Rachelle Burgess passes on her passion for orchestra to Gaston kids

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Rachelle Burgess was the first in her family to graduate from college. Now she teaches in Gaston and Forest Grove, passing on the power of music. Growing up in a poor Portland neighborhood with drug-addicted parents, unstable living conditions and little motivation in school, Rachelle Burgess clung to an unlikely life raft — her violin.

Now she runs a thriving orchestra program in Gaston, hoping to pass on what music gave her growing up.

While the arts are often considered less essential subjects than reading, math and science — and are the first classes to get cut during a budget crunch — Burgess, 25, maintains that music education is as important as anything else.

“Music can teach kids all the things 21st century educators want: critical thinking, teamwork, synergy. It not only builds both sides of the brain, but teaches social skills and gives them a sense of community,” Burgess said.

Incredibly unique opportunity

With 40 kids enrolled in her after-school orchestra classes in Gaston, Burgess tries to pass on her love for the only thing that kept her in school all those years — the orchestra, where she found the missing piece of the puzzle that would make her a “happy person.”

She was hired in Gaston last year to teach general music, but then volunteered to create an orchestra. by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - In college, Burgess learned about the Kodaly Pedagogy, which emphasizes music as the born right of every child and a crucial part of their learning and understanding of their culture, Burgess explained.

Kali Karpow was new to Gaston Elementary this year, where the orchestra has helped her transition.

“[Burgess is] really awesome. Normally teachers are old and mean and cranky, but she’s fun to be around,” Karpow said.

Austin Walker and his friend Nathan Stanek, both 11 years old, were watching YouTube videos of Lindsey Stirling, a violinist who combines music and dance, when they decided to join the orchestra.

“I didn’t know this thing existed before,” said Stanek, pointing to his cello. “I just love the sound of it.”

“He loves it,” said Amy Stanek, Nathan’s mom. “It’s how I get him up in the morning.”

Walker likes to play the Mission Impossible theme song on his violin, and Luke Brewer, 9, likes to strum Star Wars on his cello.

“I like music,” Brewer said. “It’s calming.”

“For a school our size, orchestra is an incredibly unique opportunity,” said David Beasley, school district superintendent in Gaston, which went without any music programs for a year.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Kali Karpows mom had a violin sitting around the house, so she picked it up and joined orchestra this year. “We were missing something,” Beasley said.

Burgess’ “volunteer” orchestra was so successful that this year, it became part of the Gaston curriculum.

In addition, she took over the orchestra program at Neil Armstrong Middle School in Forest Grove, a group the elementary-age Burgess used to admire at competitions, back when it was led by Kathy Walden.

By the time Burgess arrived, it had dwindled to fewer than 10 students but has nearly doubled since she took over.

“I was hired pretty late, so I think the program was in danger of being cut completely if they couldn’t find someone to come in,” Burgess said.

Back in Gaston, “I run a tight ship but we have fun,” said Burgess, whose rules include no using bows as light sabers or swords.

In addition to teaching orchestra on her own time last school year, she has been collecting instruments for years to share with kids who need NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Luke Brewers cello is almost as big as he is, but he likes its deep sounds. He likes it more than the violin he started out with, though.

For Burgess, whose family couldn’t afford private lessons and who only stayed in school because she wouldn’t have access to music instruction otherwise, one of her top goals is to make music instruction available for every child who wants it.

Great-grandpa stepped in

At 11 years old, Burgess’ great-grandfather spotted informational papers about a school orchestra poking out of her backpack.

“My grandpa was a smart guy,” Burgess said. “I think he figured out pretty quickly that I knew my parents couldn’t buy me an instrument.”

So, Burgess’ great-grandpa took her to a pawn shop and bought the “piece of junk” violin she still plays today.

“He really supported anything that would help us get out of the slummy lifestyle,” said Burgess. “My mom wanted me to have the best education possible and saw that I thrived in orchestra, but struggled with her own addiction.

“Although my parents are now clean and the most supportive people I could imagine, in the beginning it was very hard to be successful and blossom in anything in life or school.”

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Nathan Stanek likes the cello because he gets stronger carrying it around. “She had a very difficult childhood,” said Tammie Peterson, Burgess’ mom, who drove her to Honor Orchestra rehearsals in Clackamas County one to two times a week. “But she never missed a day and always clung to that violin. She amazes me.”

For a lonely kid like Burgess who wore “strange things,” she says, and “never really fit in,” orchestra was the great equalizer, where everyone with an instrument was important.

Growing up, orchestra filled voids in Burgess’ life. It gave her somewhere to belong, something she enjoyed, a skill in which she flourished — and friends.

“It gave me structure where I needed structure, and discipline where I wouldn’t have found it anywhere else,” Burgess recalled.

As she continued to progress, Burgess first toyed with becoming a teacher under the instruction of Claudia Zinser, her first orchestra instructor.

“She had such a meaningful impact on my life,” Burgess said.

Zinser said she could tell from the beginning that Burgess had an interest in music, which is crucial to a musician’s success. So is attitude, she said.

“Some of the greatest talent can just slip right through your fingers,” said Zinser, who has taught students with a lot of potential, but little dedication. “She loved her instrument,” Zinser said of Burgess.

Carrying the torch

Burgess made it through high school and went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Portland State University. Shortly after graduation she found her job in Gaston.

She was nervous about commuting from the Portland home she shares with her husband to the small, country school, but loves the atmosphere and the small class sizes that allow her to form meaningful relationships, she said.Austin Walker plays first violin. He helps the new kids now that he's in his second year.

The first orchestra concert this year was well attended, Beasley said, drawing community members in addition to parents.

“We may not all be concert violinists, but it strengthens the total student,” said Beasley, who played the cello in school. “Kids will likely read better and enjoy school more.”

A special-needs kid with behavioral issues, for example, couldn’t focus for more than a minute, Burgess said. But the moment she handed the student an instrument, the child became one of her “blossoming, shining stars,” practicing hours every night.

“Some people don’t have the chance to hear great music growing up, but I believe all people have the innate ability to be musical,” Burgess said.

Now that orchestra is part of the established curriculum, Burgess is focusing on getting kids to play at a high artistic level as they learn to read music, write it and compose.

As Zinser taught her, “it doesn’t matter where I come from.  It doesn’t matter if I am homeless or the victim of circumstance. If I can get my hands on a fiddle, and care enough to play it, I can change my life, because I’m the one in charge of it.”

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