Photo by: Carson Holtgraves
Open instrument cases and loose sheet music scatter around the clump of red-orange chairs in the back room of Westwood City Hall. In the chairs sit a mother and daughter, a former player of the Kansas City Symphony, an East alumnus of three decades and 24 other musicians of all ages and skill sets.
Standing at the front of the room before all of these different people is former SMSD orchestra teacher, Jonathan Lane. After announcing his resignation in an open letter to the district’s orchestra families at the end of April, Lane has spent the last six weeks putting together a local orchestra in the Westwood area. His new group, The Westwood Ensemble, is aimed towards bringing the music community together in an inviting group with no age restrictions, no fees and no specific requirements.
“Our name is purposely meant to be open-ended,” Lane said. “It doesn’t say youth symphony, it doesn’t say symphony orchestra and it doesn’t say jazz band, so [the reason for calling it just] ‘The Westwood Ensemble’ is so it can grow or morph into so many different things.”
The group of 28 have completed three practices since April 12 and have scheduled one more three-hour Wednesday session before their first concert at Kansas City Community College on May 5. Current members range from eighth graders to retirees, including six East students: freshman Sophie Green, sophomore Lily Murray, seniors Madeline Gay, Abby Kotar and Yashi Wang and freshman Wesley Truster who even convinced her mother, Tiffany Truster, to join the program.
“I actually play with my mom,” Wesley said. “I think that it’s really cool that we’re able to do that especially because that kind of [format] doesn’t necessarily exist anywhere else, [it’s] so different in the way that you could be playing with a fourth grader, and like a 70-year-old at the same time in the same group.”
Lane’s idea for the group started with a simple plan: it began by sending one Facebook message to a former student with his general ideas, then another, and another, this time reaching out to 167 people in the community. One by one new members received the message and started joining, each coming in with new ideas for the program and their own sound.
Last month, when 2014 East graduate and cello major at UMKC, Rob Simpson, the second person Lane recruited, saw the notification from his former orchestra teacher in his inbox, he didn’t know what to expect. About a week later Simpson and Lane sat down for lunch to discuss the idea, and more importantly, how to execute it in a way that could potentially bring a wide range of people together through music.
According to Lane, having such a wide group of players and only a total of 12 hours of practice to prepare has shown to be a challenge, but he believes they will be ready in time to perform at the upcoming free concert.
When choosing music to play for their show, Lane and his collaborators, Simpson and former Kansas City Symphony player, Marthe Cox, made sure to not only find music that the players would enjoy, but music that they would be able to learn quickly. The group will be playing four songs ranging from a classical arrangement of Johann Bach to The Beatles’ pop rock tune, “Day Tripper,” each set costing $25 each for copyright and purchasing reasons.
Despite the fact that their only source of funding is the spare change from the empty pretzel container labeled “Donations” sitting at the front of the 75 dollar-a-night practice room, Lane has made the conscious decision to omit any fees for the program. Lane’s main goal for the group is to welcome anyone with any budget to the group — even if it means paying for most of it himself.
“At this point I’m volunteering and am not getting paid for my labor and my costs,” Lane said, “But when you look at any business start-up you’ve got to put money into it before you get money out of it, so a lot — well all of — the funds either come from our pretzel jar or out of my own pocket.”
The ensemble gives current students, a chance to be involved in a free, relaxed music program outside of school and even after they graduate in a few weeks.
In addition to the school orchestra and private lessons, Kotar and Gay joined the group expecting the same intensity and atmosphere as their two other classes, but the two were pleasantly surprised to find how relaxed and inviting it was.
However, for most of the adult members, after high school and college they slowly stopped playing their instrument due to the lack of reasonable, inexpensive programs.
After reading an article about the new organization in The Shawnee Mission Post, 1990 East graduate, Julie Brown, reached out to Lane and several other local players to learn more about the ensemble. Brown grew up playing the violin in one of Lane’s first classes, but after graduating, she didn’t enjoy playing solo, changing her daily playing into a rare occurrence.
“It’s nice getting back to your roots and I’m sure that the others that are out of school feel the same way,” Brown said. “When you’re playing with a group, it’s so much more invigorating, especially if it sounds good, [rather] than playing solo.”
Although Lane’s efforts to form this group have been challenging considering the range of players and the $400 it’s costing, he hopes that the pretzel jar will continue filling up with loose change, and new members will pull up a red chair and contribute to their sound in the future.
“It’s hard to find a group that combines different skill sets outside of a student or youth symphony,” Kotar said, “So it’s great that this ensemble provides that opportunity to [work together and collaborate] with players of all ages and musical backgrounds.“