The Instant Orchestra performing at the ISBasel winter concert, December 2022. (Photo source: Vester Photography)
In March 2023, the music department of International School Basel (ISB) marks ten years since the first performance of its Instant Orchestra. This project-based symphony ensemble for students in Grades 6 to 12 has been delighting audiences since its inception in 2013. More significantly, it has been a powerful vehicle for learning, growth, mentorship, and leadership amongst our student musicians. As we celebrate this very special occasion for our school, we would like to share the model for this unique ensemble in the hope that it might inspire similar initiatives at other international schools.
Context and Origins
International School Basel is an IB World School serving approximately 1,300 across the primary years, middle years, and diploma programs. Music is an important part of the school’s identity, with a vibrant general music curriculum for all students in Early Childhood 1 to Grade 8, which becomes an elective option in Grades 9 to 12. There is a strong culture and emphasis on co-curricular music-making, with a total of 15 weekly student ensembles across Grades 2 to 12.
Back in 2013, as this program was being developed, we were faced with a conundrum. We could see the potential for a large orchestral ensemble within our school. The musicians were there, spread across smaller string and wind groups. However, how could we gather all of these students into one space for a meaningful amount of rehearsal time? Lunchtimes were simply too short, given the logistics of a large orchestra practice, and after school was already devoted to other co-curricular initiatives such as athletics and school productions.
A proposal was written, and following the approval from our leadership team, the first Instant Orchestra was convened. The 60-strong ensemble met for three hours on a single weekday afternoon and performed at a school concert the same evening. It was a whirlwind experience with three music teachers each conducting a piece. However, the enthusiasm and scope for further high-quality symphonic music amongst our students, staff, and the wider community was palpable.
Today, the Instant Orchestra has kept its name, derived from its one and only rehearsal in 2013, but evolved in order to increase the quality of provision for students. An Instant Orchestra cycle involves the following:
We complete this cycle twice per year (for two major concert events).
Over the years, our ensemble has sometimes expanded beyond middle and senior school. We’ve invited some especially able junior school musicians, one as young as Grade 3, to participate, making for a fully cross-divisional ensemble. A number of alumni who return to Basel for the holidays have also come back to play, providing additional mentorship to students. In addition, some staff who play orchestral instruments have expressed an interest and joined the group if their schedule permitted.
Collaboration and Community
Now that we know what the Instant Orchestra is, let’s turn to the why, the reasons that this ensemble has succeeded and continues to exist.
In rehearsals, it is striking to observe the concentration levels of 50 to 60 musicians aged 11 to 18 as they work together to achieve a common goal. Working with three different conductors on three contrasting pieces automatically encourages students to adapt stylistically.
“Instant Orchestra is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had at ISB. It teaches me a lot about both musical style and how enthusiasm and cooperation are able to shape a group of individuals.” Anna (violin, class of 2023)
Student collaboration and leadership are also abundant within the ensemble. It is quite common to see an older, more assured musician assisting a younger student. This can also go the other way. Our more experienced senior school players are sometimes surprised and inspired by the prowess and determination of those from the middle school.
“Playing in the Instant Orchestra provided a unique opportunity to learn from musicians of all different ages and abilities, and created a really fun environment in which to do so.” Emily (saxophone, 2017)
Indeed, it is wonderful to see friendships develop and flourish across different grade levels and school divisions.
“The community I gained through Instant Orchestra was a significant part of my time at ISB. I’m grateful to have gained friendships [and] further mentorship from teachers and older students.” Emilija (flute, 2022)
Finally, the Instant Orchestra has also provided an avenue into our local community. Musicians from Sinfonieorchester Basel attend two of our practices in each cycle to provide sectional coaching. It is brilliant to see our students receiving mentorship from these top-notch musicians.
“The fast paced dynamic with the highly skilled coaching from both the ISB staff and the Sinfonieorchester Basel musicians allowed for me to gain incredible experience.” Anna (flute, 2020)
“To my delight, I discovered a group of highly motivated and passionate young people who listened intently and actively to create an ensemble ‘made from scratch’.” Janice DiBiase, violist, Sinfonieorchester Basel
“The students are well prepared, motivated and react quickly to advice and instruction. [The music teachers] have created a disciplined atmosphere that still encourages creativity, spontaneity and the healthy sense of fun that makes the projects so successful.” Richard Westphalen, violinist, Sinfonieorchester Basel
This collaboration was the cornerstone of our school’s educational partnership with the orchestra which has developed to include regular concert visits and adjudication of our annual music competitions.
Opportunities and Solutions
Creating an Instant Orchestra comes with a variety of logistical challenges. The nature of these will, of course, depend on the context in which the group is established. Based on our experiences, here are some opportunities and solutions which you might encounter:
Our rehearsals are scheduled on a different day each week, so as to avoid impacting the same lessons. Previously, when we had a six-day schedule, we kept practices on the same weekday.
Our students are located on three distinct campuses connected by a local tram. Having rehearsals at the beginning or end of the school day minimizes travel, the impact on lessons, and the need for chaperones.
The capabilities of your students will impact your choice of repertoire. Some arrangements also have helpful doublings beyond standard orchestration (e.g., third violin, saxophone, piano).
Which ages, abilities, and levels of commitment do you honor in your invitations to students? Although the music might be a little too difficult for some musicians, they still develop their skills by having this experience in a safe and friendly environment.
Be creative and flexible. Make up for your lack of French horns by transcribing the parts for saxophone. Do you have pianists crying out for ensemble experience? Invite them to play auxiliary percussion.
Determine who will be playing the different violin, woodwind, and brass parts and ensure that this is communicated to students when the music is shared with them.
“Instant Orchestra has allowed me to connect with people through music,” says Selina (violin, 2024).
This is something we witness time and again during our rehearsals and performances. There is room for further expansion of this idea. Possible future developments include combined pieces for choir and orchestra, as well as a joint rehearsal with Sinfonieorchester Basel. As the Instant Orchestra enters its second decade, we look forward to fostering the further growth of our young musicians in this unique and exciting manner.
William Norris is the Director of Performing Arts at International School Basel in northwest Switzerland. If you would like to learn more about ISB’s Instant Orchestra and how a similar concept might work at your school, feel free to write to him at [email protected].
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