CHS senior organizes middle school orchestra

Sophia Hansen "wants other people to have access" to string music opportunities

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Camas High School senior Sophia Hansen plays viola in the Portland Youth Philharmonic. (Contributed photo by Bev Standish, courtesy of Portland Youth Philharmonic)

Camas High senior Sophia Hansen encountered a problem in 2015, before the start of her freshman year in high school.

Hansen, an accomplished classical musician, knew she needed to be part of her school’s orchestra in order to fulfill some of her long-term goals.

Her quandary was that Camas High School didn’t have an orchestra at the time.

“I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to attend Camas or Union just because Camas didn’t have an orchestra,” Hansen said. “We were even considering getting a boundary exception.”

Eventually, Hansen figured out another solution. She started her own orchestra at Camas High — a choice that has benefitted Hansen and the school.

The orchestra operated as an after-school club for the first three years under the tutelage of Camas High choir teacher Ethan Chessin, but before the start of this school year, Hansen successfully petitioned to create an official class, which has been taught by Camas High band teacher Richard Mancini.

“From day one, she did a lot of recruitment, made posters, had tables at fairs and talked to administrators,” Chessin said. “I helped her, but the impetus was all her. Without her we wouldn’t have an orchestra here.”

Now, with the vast majority of the 15 orchestra students set to graduate on June 14, Hansen wants to make sure that Camas’ string-instrument musicians continue to receive opportunities.

At the start of this school year Hansen started an orchestra club for Liberty and Skyridge middle school students, who she has been teaching during Camas School District’s late-start days at Liberty Middle School as part of her senior project.

“I think classical music is sort of the quintessential method for self expression,” she said. “It allows you to express yourself in ways other things can’t. I wanted to allow other people to have access to that.”

Hansen’s six students will perform in public for the first time during a Camas High concert on Thursday, June 6. Most of them had at least two months of violin experience, which gave Hansen a starting point to work with.

“They more or less knew how to play. I helped them through the technical aspects of playing and helped them rehearse,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s great that they’re so enthusiastic and feel passionately about classical music.”

“The literal (goal) was to strengthen the Camas High School music program,” she continued. “The figurative (goal) was dipping my toe into teaching and seeing what that’s like, and it was interesting. Their attention span was really short, so I found myself being a lot more energetic and mixing things up a lot.”

Hansen comes from “an arts vigilante kind of family,” according to her mother, Jane Hansen, who said that Sofia’s great grandfather helped to start an orchestra in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1940s.

“I think that ideologically it is the arts that help young people connect with something that’s greater than themselves and also deep within themselves, and it’s tragic that with (budget) cuts that the arts go first,” Jane said. “I think (Sophia’s project) is a noble contribution, and I hope this seed that’s been planted and honored will grow into a beautiful opportunity for many, many young people to get in touch with the power of music and themselves through music.”

Sofia, who has been a member of the Portland Youth Philharmonic for the past eight years, started playing the viola when she was 5 years old after receiving a miniature version of the instrument as a Christmas present. She immediately fell in love with it.

“(Music) is the pristine example of beauty,” she said, “and I think that really touches my soul. I like that it’s a method of self expression — you can express whatever your hopes and dreams and aspirations and feelings are while you’re playing. I also like the aspect of being able to work within an orchestra and make music with some of the people you love most dearly. That’s really beautiful.”

Chessin, who has served as Sofia’s senior project mentor, praised her generous spirit, driven personality and appreciation for the musical community around her.

“She sets a high bar for everybody around her,” he said. “I’ve never been more confident in the fact that a student will achieve the success that he or she has in mind than I am with Sophia. She’s got all of the necessary qualities — talent, dedication, a great attitude and (a sense of) showmanship.”

After graduating from high school, Hansen will attend Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she plans to study music and business.

“I’m not exactly sure (what I want to do) on the business side of things, but as far as the viola goes, I would love to play professionally, perhaps as a symphony player or quartet player, and maybe even be a teacher,” she said. “Eventually I’d like to start my own orchestra.”

It’s a good thing, then, that Hansen already has experience doing just that.