Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra Musicians and Students unite at Side-by-Side concerts

OPO Principal Cello Ronald Gardiner rehearsing with students from Edgewater High School for their upcoming Side-by-Side concert.

The Side-by-Side program is a keystone of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s Education programming, and this year is bigger and better than ever. The program places professional musicians in schools to lead sectionals, teach fundamentals, and offer customized instruction to the needs of the students. These in-person visits culminate in a public performance with students and professionals playing “side-by-side.” With multiple visits over the school year, the Side-by-Side program creates a mentor/role model relationship, offers networking opportunities between musicians, teachers, and students, and builds a collaborative connection between students across grade levels. 

But how is this success measured, and how can we evaluate this legacy program? In the 2023-2024 Season, the OPO was awarded an Orlando Magic Youth Foundation (OMYF) Grant for  $35,000. This award allowed the program to be evaluated by a third party and created an opportunity to serve even more students to offer “opportunities for students to receive instruction in school from OPO musicians through group lessons which build mentor/role model relationships.” The evaluative look at the overall impact of this program includes first-hand observations, as well as in-depth data collected from students, their district music teachers/programs, and OPO musicians.

This Season, Side-by-Side concerts were conducted with Howard Middle School and Edgewater High School on October 26, 2023, and Lake Nona High School on December 7, 2023. The grant funding also allowed for additional sectionals to be performed at Jones High School throughout December 2023. With more than 250 students served, there was ample opportunity to collect data. 

Musicians, students, and teachers all came forward to share their stories about how the Side-by-Side program affected their musical relationships. An OPO musician stated, “I knew my work with students made a difference when I saw they had retained, implemented, and grown from the information I gave them during visits the previous semester. The students were very enthusiastic and thanked me for my input.” About 70% of OPO musicians accept Side-by-Side services specifically, “to open the door for mentorship between professional musicians and students as the students consider lifelong participation in furthering their music education into college or music-related fields.”

Elliana, a senior and Violist at Edgewater High School, also attended Howard Middle School and has previously participated in the Side-by-Side program. She sees great value in the program which has helped her mature in her playing over 6 years. The visits from the professional viola musician help her with tips and tricks that improve both her orchestral playing as well as her solos. Since she wants to continue performing through college and beyond, the interactions she had with OPO musicians over the years have helped her determine her own pathway. In fact, 73.8% of students report being most benefited from the opportunity to get professional help specific to the instrument they play.

When speaking about their experience in the Side-by-Side program, one student responded “I felt that getting to play with a professional allowed me to learn techniques I can take with me into the future. [Seeing] how a professional musician worked through a piece of music gave me insight into what it would be like to be a professional musician.”

Students also report the benefits of being not just with an OPO musician, but also with their section.The opportunity to work with others who play the specific instrument they play has benefited 71% of student participants. Saniyah is a Bassist at Edgewater High School who loves the visitation sessions because it’s the only time she gets to work and grow with all the other bassists in the school. In her orchestra period there is just one other bass player, and the visitation sessions help her learn exercises and techniques she would not acquire otherwise. Maria, an 8th grade Trumpeter at Howard Middle School,  says her favorite aspect of the program is the joint concert because it helps her experience what high school will be like. She also gets to interact with the students who will be with her in band next year. 

Orange County educators themselves wish to foster these relations. 100% of participating teachers in the Side-by-Side program say they do so to receive support and feedback from professional musicians, to help their students grow more confident in their playing, and to open the door for mentorship between professional musicians and students. Howard Middle School Band Director, Damon Willie, speaks to the mentorship value of this program when he writes, “These students are developing working relationships with professional musicians that will impact their lives. Even if the students do not become professional musicians, they will have a deep and personal connection with the orchestra that will impact the health of the arts in Central Florida. These students are our future leaders and patrons.”

This data has helped to show us many avenues of opportunity we can take, including fostering the growth of these musicians through their middle and high school years. Receiving the OMYF Grant has allowed us to see the best path moving forward. If you are interested in seeing the power of the Side-by-Side program, the next collaborative concert takes place on April 23 at 5:30 p.m. in the Edgewater High School Auditorium. If your school would like to participate in future seasons of Side-by-Sides, please reach out to education@orlandophil.org. The future of the Side-by-Side program is bright!