Classically Trained ~ Thoughts on the Ann Arbor Youth Ensemble Scene

“Houston We Have A Problem” band   performing at Live On Washington 2017

“Houston We Have A Problem” band performing at Live On Washington 2017

A Selection of Quotes from Music Students

We have all read articles touting the positive effects of music on brain development, and seen the studies that show music can improve test scores and academic performance in children. What isn’t written about so much are the social and emotional benefits of music.

Last spring I heard Aaron Dworkin, violinist and former Dean of the U-M School of Music, Theater & Dance, speak at a leadership workshop at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. He expressed the best part of playing in a group/ensemble as a child was that he felt like he was ‘included’ for the first time in his life. Prior to this, he didn’t know anyone else like him and he lacked a sense of ‘belonging.’ He inspired me to investigate further. I wanted to hear from Ann Arbor students and teachers about their experience playing music in collaboration with others and what it means to them. 

“Playing with a group helps me get in tune with my emotions. It really is the ultimate form of self expression.” –High school flute player, Pitch Benders

“For me, sports have never been an option due to some serious health issues I faced in my life. Fortunately, I have been able to put all of my time and energy into playing my clarinet and started playing with an ensemble right from the beginning (5th grade). In addition to hearing the sounds of other instruments, what I value most about ensemble playing are the friendships and companionship it offers. It can be challenging when we are not all at the same level, but it generally works out. I feel motivated to practice harder when I’m surrounded by better musicians.” –Xander Salsitz, jazz clarinet player, member of MSU Youth Ensemble in Detroit, Community Music School of Ann Arbor (CMSa2) Jazz Ensemble, 8th grader at Tappan 

“The feeling of playing together is so great — I was in the groove, dancing around playing my trombone, I got lost in the music and my thoughts vanished, I could feel us all rising up together in that moment — what a feeling!” –CMSa2 Brass Ensemble trombone player, age 11

Since I joined this Brandenburg Project at CMSa2 over four years ago, I have fallen in love with the Baroque style of music because it allows us to be creative and lends itself to interpretation. Unlike his contemporaries, Bach didn’t prescribe the phrasing or the articulations in his concertos, so we have the opportunity to make it our own. As a classically trained cellist I’m really learning to think outside the box — it is so different from what I am used to. 

“Our coach Kasia is there to listen and help us if we ask, but during rehearsals we run the show. Plus, I enjoy the wide diversity in our ensemble group — we all have respect for one another. We really have to pay attention and listen and communicate clearly with and without words. I don’t think I will ever outgrow this —  it’s really cool.” –Tomas Ridley, cellist and viol da gamba player, 2017 Blue Lake International participant, 10th grader at Community High 

“This year I think I maximized the music playing opportunities in Ann Arbor for a high school student. I play jazz piano in a combo at Community High and French horn in Symphony Band at Pioneer. On Sundays, I play with Michigan Youth Symphony Orchestra. It’s great being around so many talented musicians. In jazz, it’s about being aware and conscious about when and what you play. Improvising is harder than it looks! In Symphony Band, it’s all about the sections, what role do they play. I love my horn section — we have all these inside jokes which made Marching Band so much fun this year. When it comes to performing, I used to get so nervous before a piano recital, but now performing is all about connecting with the audience.” –Ellie Theriot, 10th grader at Community and Pioneer, French horn player, jazz and classical pianist, and my original source of inspiration for this article

A Selection of Teachers and Opportunities

When I realized how much these teens were getting out of their musical experience, the next logical step was to talk to some of the people running these programs and organizations. So I sought out a few of the experts who teach and support teens and collaborative music in Ann Arbor. I realized there are some very innovative programs out there and likely many more to discover. It is by no means a complete list of programs or teachers. 

Jack Wagner, Community High School Jazz Director

Jack loves all aspects of jazz, and when we talked, he said he teaches high school because he believes “early engagement is key and creativity is inherent in all kids.” Jack says that people become more rigid as they age, so getting exposure to jazz early is key. When it comes right down to it, “Great improvisers are the result of working so hard in the background. One can manipulate only that which is in their possession.” In the Jazz Program that means learning and mastering the nuts and bolts — it requires dedication and discipline. He wants to embed “the trust, the adaptability, the desire to be your best in these students,” while they are still adolescents so that they can take this into ther adult lives. In a combo, each kid is 20 percent of the band, and has a distinct responsibility to be their own best and be a member of the team. One of my takeaways from talking with Jack is that whether or not a student continues jazz studies beyond high school, the skills and values required in this program, including the ability to improvise with confidence, are the keys to success in life. CHS Jazz ( is a top notch high school jazz program, and in 2017, Tempus Fugit, a Jazz 4 combo won The DownBeat Magazine Student Music Awards in the High School Combo Contest. Students entering any AAPS high school with one to two years of music experience are welcome to audition for Jazz at CHS. 

Kasia Bielak-Hoops, Community Music School of Ann Arbor Executive Director, Cello Performer and Teacher

A cellist by profession, and an entrepreneur, Kasia took the helm of CMSa2 ( about five years ago. Formerly known as Ann Arbor School of Performing Arts, CMSa2 is an independent nonprofit arts organization with a mission to make music accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. In addition to making private music lessons affordable for AAPS students through a scholarship program called COMP (Cooperative Outreach Music Program,, CMSa2 organizes several small conductorless ensembles in a range of genres. “Our approach to working with teens is unique in that it is youth led and inquiry based. We provide a platform (place and time structure) and a qualified musician coach for each of our small ensembles for our youth to discover the power of collaborative music,” she explained. Currently participants are late elementary, middle school, and early high school students, and draw from all Ann Arbor and neighboring school districts.  Community programs like this offer students a chance to experiment with collaboration and explore different genres in a safe and stimulating environment. CMSa2 is auditioning and welcoming new students on an ongoing basis.

Beatrice Ellis, President of the Ann Arbor Area Piano Teachers Guild and Founder of Summer Piano Ensemble Camp

I came to know and appreciate Beatrice when my daughter participated in her week-long Summer Piano Ensemble camps ( The camp targets piano players in grades 5-8 and its purpose was to reframe the piano as a collaborative tool versus a solo instrument. She introduced the campers to piano repertoire using four or six or eight hands and multiple pianos. Pianists also learned to accompany strings, brass, and woodwinds. “Collaboration teaches people to listen differently: to stop focusing on themselves, and listen to each other, opening up a new social dimension of playing music at a developmentally appropriate time,” Beatrice explained. At the end of the week, students celebrate their progress in front of a friendly audience; each duet or trio plays through wherever they are — some more polished than others. In turn, students discover that it is safe to “take a risk” in music. Now in its fourth year, the camp has been a successful collaborative venture.

Kelly McDermott, Professional Flute Performer and Private Lesson Studio Teacher

Kelly brings a holistic approach to teaching flute in her studio and supporting her adolescent aged students. She asks questions like “What would make you want to practice?” as a way to build self awareness and self discipline. One of the skills she focuses on with her students is the ability to make beautiful sound. She posits that musical performances can heal what is ailing in our community. To this end, she arranges for students to perform in senior homes, churches, and art galleries. She likes to work in partnership with outreach programs. This past year, her studio students formed an ensemble named The Pitch Benders (find their story on Youtube) with a mission to increase awareness of teen mental health and support peer-to-peer outreach. They are recording a CD, the proceeds of which will support U-M Depression Center teen outreach programs in middle and high schools. It struck me as an excellent example of student outreach in action — teens playing music to support and heal each other. 

Tammy Kosinski, Professional French Horn Performer and Private Lesson Teacher 

Tammy has been our daughter’s French horn teacher and mentor for the past two years. In her Studio Handbook, Tammy sums it up best when she says: “Ensembles teach students many things they cannot learn from normal lessons or band class. They learn how to be stronger individual players as well as learning to tune/blend with other people. This is also a great opportunity to learn how to work well with other people. I feel the ensemble classes are some of the best opportunities I can offer my students.” At Tammy’s studio recitals, almost all of her students play horn solos in addition to playing with trios and quartets. Students (both current and former) say that Tammy is one of the most supportive teachers they have ever had, especially when it comes to thinking about their horn careers beyond high school.

Jeannette Faber, Private Lesson Piano Teacher

Jeanette has been our children’s piano teacher and trusted confidant for the past nine years. Each year, Jeannette has a conversation with each student to understand their goals. When a student indicates they are ready for a bigger challenge, she helps them prepare for a regional musical assessment such as Student Achievement Testing or SAT, whereby students of all ages and levels perform and receive direct written feedback on technique, theory, sight reading, and aural awareness from judges. Jeannette also hosts studio classes (informal recitals) in her home to help prepare younger students for the bi-annual recitals she hosts at Kerrytown Concert House. She believes in exposing students early to ensemble playing, and it is common to see duets or trios (with siblings or parents) at her recitals. Regardless of age, Jeannette says “performing with others can take some of the stress out of the whole experience.” 

Charlie Reischl, Director of Music Programs, The Neutral Zone

Charlie was a coach our daughter had as part of a Creative Composers
Ensemble offered by the CMSa2. Now as Director of Music at the Neutral Zone
(, he is in charge of the in-house recording studio, a Youth Owned Records label, and a performance venue called the B-Side. This year Charlie worked with Community High School to design a Community Resource class called “Artist Management” to help students follow through on music entrepreneurship efforts. The Neutral Zone is a mecca for high schoolers and youth-driven initiatives right in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. It is the arguably the best place for Ann Arbor area youth to lead, innovate, and collaborate in a range of creative pursuits. If you haven’t checked it out, it is well worth your time.     

Kendra Theriot is a parent of two teenagers and has lived in Ann Arbor since 2006. Her professional background includes 16 years in the investment industry and 5 years at an innovation consulting firm in Ann Arbor. Her passions include exploring Detroit, mountain biking, and yoga.

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Posted on May 5, 2018 and filed under Columns, Issue 69, Music, Parenting.