Monique Johnson says she plays two different roles in her teaching at Settlement: “violin teacher Miss Johnson” and “orchestra conductor Miss Johnson.” Her violin-teaching persona works with some of the school’s youngest violin students, and when her students are ready to make the leap to playing in an ensemble, seeing a familiar face on the podium can be comforting. Moving from one-on-one instruction to playing in a large group can be daunting, though, and she does her best to make the Junior Orchestra a welcoming place for all students at both of the Branches where she teaches.
How does she turn all of these musicians, many of them new to playing together in a group, into a cohesive ensemble? Johnson says it starts with “clear instructions and mutual respect.” She lays out the rules and expectations and assigns section leaders – typically more experienced players – that other students can go to with questions. The age range for junior orchestra – 7 to 14, allowing for some members who started playing later than others – allows older students to mentor younger ones.
“It’s about being a little family,” Johnson says. “I tell them about their responsibility to be kind and helpful to each other.”
Starting at the first rehearsal of the year, she also encourages interaction between students of different ages and backgrounds by having every student introduce herself and share answers to four questions: Their age, where they go to school, their favorite food, and an interest they have outside of music. This ice-breaker gets the youngest and shiest members of the ensemble on the same page as their older or more outgoing fellow musicians.
Though Johnson can relate to them on a musical level, having played in professional orchestras’ violin sections and received instruction from conductors, she’s found that sharing her life outside of music, including a recent interest in running and competing in triathlons, helps students know her better too. “Sometimes, if they don’t think something is possible, I tell them, ‘if I can learn to run, you can learn to do this.’”
The blend of ages and skill levels in Johnson’s ensembles can make choosing repertoire a challenge. She doesn’t stick solely to classical music, though sometimes students have an unexpected attachment to classic repertoire. For a recent concert, she chose an arrangement of the Infernal Galop from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld – better known as the “Can-Can.” “They all knew it from the Shop Rite commercial,” she says.
For the upcoming Winter Orchestra Festival, Johnson selected thefinal movement from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Her students at MLC all knew the famous first movement, but they’ve taken to the finale with enthusiasm. “They all want to go fast,” she says. Though her students have always wanted to play fast over the years, she sees more students today who want to play everything perfectly. “I tell them it takes courage to make a mistake. That way, you’ll learn from it.”