By Wade Coggeshall
AVON — When Dean Westman arrived at the Avon Community School Corporation to start its orchestra program, he had 40 students in the first class.
Those students are now juniors. Between them and the subsequent classes that have joined, the Avon Orchestra now has about 600 members.
"We're probably the largest-growing arts (organization) in Hendricks County," Westman said recently in his office, as his junior-class orchestra rehearsed in the adjoining room.
Westman, who previously was education director for Music for All, was hired to establish the orchestra program at the behest of current Avon Superintendent Margaret Hoernemann, Ph.D., then the human resources director. They brought in Brownsburg seventh-graders, who had started their own string program the year before, to give them an idea of what to expect.
"These kids are the ones that had the courage," Westman said of his juniors. "Every class before them either did band or choir. These are the first ones who said, 'I'll try this.'"
Indeed, the initial concern was that an orchestra program might filch participants from the existing marching band and choir. All three have thrived since.
"My contention all along is (this would draw) a different kid," Westman said. "The sandbox is big enough for all of them. Avon has proven to be a community that values the total education of a child, including music."
Most of the original orchestra students had no formal training when they signed up. Ari Smith, who plays violin, was one of them. She was intrigued by the instrument because her grandfather plays it.
"I always thought that'd be cool to play," Smith said. "They gave us the opportunity to play in an orchestra. I wasn't really into singing, and band wasn't my thing."
Smith is still in the orchestra. In fact, most of the students from that initial class remain. Westman attributes that to their parents and teachers instilling an appreciation of the arts in them. Plus, they consider themselves pioneers in starting a new tradition at Avon.
"I think they find pride in that," said Westman, noting that last year, for the first time, the orchestra made the qualifying round of the Indiana State School Music Association and came within points of advancing to the finals. All with no upperclassmen.
"They see that as a massive accomplishment," Westman said. "Everything is a first for that class. I remember telling them at the beginning: From my first days to my last, they will always be my first class. Nobody will be able to take that away."
Fellow violinist Michelle Snyder gives Westman a lot of the credit for her and so many of her peers staying in the program.
"He's so encouraging and pushes us to do the best that we can," she said.
Smith added, "We've grown so close. We're like a family now, and he's like a dad. We've grown up with him."
Westman shares that sentiment: "In the 20 years I've been a teacher, this is the coolest experience I've had."
In fact, he can't even discuss the emotions he'll feel when that first class graduates next school year.
"It's going to be brutal," Westman said. "I try not to even think about it."
He'll still have plenty to keep him occupied. He's currently in charge of three orchestras at the high school, where he's department chair, and also leads three junior high orchestras. Joe Powell, whom Westman hired away from Goshen ("one of the most dynamic teachers I've ever seen"), is the only other instructor on staff. He oversees the sixth-graders at both intermediate schools and the seventh-graders at one of the middle schools.
That's two teachers serving 600 students in five buildings.
"That's just kind of the reality we live in," Westman said. "But we make it work with a smile, because this is obviously a fun thing to do for a living."
Still, with the expectation of having 700 orchestra students next school year (more than 200 of them at the high school), Westman figures they'll have to add to their staff.
"The rubber band is stretched about as thin as two people can do," he said.
It's a good problem to have. Aside from the massive growth, the Avon Orchestra also has ameliorated in talent. Many participants now take lessons Ñ some before even joining. Others perform in outside collectives including the Hendricks Symphonic Society and Music for All's Honor Orchestra of America.
Simply put, they've come a long way.
"Looking back at our music in sixth grade, it was (nothing but) quarter notes," Snyder said.
Smith added, "Now it seems so effortless. Before we played such simple stuff. What we play now is more challenging."
They'll get to prove it over this year's spring break. More than 100 from the orchestra will travel to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. There they'll perform classic Disney songs and work with a conductor. It's the Avon Orchestra's first out-of-state trip. Westman calls it a milestone for the program, like when the Marching Black and Gold performed in the Rose Bowl Parade.
"Any time something like that happens, I think as a community it raises the level of pride and brings us closer," he said, adding that orchestra students will raise funds for the Disney trip in the coming months. "This is not that scale of a trip, but it gives us an opportunity to be ambassadors for (Avon)."