Bound for Chicago, Edinburg middle schoolers bring orchestra to the fore

Students rehearse a piece of music during orchestra practice in the band hall at South Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

EDINBURG — The band hall at South Middle School in Edinburg was a flurry of activity Thursday afternoon, with the students in the symphony orchestra playing a spritely tune called “Go West!”

The orchestra has good reason to be busy: in two months they’ll be participating in the prestigious Midwest Clinic in Chicago, the world’s largest instrumental music education conference.

The 82 students in the SMS orchestra will be attending the clinic with 18,000 musicians and composers, hailing from every state in the United States and more than 30 countries.

Although other Valley bands have taken part in the event, the students at South are the first from the RGV to perform in the symphony orchestra division, despite the fact that they only began trying to get accepted to the conference three years ago.

The orchestra will perform a variety of pieces in 45 minutes, a few of which were written specifically for them.

Cassandra Sanchez, the head band director, said it is hard to overstate the significance of participating in the clinic.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for the kids and for us,” she said. “It’s like winning the Super Bowl.”

Sanchez said as the sole orchestra to be awarded a slot in the clinic, her students beat out orchestras from larger cities where genre is allocated more time and more attention.

“In metroplexes where there’s large symphony orchestras, people are willing to pay these private tutors to teach their kids violin. In this part of the region, that’s not the culture,” she said.

Orchestra Director Omar Estrella, who instructs the group with Sanchez, said that for most orchestras who participate in symphony orchestra at the clinic, private tutors are a prerequisite. He estimates that less than a 10th of the kids in the SMS orchestra received outside instruction.

“The type of students that compete for this competition are not your run of the mill students. They’re high achieving kids at magnet schools, students with private tutors, and we were still able to overcome the odds. In comparison to those other schools, we shouldn’t even be in the running. We shouldn’t even have applied,” Estrella said. “But the underdog actually won it, and that speaks volumes of what’s going on here.”

Estella attributes that success to the commitment and perseverance of the students in the orchestra.

“There’s not a single weekend this year that we haven’t worked,” he said. “We’re talking about a year and a half worth of work that has to be put into four months.”

One of the students whose hard work got the orchestra selected to participate is eighth grade cellist Ricardo Vasquez, who’s been playing in the group for two years.

“There’s four of us cellos and we’ve known each other since the sixth grade, and we’ve gotten really good together,” he said. “We started practicing during lunchtime, pretty much every day. We got really good by coming in at lunch.”

Vasquez’s reasons for putting so much time and effort into practice are surprisingly poignant for a 10-year-old.

“One day, when I have a wife and kids and whatever, I want to play for them, and I want to tell them about this moment in my life — where I met this instrument, I got good at it, and I went to Chicago. It’s like a once in a lifetime thing you can never forget,” he said. “I want to share that with them so they can know how fun music is, and how amazing it can be.”

Vasquez and his fellow orchestra musicians will get to make that memory on Dec. 20 in Chicago.