Behind the Music
Avon Orchestra Director Talks History & Recent Success of the Program
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Twelve years ago, Dr. Margaret Hoernemann (current superintendent of Avon Schools) commented that Avon schools had phenomenal band and choir programs but what was missing was orchestra.
So, in the fall of 2007 Westman offered a beginning orchestra class that consisted of 38 sixth-graders. From there, he built the program from the ground up. The second year, those sixth-graders moved onto seventh-grade orchestra class and Westman started a new crop of 70 sixth-grade beginners. The third year there was even more student interest in string instruments as 120 students registered.
“Each year the numbers kept growing and growing,” Westman says.
Finally, they built all the way up to a 6-12 program. For three years, Westman was the only orchestra instructor as he floated between the two intermediate schools and the middle school (at the time Avon only had one middle school). Once his first crop of sixth-graders had transitioned to ninth grade, Westman became the high school director and the corporation hired three additional directors to cover the middle and intermediate schools.
“It’s amazing to think that we started with 38 kids and now, a dozen years later, we serve more than 600 students across five buildings,” Westman says.
When Hoernemann and Westman were asked to present at The Midwest Clinic, the largest music educator convention in the world, they titled their presentation, “It Takes a Village: Building a Program from Scratch.”
Since its inception, select students in Avon’s orchestra program have had the opportunity to perform in Orlando, New York City, and in June 2018 they embarked on a European tour, performing in Rome, Florence, Tuscany and Salzburg, Austria — the birthplace of Mozart, the most famous composer of all time.
The high school has a total of four orchestras that are part of the curricular experience: Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic Orchestra, Intermezzo Orchestra and Concert Orchestra.
“What’s unique about the Symphony Orchestra is that it combines the top players in our award-winning band, so it’s not just strings but also the woodwinds, percussion and brass,” Westman says. “It’s like the Boston Pops or the New York Philharmonic.”
A lot of schools don’t have a full orchestra, but Westman believes the collaborative experience is vital to learning.
“It gives the orchestra kids an appreciation for what a band does and vice versa,” he says.
Students get placed in one of the four orchestras based on an audition. At the end of each school year, every current eighth-grader, freshman, sophomore and junior who is continuing in orchestra must audition for the following year. To ease student anxiety, Westman gives students music and allows them three weeks to prepare a video audition. That way they can do it again and again until they get the “take” they like.
“In a live audition, you have one shot, but this encourages them to practice,” says Westman, who specifically does this for the incoming freshmen.
“It’s already so intimidating to be coming to a high school with 3,000 students,” Westman adds. “I want their first impression of me and of orchestra to be one of a safe place.”
He works to create a culture where students feel valued, accepted and loved.
“We want to replace students’ anxiety with the comfort of knowing they have a family right here in this room who will care for them from the second they walk in until the day they graduate,” Westman says. “We use music as a vehicle to make students the best citizens they can be.”
Every year the Avon orchestra competes in the ISSMA (Indiana State School Music Association). Usually, around 40 orchestras compete at this live competition in which students and their director are given a piece of music they have never seen. The director then has 10 minutes to teach his students that piece via sight reading as they are not allowed to play a note on their instruments. Then they play it for the first time in front of a panel of judges.
The very first year Avon made finals was in 2014 when Westman’s original crop of sixth-graders performed as seniors.
“It was a storybook ending for those 38 kids who had the courage to start something new as sixth-graders and follow it through to their senior year where they placed third in the state,” Westman says. “That was the most meaningful experience of my life.”
Westman, now in his 25th year in education, was 37 when he launched Avon’s orchestra program. He maintains that had he been early in his teaching career at the time, he wouldn’t have been able to appreciate how amazing it was to spend seven years of a journey with the same 38 students.
“Most teachers only get a student for a year, or if you’re the high school choir director, perhaps you have them for four years,” Westman says. “I had kids from age 11 to 18, and that was such a profound human experience to watch kids grow over a period of seven years. I think you could argue that next to their moms and dads, they didn’t spend as much time with another human than me.”
The Avon Symphony Orchestra finished third in 2014, 2015 and 2016. They were the state runner-up in 2017 and the 2018 Indiana State School Music Association Orchestra State Champions. When they won state, Westman delivered an impromptu speech to the students about his thoughts on taking home the big prize.
“Of course I felt proud, but I told them that my trophy always happens in the music, in the moment, on the stage, in the performance,” Westman says. “The trophy is awesome and exciting, but the message to the kids is, ‘Don’t ever forget how you felt when that audience sprung to their feet and gave you a standing ovation. That’s why we’re musicians.’”
Westman maintains that nobody goes into professional music to win competitions. They do it because of the way it stirs the mind, body and soul.
Westman’s students excel, year after year, because many of them play in their free time as well, taking private lessons, participating in solo and ensemble contests and joining orchestras like the New World Youth Orchestras in Indianapolis and the Hendricks Symphony Orchestra in Avon.
“A huge part of our success is due to the fact that we’re not chasing trophies,” Westman says.
And while becoming state champs is wonderful, that’s not what motivates them.
“Winning feels special,” Westman adds. “But it pales in comparison to the feeling we all have when we’re making music in that moment at that level.”