Essay Project 2021: The Significance of Our Portland Community Orchestra
By Caitlyn Weller
Picture this-you're seated in the middle of the Portland Civics Player audience after the Holiday Parade. The members of the Portland Community Orchestra tightly clutch their instruments with excitement and nerves. Their eyes are glued on their conductor, Michael Sulecki. As he briskly steps into his conducting position, the instruments are raised in preparation. The conductor looks out at the sea of formal black and white attire, topped with the occasional festive holiday hat. As he raises his conducting wand, the audience takes a collective breath of anticipation. You await the warm sensation of the melodious Christmas carols to permeate the theater. This atmosphere is the type of experience you can expect to encounter when you listen to our Portland Community Orchestra. But why exactly does Portland have an orchestra? What benefits do the musicians receive from their membership? Why does its existence matter to the community?
Community music groups have been around for a considerable amount of time. According to Ann Meier Baker, NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) director of music and opera, “The founding of community choirs, bands, and orchestras date back to the beginnings of the U.S.” There are many great music groups near the Portland area. Such as: the Grand Ledge Community Band, the Charlotte Community Band, and the Ionia Area Community Band. The difference is that all of these groups are bands rather than a true orchestra. There are some orchestral communities further outside of Portland, but most are more professional groups that require auditions to enter. The Portland Orchestral Society was founded in March 2005 by Mike Judd and Loren Wright. According to the “Portland Community Orchestra” page on the Portland Arts website, “Mike Judd and Loren Wright met while performing in the Mason Orchestral Society. After discussing their background, the duo decided to make use of local talent with the formation of the Portland Community Orchestra.” Co-founder Mike Judd recalls, “We put an ad in the paper and got seven people to join. We thought it would be great to give the local people a chance to play in an orchestra setting. We thought we would give it a try.” The group would hold practices in the basement of the United Methodist Church. At the time, they did not have an official director, so different people would step up and count the group off. Judd and Wright’s only hopes were that people would join and help their dream of a local orchestra become a reality. With seven musicians on board, the Portland Community Orchestra was on its way to becoming a successful group.
Most things in life change over time and the same can be said for the once small Portland Community Orchestra. Mike Judd originally said that he was just happy if anyone would come and join them in 2005, but soon after, the group blossomed. Today, the PCO can be seen performing at Portland's annual Day of Music, a combined Spring Concert with the Charlotte Community Band, and at the Portland Civics Player for a festive Holiday Concert with the Ionia Area Community Band. Small ensembles perform for the Adult Education graduation in May/June, for local retirement homes, and town events. The group started with a small handful of individuals: Joanie Stark, Heidi Alfestepher, Chuck Minkley, Ken Stark Jr., Grace Snitgen, and Suzanne Cape, along with Mike Judd and Loren Wright. Christina Prater (the previous band director at the middle and high school) joined the orchestra in 2015. When she did, Prater became the official director of the orchestra and obtained the Portland High School band room for Thursday evening rehearsals. When Prater moved, Michael Sulecki took over the directing position in August of 2017. Two years ago, the orchestra's numbers were in the thirties due to the increase in student participation. Prater and Sulecki are both to thank for their success in recruiting talented high school musicians after assuming the role of the official directors. Having a director also created a stronger bond between the musicians according to Mike Judd . While the orchestra grew in size, the members also grew as a family, creating a fun environment for these musicians to learn and perform.
Not only does our orchestra impact the members participating in it, but it also adds a certain vibrancy to the Portland community. For the members, the orchestra has multiple benefits. The current director, Michael Sulecki, describes the experience. “First, there is the aesthetic enjoyment of creating art with other people. Secondly, practicing/performing music is good for your brain by simultaneously activating parts of your brain in a way that literally nothing else does). Thirdly, it encourages a great sense of community.” Other members claim that they simply enjoy the fact that they get to play their instruments again. When I asked orchestra member Robert Lardie about the matter he replied, “I get to do what I like to do, express myself, and play music… Getting back into music made me think, ‘Why’d I ever give music up in the first place?’” Members of the orchestra also get the benefit of playing with a variety of different aged musicians. More experienced musicians get to witness the younger members grow as musicians, while younger members get to improve their skills with the help of the older folks. Ignatuis Arleth, a current high school member, shares the student perspective, “Personally as a younger member, I enjoy playing with people who are more experienced. Getting to talk and interact with some of the older musicians in the community is a fun experience that I really enjoy.”
While the orchestra members’ benefits differ from the communities’, the people of Portland are still impacted by the orchestra’s music and dedication. They have a creative outlet for people to get involved in music again. The community also enjoys great local musicians rather than having to travel and spend large amounts of money on brand name orchestras. Robert Lardie shares, “I think [the orchestra has] given an outlet for people to get back involved in music. Maybe they did it back and school and never thought they’d play again. They are given the opportunity to play again, and they have the chance to listen to music without going to see any big professional music groups.” The orchestra also inspires new musicians in the community, both young and old. This year, Mike Judd posted about the 2015 Christmas Gala concert on the Portland Community Orchestra Facebook page. To which a local, Elaine Sandborn, commented, “I remember this concert. My granddaughter commented on the violin section as she was just starting lessons at seven years old. She loves her violin.” Not all communities get to experience the joy or inspiration from having a local orchestra. Portland is lucky to have such a talented group of musicians that desire to share their love of music for the community to hear.
Personally, I find the PCO performances incredibly enjoyable, especially the Holiday Concert with the Ionia Area Community Band. Many people will go to support the orchestra because they have a friend or family member who participates in the group. My grandpa, Robert Lardie, has been a PCO member for several years, and I love to watch and support him the same way he does for my High School Band performances. I also have several friends that participate in the PCO. My previous flute section leader, Collin Pung, played with the orchestra for six years. He is now a member of the U of M Marching Band. It was inspirational to watch someone a few years older than me grow as a musician through such a close-knit group. Collin states, “Why I joined [the orchestra] is not as important as why I stayed. Up until about High School, my main reason for staying was to challenge myself to become better at the flute.” As a current member of Portland’s High School Band, I enjoy listening to and performing music for our community. The band is like my second family, and that’s exactly what the orchestra is to its members as well. I get to experience the joy of performing with my friends and for your friends, family, and community as a whole. There’s just something very rewarding about being able to spread joy through music. While music has always had a prevalent significance in my life, the impacts that it has had on the community and culture of Portland as a whole is something that everyone here can share.
This past year (2020) has been a bumpy road for multiple Portland groups and our orchestra was no exception. Mike Judd explains how the PCO has been impacted by the COVID-19 virus, the response shocked me. “We relied totally on the school for our place to practice and for instruments, especially percussion [instruments]. When the school stopped we stopped.” Like the schools, jobs, and many other clubs, the orchestra had to halt their gatherings for practices and performances until it was safe to resume. However, the COVID-19 virus did not end as quickly as most of us had in mind when we were put under our first two-week quarantine. Knowing that the majority of the PCO’s schedule was canceled, Michael Sulecki lists exactly what we missed out on this year. “So far, we’ve had to miss Day of Music, our spring concert at a retirement center, a combined spring concert with the Charlotte Community Band, and the winter fest performance at the Civic Playhouse with the Ionia Area Community Band.” Nevertheless, COVID-19 did not completely ruin all the fun, and part of the orchestra managed to squeak by one small performance. A string quintet ensemble gathered together for the PACE (Portland Adult Ed) graduation, to perform for the handful of students that did not receive a normal graduation ceremony. Even though the orchestra has had to socially distance themselves to keep one another safe, this hasn’t stopped them from doing what they love and practicing in their own homes.
Despite the COVID-19 virus looming over us, the benefits of the Portland Community Orchestra are endless. For the members, the orchestra provides an outlet for all ages to play with a disciplined and encouraging group of talented musicians. Whether learning a new instrument or pulling the old one out of the closet, musicians are creating art with neighbors who share the same passion for music. For the community, the orchestra creates an opportunity for people to join a music group again or to be inspired to learn about music on their own. The PCO provides performances right in our neighborhood, so we don’t have to travel far to experience the sensation of orchestra music. According to poet, Aaron Burr, “Music gives meaning to life… shows that the world is not so bland.” I genuinely believe that without the Portland Community Orchestra, our town of Portland would indeed be bland. This is why it is so important to support the local musicians that love to add warmth to this community.
“I would like [the community] to know that we are available, we are here, as soon as we can get back together. If you played an instrument back in school, and you remember how enjoyable it was, we encourage you to come and join. We are always welcoming more musicians, and there’s no audition!” -Mike Judd, Co-founder of the Portland Community Orchestra
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.