Everyone has to listen to each other more in their parts,” Gundlach added. “You can’t just play your own part, you have to listen to everyone else and it’s a good group thing to do.”
When Shankar started school at Liberty, she was a bit let down that the school didn’t have an orchestra, so she gave the band a try.
“I don’t want to go against band or anything,” Shankar said. “But it just wasn’t the same for me.”
The two girls recently performed at a Veteran’s Day assembly and gave a small presentation to introduce the concept of starting an orchestra at their school. Afterward, they presented the survey to other students and asked them if they’ve played in an orchestra before and if they’d be interested in joining one at the school.
They haven’t yet tabulated all of the surveys, but the ones they have reviewed are mixed, Shankar and Gundlach said.
Most of the students who answered “no” to the orchestra, aren’t against the idea of having one at Liberty, they just wouldn’t want to do it themselves, Gundlach said.
The girls fear that the wording of their survey may have led some students to believe that they had to come prepared and know how to play in an orchestra. In reality, Shankar explained, the proposed orchestra would be similar to band, where students are taught how to play.
Both Gundlach and Shankar attended different elementary schools outside Camas School District, and had orchestra at their grade schools. Having an option at Liberty would help them cut out their commutes to Portland and give them more time to practice their instruments — and get to know other like-minded Liberty students.
The two plan to meet with Moller after all of the surveys are completed, and hope to present the information to the Camas School Board.
Gundlach acknowledged that the orchestra might not happen because of costs, but said she does think schools would be more appealing if they offered an orchestra program.
Moller said the girls are very passionate about orchestra and gave them kudos for looking at a program that wouldn’t even benefit them next year, since the eighth-graders will be moving on to high school next fall.
Of course, Gundlach and Shankar said they don’t plan to stop their orchestra passion project once they graduate middle school — in fact, they’re hoping to push for an orchestra program at the high school level, too.
“Practicing orchestra is scientifically proven to make children more intelligent,” Gundlach said. “It would just improve the academic quality of the district.”