NEW PORT RICHEY — In a small portable classroom at Mitchell High School, a group of players tuned their stringed instruments. There was a sense of anticipation flowing through the din, a captured opportunity heralding the birth of an orchestra.
It starts with a blended group of talent, where awkward novice plays alongside a more seasoned musician. When it comes to enthusiasm, however, it's an equal playing field.
There was Gillian Olortegui, 17, who selected cello as her first choice, but ended up with the double bass. That's okay, she said, because she's fulfilling a yearning to be part of an orchestra. William Brightman, 14, was picking up the viola for the first time, motivated by a love of Celtic music and the part the fiddle plays.
"I'm excited, but apprehensive, because I've heard there is nothing worse than someone who thinks they can play the violin or viola, but can't," he said in the minutes before Mitchell High orchestra director Ryan Harring gave a lesson on how to properly position the viola while playing.
Among the more experienced: Meghan Grace, 14, who has been playing violin off and on for 12 years and was eager to dust off the rust. Sitting beside her: Ryan Ford, 16, who played violin in an orchestra at his former school in Bradenton and had been playing solo since moving to Pasco.
"I was very excited that they were going to start this up. I like that everyone's all together," Ford said after plucking through the first notes of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with the rest of the group.
The Mitchell High orchestra program is one of two new startups this year. The adjacent Seven Springs Middle School also is offering a feeder program, led by band director Ben Walukonis. Together, about 80 students have enrolled. Many of them have little or no experience with string instruments.
It's a trend-bucking, cobbled effort, made possible with modest funding from the Pasco County School District and a long-held desire of teachers and administrators to offer more opportunities in the arts.
While Wiregrass Ranch High and John Long Middle in Wesley Chapel have had standing orchestra programs since those schools opened in 2007, string instruction in west Pasco is nonexistent, said Joel Quina, director of bands at Mitchell High.
"Pasco County is out of the loop when it comes to orchestra. Our kids have been missing out," Quina said. "There's all sorts of studies that show that the more students you can reach through the arts, the more engaged they are in school."
The new orchestra programs are part of an overall push to expand the arts in Pasco schools, said Tom Viking, program coordinator for fine arts for Pasco County schools and a former band director at Seven Springs Middle.
"Being involved in these classes — whether it's theater, dance, music or art — are more important than ever for our students," Viking said. "We're thinking a little bit about tomorrow. I think there are some really good things going on."
"It's an uphill battle," he said, adding that efforts are hampered by the Florida Legislature's funding of a six- rather than seven-period day. That limits the number of elective classes students can take and leaves little or no wiggle room for students who enroll in high-level International Baccalaureate and Cambridge academic programs.
Even so, there is progress.
A new black box theater was installed over the summer on the River Ridge Middle/High campus. Art programs cut years ago have been reinstated at Chasco and Paul R. Smith middle schools. Student artwork currently is on exhibit at local medical centers and judicial buildings in Dade City and New Port Richey, promoting community support.
The Pasco schools and Pasco-Hernando State College are in the beginning stages of a joint venture to bring another performing arts center to the Cypress Creek area, Viking said. That will provide a more seamless transition for students enrolled in arts programs in the local schools to the college level, while offering another venue to showcase student talent and relieving some of the load for performance arts centers at Wesley Chapel High and River Ridge Middle/High.
"There are a lot of changes going on in the schools in the music area. We're bringing in a (different) mentality and working real hard in recruiting new talent," Viking said, noting that the district has hired 11 new secondary music teachers this year, and chorus programs that were on the chopping block a few years ago are making a comeback.
Come October, Pasco County band and orchestra students can partake in a side-by-side music workshop with the Florida Orchestra, an experience Viking hopes will bring more community support and help expand the string program to other schools.
"To me, orchestral music is some of the finest music ever created," Viking said. "And there's real scholarship potential for kids who play string instruments, whether they want to student music or not. This is a whole other avenue we're opening for them."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.