The Plano West Senior High School Symphony Orchestra won its state champion title at the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) Honor Orchestra competition for another year, placing first in the state for the high school full orchestra category.
Conductor Ryan Ross submitted recordings from his orchestra’s UIL (University Interscholastic League) performance last March to a panel of judges, which included such pieces as Johannes Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, the finale of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No.9, “From the New World,” and the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. For the honor orchestra competition, there are two zones: Zone A and Zone B. Plano West advanced from the first round in the Dallas area (Zone A) to become one of seven finalists in the second round, and from those finalists, a new judge panel named Plano West Senior High (PWSH) the champion.
Although this is the orchestra’s ninth time winning this prestigious competition, a state record, winning contests or stacking up accolades is not their focus, said Ross, who serves as head director with the Plano West Senior High Orchestra program.
“For me, music is not about necessarily winning awards, or winning trophies,” he said. “It’s about making great music and providing a good culture for the kids to be a part of, to create something that's bigger than any one of us.”
Even when rehearsing for such competitions such as UIL or recording submissions to TMEA Honor Orchestra, the fundamentals didn’t change. Good tone production, intonation, timing accuracy, and a unified sense of musicality are all things Ross focuses on for any performance.
“We should always strive to do our best regardless of what the circumstances are,” Ross said. “So when we're preparing for UIL or honor orchestra, I don't feel we really go about it any differently than we would a normal, just run of the mill, generic rehearsal. I don't think it really changes, just because you're preparing for a competition.”
In selecting which music to perform, Ross said he chose quality music that would be worth rehearsing for a six- to eight- week concert cycle. He also made sure to construct a program that was well-balanced but also had contrasting pieces to demonstrate the orchestra’s versatility.
“Brahms, Beethoven, Dvořák, I mean, those are all A-list composer names that I would say most people recognize,” he said. “So it's just like an English class, you know, you read quality authors, you read Shakespeare, or Dickens or whatever. In orchestra, we're playing the great classics by some of those composers.”
While there is no rubric for judgment, the judges look for things like blend, balance, intonation and phrasing, Ross said.
“But each of those individual elements is a subjective determination,” he said. “With that said, the judges are not just sitting back and feeling who they feel the winner should be either. They're very critically listening and evaluating [the performance].”
But the competition is stiff.
Finalists in the honor orchestra contest sound on par with professional ensembles. And with students only attending PWSH for two years in 11th and 12th grade, the solid musical foundations students receive in previous middle and high schools are paramount. The Rice, Robinson, Renner, and Frankford middle schools feed into the Jasper and Shepton high schools, which in turn feed into Plano West.
“The reason Plano West is successful at honor orchestra is because of the teaching that the kids got at the schools before us,” Ross said. “Six, seven years, being taught by just incredible educators. And then I'm in a very lucky position of just getting to bring them together and then make the music.”
There are more factors that come into play that allow students at PWSH to play at such a high level. Involvement with Kodály-certified music teachers, private lessons outside of school, and just the legacy of PWSH’s continued excellence primes incoming students to play their best.
“We have people who are born to teach middle school orchestra. Like, that is where their candle shines brightest, because they are such experts with that age level, and with getting students started,” Ross said. “[Students] also know that they're part of the Plano West orchestra system. They know that that is a successful group to be a part of.”
As individual players, 10-15 students typically make a TMEA All-State orchestra every year from Plano West. They’ve won concerto competitions hosted by GDYO (Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra), the Plano Symphony Orchestra, and the Allen Philharmonic. Additionally, besides success at UIL and the TMEA Honor Orchestra competition, Plano West has performed at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago.
For Ross, venues like the TMEA Music Educators Convention, at which the Plano West Symphony Orchestra will perform next February as a result of placing first in the honor orchestra competition, are great opportunities for people to enjoy the fruits of some of the best music education programs in the country.
“I was going to those performances as a younger teacher, and my jaw was dropping to the floor. It's like, ‘Holy cow. I had no idea that a high school string orchestra, high school full orchestra could sound like this,” Ross said. “But I think it's also valuable for the directors to see what is possible and just see what we're all striving for. What can somebody actually do with a high school group?”
Another key figure at Plano West was Jackie Digby, director of bands at Plano West. He was supposed to conduct at the UIL performance alongside Ross, but it got rescheduled due to snow days and he could not attend the rescheduled performance. However, Digby greatly assisted Ross in rehearsing the musicians.
Ross also works closely with Associate Orchestra Director Amy Gross, who is “the heart” of the orchestra program, he said.
“She's like the mama bear that all the students just love, and they're constantly in her office,” he said. “She creates just such a welcoming, loving environment for them. I can't imagine our orchestra program (...) without Amy as that central, unifying, heartfelt kind of person.”
Even after all the laurels Plano West’s orchestras have collected over the years, Ross said that he isn’t a “big competition guy.”
“Like I said earlier, I don't think anybody joined orchestra to win a trophy,” he said. “There was something, some other reason that drew them to it.”
Ross credits music and the long term commitment of learning an instrument as a valuable life skill, applicable not only to an orchestral setting but also in other areas. Nobody can master an instrument in just a year or two, he said.
“Whatever you want to do in your life, it's going to take the ability to set these long term goals and achieve incrementally to get there,” he said. “And that is something that is demonstrated in the study of music.”
More than winning competitions, more than anything, rehearsing with fellow musicians can help foster a sense of togetherness, Ross said.
“I think it's so easy to get so hung up on the ‘me, me, me’ in our culture, like, ‘What's in it for me? What am I going to get out of it?’” he said. “And I think that's one of the great things that music provides. It's a chance to collaborate and work together on a team to just create a thing of beauty, a piece of art for the sake of creating it and releasing it into the universe as like releasing a dove.”
In fact, Ross didn’t even tell his orchestra that he was planning on submitting the UIL recording to the honor orchestra, but instead focused on cohesively performing as an ensemble.
Despite the practical outcomes of studying music, it’s more about the other lessons it teaches and reinforces, Ross said.
“And I just hope that our society can recognize that and support it accordingly,” he said. “Things would be different if we didn't have ways to develop our students as a whole human being.”
Ross’s students may not go on to pursue a field of music, but he hopes they can retain the things it has taught all the same.
“If that's what the kids can take from my classes, a sense of humanity, and empathy, and the ability to cooperate, and work for something that serves something bigger than any one of us, that's what I ultimately want as a music teacher,” Ross said.