Floridians can commiserate with composer Leroy Anderson. Seeking relief from a stubborn July heatwave, he wrote “Sleigh Ride,” an iconic holiday classic. Seventy years later, it’s still a perennial favorite and a new generation of musicians is making it their own. The Tallahassee Homeschool String Orchestra performed the much-loved song and many others for a full audience in a recent concert.
More than 100 children make up the entirety of this group, which is broken into five smaller ensembles. From the tiniest Poco Players to the advanced Arioso group, each child receives professional music instruction in violin, viola, or cello. Abigail Silver is grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow as an artist. The 14-year-old violinist is a member of the Arioso group but said, “when this orchestra started, I had barely even played violin.”
All students are taught basic scales and other fundamental techniques by THSO’s instructors, but one of the most important lessons is how to play alongside others.
“This has taught me especially how to work as a group because you could be an amazing violinist, but if you’ve never played with an orchestra, it’s a totally different feel,” Abigail said.” You have to learn. These are the sort of traits that will help me in whatever I do but especially in music.”
Joanna Pepple, co-founder and director of THSO, focuses on the personal and musical development of her students. When THSO began offering programming four years ago, the goal was to provide ensemble experience to students of varying playing levels. Along with that, these emerging artists gain self-discipline and time-management skills, as well as a sense of belonging.
“The camaraderie and the friendships, it buoys them,” said Pepple. “We hear from parents that the kids are not used to being in groups of 30 or 35. They’re more used to about 10 in a class so the ensembles are a cool experience for them. I also hear from parents who tell me their kids want to practice all the time because their friends are around them and they want to get better.”
While 6-year-old Preston Benoit admits that he doesn’t practice every day because “sometimes we get off track,” he enjoys playing the violin with his friends in the Da Capo ensemble. He said the violin “is very mature and it’s hard-working and it can do a lot of cool pieces. It has the highest string sound in all these instruments.”
An accomplished violinist herself, Pepple has earned several music degrees and is pursuing a Ph.D. in historical musicology at Florida State University. Her Suzuki pedagogy training allows her to cultivate a nurturing environment, especially for the youngest strings students. Though she has mastered the violin, Pepple constantly educates herself about other string instruments so she can pass that knowledge on to her students.
“I got a cello from a pawn shop because I felt so bad that I was always messing up on the students’ fingerings. I just needed to hold it and figure it out.” After a few lessons from a local cellist, Pepple is now more equipped to help her cello students and she, in turn, gets help from them. “It’s been the best of both worlds because when someone else is directing, I can sit in the back of the cello section and get better.”
Twelve-year-old Vivian Herring has played the cello for years and she appreciates Pepple’s dedication as well as her versatility. Vivian got the opportunity to exhibit her own adaptability during the Arioso ensemble’s performance of Sleigh Ride. “The cellos had to step in and improvise because we forgot to bring the slapstick,” a percussive instrument that emulates the all-important whip cracking effect in the piece.
Vivian, Preston, and Abigail all agree that music is something they will continue to study and explore. They have enjoyed learning from Pepple and each other while gaining technical proficiency as well as life skills.
Pepple sees that as a successful outcome for the THSO but perhaps more importantly, she believes that by giving these students the gift of music, they have a tool that elevates their spirit and builds connections across humanity.