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John Hopkins orchestra soars to superior with push from young director

ST. PETERSBURG

Despite a grueling day of exams at John Hopkins Middle last week, the students in David O'Neill's advanced orchestra class tackled a piece called Japanese Lullaby.

The violin, cello, viola and bass sections work in unison, coaxing notes to life to the movement of O'Neill's conductor baton.

"More cello," O'Neill ordered. His two cello players threw their arms into the score.

Such intensity was unheard of a year ago, before the 27-year-old arrived.

Amid all the attention on the school's discipline problems, John Hopkins' advanced orchestra class garnered a superior rating — the highest available — in a recent assessment conducted by the Florida Orchestra Association. It's often described as an FCAT for music.

Last school year, John Hopkins' orchestra did not even have enough members to be assessed by the association. Instruments were piled in a corner of a room, most in serious need of repair. Orchestra teachers came and went. Students who had been taking private lessons for years were taught alongside beginners.

"It was constant frustration, every single day," O'Neill recalled. "Kids had been trained to do whatever they wanted to do in class."

The hiring of O'Neill was an attempt to hold one of John Hopkins Middle's more popular magnet programs together. The arts program, which includes band, orchestra and dance, has 475 students, more than a third of the school's population.

O'Neill took charge last March. Within a year, he got the instruments fixed and modeled his class after a business, implementing a chain of command where he's the CEO.

Students who want to make it into the John Hopkins Middle orchestra have to audition. To pass, O'Neill requires his students to practice at home for at least half an hour daily.

To improve his teaching, O'Neill even paid for private string lessons.

"I knew the toughest part of the job is music, which is the language. I was scared to death, but I could not show it," he said. "But I knew what a great business and organization looks like, and what great music sounds like. The trick is how can I get kids to sound like that."

The students know it's serious this time.

"He's rough on us, but he helps us achieve," said Dalila Kolar, a seventh-grader who plays the violin.

"Yeah, he hammers at us until we get it right," said Conn Thibodeau, a sixth-grade cellist.

O'Neill's orchestra classes are like a haven for these students, some of whom said they were picked on for carrying instruments around the school, at 701 16th St. S.

They, along with their parents, are aware of the discipline problems at J Hop. The students remain undeterred. Most of them chose John Hopkins because of the orchestra program.

"It's worrisome," said Keri Lucke, the mother of orchestra student Conner Jure. "It bothered me, but I talked to him. I told him that as long as you feel safe, I support you."

Rosa Robinson, mother of the orchestra's concertmaster, Kaila, echoes that sentiment.

"It's her decision to stay," she said. "They're not sheltered. They're a force to be reckoned with."

FAST FACTS

The judging

The Florida Orchestra Association's Music Performance Assessment is a statewide standardized assessment. Three judges score student orchestras on their instrument playing and sight-reading skills. The assessment was held at Dunedin High on March 4, when many secondary schools with orchestra programs in Pinellas County participated. Along with John Hopkins Middle, Clearwater Fundamental, Thurgood Marshall Fundamental and Carwise Middle obtained a superior rating, the highest possible on a scale of one to five.

John Hopkins orchestra soars to superior with push from young director 03/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 5:25pm]

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