Musical inspiration

Island string students travel to Boston to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma.


The string teacher for Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Rebecca Laird, happens to also be the high school orchestra director, and she goes into the elementary and middle schools in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury for string instruction. Finally, she’s also in charge of the all-Island school orchestra. You might say she’s got her hands full. But like a truly dedicated educator would, she couldn’t let opportunity slip by when she heard that the Boston Symphony Orchestra was inviting high school music students to an open rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. Laird managed to convince the head of sales, John Fernandes, to allow the Island group to include some of her seventh and eighth grade students from the all-Island orchestra. All in all, she took around 18 or so students up to Boston for a real treat — the soloist was Yo-Yo Ma, who played Shostakovich’s “Cello Concertos” No. 1 and No. 2. Their ticket price was $10 for an event that would ordinarily cost at least 10 times as much.

“It was very last-minute, and it all came together in under a week,” Laird explained. “It was total chaos, but I thought it was too good of an opportunity to miss.”

The orchestra began with Haydn’s “Symphony No. 22, The Philosopher,” followed by Shostakovich’s “Cello Concerto No. 2,” and then a brief intermission. A lot of students left during the break, Laird explained, which allowed the Island students to move to seats only 10 rows from the stage. They got to see Ma up close, well enough to watch his facial expressions while he played.

“He’s 68 years old,” Laird said. “Most musicians would be retired, but he came back after intermission, and played “Concerto No. 1,” which is the equivalent of young ice skaters watching a professional skater doing triple axels all the time. For the kids to watch this man crush it on the cello, basically doing pyrotechnics on the cello, was an amazing opportunity.”

The Island music students were starstruck, Laird said. Most, if not all, had never seen a live symphony orchestra before, and they were also impressed at how beautiful the hall was. Nicholas Mathias, a cello player at the high school, said, “I thought going to see Yo-Yo Ma was a really cool experience because it was really interesting to go see someone else play the instrument that I play.”

When Yo-Yo Ma walked onstage, it was “pandemonium,” the music instructor said, as if a rock star was about to perform. And to make the event even more special, the high school’s two double bass players, Kaniel Morgan and Elliot Stead, were invited to go backstage and visit assistant principal bass player Larry Wolfe and the entire bass section of the orchestra before the concert began.

“The students had a couple of questions about playing the material, and Mr. Wolfe said, ‘We’re the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and we can sight-read this stuff,’” Laird said. “He mentioned at their level, it’s a matter of dusting it off; they don’t have to relearn it every time.”

She said that the students asked her if she was able to go to a concert “like this” when she was a student, and then another student asked if they could make the trip again sometime.

Laird said that she thinks it’s important for Island students to get out into the broader community and gain experience, like their trip to Boston.

“I think it’s so important,” Laird said, “I have three small children, and this Island is so isolated. When I was a kid, I went to these things all the time … and the look on their faces … If you’re learning something as difficult as a string instrument and you don’t have anything to look up to, it can be discouraging for them.”

Last spring, the high school students competed with other string programs across New England, and brought home first place and best overall ensemble at Music in the Parks. The middle school students took home the platinum award, and got an almost perfect score from the judges at the Great East Music Festival. Now to have this experience this fall has been another boon for the string students.

“These kids work really hard, and are now awardwinning, so it was nice for them to see that if you keep working hard, this is where you could be.”

Upcoming music concerts include Dec. 13 for the middle school group, and Dec. 14 for the high school students. Both performances take place at the Performing Arts Center.