In Hands of WPS Director of Orchestras, Music Program is Growing into Something Special
A word that aptly characterizes the Westwood Public Schools (WPS) music program right now may be “growth.” Compare a recent high school strings performance with a performance of the corresponding ensemble from six years ago. There’s a difference that can be seen as well as heard. There’s been growth not only in the number of participating musicians, but in cohesion and in the maturity of sound.
That growth can also be seen in the career of Ms. Alicia Winslow, Westwood Public Schools Director of Orchestras, who arrived in the school district seven years ago. She started in the district as a teacher for the Thurston Middle School orchestra. Orchestra time had just been added back to the school day. Before, it had been an optional after-school activity. Prior to being an optional after-school activity, it had been cut from the school day entirely.
When Ms. Winslow arrived, however, the program was starting to take root. She was asked to expand her duties to the after-school Prodigy Program, where she provided private instruction to a number of string students. Her duties expanded again when she became a general music teacher and full-time staff member at Thurston Middle School. At the same time, she continued her responsibilities with the orchestra. A little later, Ms. Winslow was given the responsibility of teaching the entire slew of WPS beginning violin and viola students. Most recently, in the 2021-22 school year, she additionally took charge of the elementary orchestra. Today, all Westwood Public Schools ensembles are coordinated by Ms. Winslow, along with Westwood High School’s new music teacher Theresa Fritz.
It appears that Ms. Winslow may bear much of the responsibility of the WPS music program. But she notes, “Prodigy-wise, there are other string staff that contribute a tremendous amount to our program. We can’t do what we do without them. . . A lot of our students take private lessons from other string teachers that the program employs.”
In 2017, 2018, and 2019, WPS middle school orchestra earned three consecutive platinum awards – the highest level of recognition – at the Great East Music Festival. The platinum recognition is given to ensembles earning a score of over 95 points from a total of 100 possible points. Also in 2019, for the first time, all three participating WPS ensembles (band, chorus, and strings) each earned platinum award recognitions. In prior years, the highest recognition WPS student musicians had achieved had been gold.
"These [musicians] are twelve years old. To listen to them, you wouldn't think they're twelve years old. They are capable of so much now. Other middle school programs do not sound like ours. . . this is not typical."
-Alicia Winslow, WPS Director of Orchestras
Responding to the question of what a platinum award really means, Ms. Winslow explained, “A gold is certainly something to be proud of. That’s a good performance. But to earn a platinum, you really were impressive,” she explained.
“If you listen to the quality of some of our earlier concerts versus now, to see the growth, the maturity of the sound. These [musicians] are twelve years old. To listen to them, you wouldn’t think they’re twelve years old. They are capable of so much now. Other middle school programs do not sound like ours. . . this is not typical,” said Ms. Winslow. “The kids work hard. They want it. They’re willing to work for it, and they’re excited about it,” she said.
Ms. Winslow is cognizant, however, of the amount of pressure students can come under. She seeks to motivate students to musical excellence without the pressure of competition. The Great East Music Festival is a noncompetitive event. It provides an opportunity for student musical ensembles to show judges what they can do, and to receive feedback in the form of a score. Based on that score, they may receive a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum award recognition. After the performance comes more fun. Students have an opportunity to take a group visit to a nearby amusement park. This year, students spent time at Six Flags New England in Agawam.
Ms. Winslow is focused on building a program that students want to remain a part of. She notes that the WPS music program seeks to provide a lot of opportunity for different aged musicians to interact. It can be motivating for beginner students to watch older, more mature student musicians perform in concert. High schoolers and middle schoolers sometimes rehearse together either at the high school or at the middle school. At the grand finale of this year’s All Town String Spring Concert, beginner strings students were placed front and center on the stage to perform with middle schoolers and high schoolers. In all, approximately 150 musicians took to the stage together. This current practice stands in contrast to the years before.
“We started off pretty small and there wasn’t a lot of connection and continuity between the different grade levels,” observes Ms. Winslow. The entire high school program was only nine kids my first year here. There are going to be over thirty next year. So that’s really exciting to see – triple the numbers in less than ten years. That’s a pretty good rate of growth.”
“Our retention rate is surprisingly good once they get to middle school. If I can get them into sixth grade, I lose very few students.. . so I’m proud of that,” she says. “They want to be here. They enjoy it. It’s like a little family. That’s one of our litmus tests. Are they having fun? Do they want to keep doing it?”
Along with the annual experience of the Great East Music Festival and the two semi-annual, big group concert performances of the winter and spring concerts, music students have a few smaller, more informal, recitals or concerts through the year. Any of these performance opportunities can be motivating.
Also, beginning in seventh grade, students can audition for a spot on an Eastern District ensemble. Recent Westwood High School graduate, Angela Yang, is the first student to be honored with acceptance into the all-state orchestra since Ms. Winslow’s employ at WPS. Ms. Yang’s accomplishment in violin belongs to herself and her teacher, notes Ms. Winslow. But the WPS director of orchestras is also excited for it. It means the quality of students in the WPS music program is growing.
The growth has been accompanied by challenges, however. Not all interested students are able to participate in the program.
“Westwood children are involved in a lot of activities. They do so much. They do sports and they do Russian math. They are on multiple teams and all sorts of wonderful activities. But sometimes it’s hard to get them in the place you need them to be at the right time. Just coordinating what night to have class on is a challenge.” she says. Parents who are responsible for transporting children to lessons may have scheduling difficulties. “So that’s a challenge to us, trying to be accessible to everyone,” Ms. Winslow remarks.
“Every single student showed up, every single week on Zoom. It’s heartwarming to see them show up week, after week, after week, for an entire year, hanging onto the hope that’s it’s going to come back. And so we’re thrilled to be back in person. We’re really grateful to be back in person."
- Alicia Winslow, WPS Director of Orchestras
It goes without saying that the pandemic also threw in a few complications, stopping the music program in its tracks for a time. Progress that would have been made in a pre-pandemic year was not made when a halt was put to lessons.
When it became possible to do remote lessons, Ms. Winslow learned that they could be surprisingly productive. There were technical difficulties, though. The video frame would freeze, students would get “kicked off” the platform, there was bad sound quality and trying to keep all students engaged in a group lesson wasn’t easy. And when in-person instruction resumed this year, Ms. Winslow realized that many sixth graders have never performed on a stage. They missed that opportunity while learning remotely in their fourth and fifth grade years.
Today’s WPS music program is not only growing, but rebuilding. During last year’s period of remote instruction, Ms. Winslow only saw her students once a week. She kept waiting for the week that her students would decide it wasn’t fun anymore and would stop showing up. But every Wednesday morning, she would log onto Zoom, and there they were.
“Every single student showed up, every single week on Zoom,” she says. “It’s heartwarming to see them show up week, after week, after week, for an entire year, hanging onto the hope that’s it’s going to come back. And so we’re thrilled to be back in person. We’re really grateful to be back in person,” she says.
On growing the program for the future, Ms. Winslow would love to have another string teacher join the music program. Currently, Ms. Winslow works full-time in the district. With her responsibilities providing after-school instruction, “It adds up to almost another full-time job,” she says. She’s looking forward to some of that load being carried by another strings teacher. She also is hopeful for a time when beginning strings can be scheduled into part of the school day, rather than being an optional after-school activity. But she understands that changes come with time, and that patience is needed.
Ms. Winslow is happy for the support that currently exists for the WPS music program from school administration, teachers, and parents. “The kids work really hard. We have a lot of support, which is everything,” she says.
Thanks to Ms. Alicia Winslow, director of orchestras for Westwood Public Schools, for speaking to Westwood Minute for this article.