Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Community in Harmony

“Don’t interrupt Mommy while she’s on the phone…Leave the kitchen please…Excuse me, my kids just left the house,” Jackie Shannon, adjunct professor at the California State University, Dominguez Hills, said as she put down the telephone to round up her two sons, ages 3 and 5.

Besides teaching music at the university and keeping an eye on her boys, Shannon still finds time to practice her skill on the French horn for up to three hours everyday and play in several community orchestras including the Carson-Dominguez Hill Symphony Orchestra.

photo from the City of Carson

Since 1972, musicians of all ages and from all walks of life have been joining together to form the Carson-Dominguez Hills Symphony Orchestra.

Even though Carson is most famous for having its politicians arrested and its council meetings broadcasted on YouTube, the semiprofessional community orchestra has also made a name for itself by winning the National Recreation and Park Association Arts and Humanities Award.

The orchestra has come a long way in its 35 years.

Les Woodson, a tuba player who has been with the orchestra from day one, said when they played their first concert, in October of 1972, they weren’t very good at all.

“There was a guy who wanted to start an orchestra…He had a big ego,” Woodson said of the orchestra’s first director, whose name he couldn’t even remember.

It wasn’t until 1975, when Frances Steiner, professional cellist, conductor, and adjunct professor at the California State University, Dominguez Hills took over as director that the orchestra started to improve, Woodson said. “(The orchestra) would not have survived,” he said.

It was under Steiner’s direction that the initially city-funded orchestra combined with the California State University, Dominguez Hills to become the Carson-Dominguez Hills Symphony Orchestra. The 50 to 60 members of the orchestra get paid a stipend ranging from $150-$200 per show.

Through the partnership, the orchestra gives university music students the opportunity to perform with seasoned professional and semiprofessional musicians, Hector Salazar, trombone player and assistant conductor for the orchestra said.

Salazar has been in the Carson-Dominguez Hills Symphony Orchestra for 20 years. He has been playing the trombone since middle school and he now teaches music and conducts professionally.

“Community regional orchestra is really important…They offer concerts to people who can’t afford to go to the philharmonic,” Salazar said.

Every year the orchestra puts on at least five concerts for the Carson-Dominguez Hills community, which include two evening concerts and three children’s concerts. They rehearse only five times before each show. Both students and community members are glad to have an outlet for their musical talent.

Shannon, a former professional musician, who now teaches music at the California State University, Dominguez Hills, and gives private lessons, said performing with her students helps her connect with them and reach out to the community through her music.

Shannon has been playing the French horn ever since elementary school, when she said she literally heard the instrument calling to her.

She said she remembers going to the school gym to hear a sampling of all of the instruments available at the school. It was the day when she was supposed to pick what instrument she was going to play for the school band. Before she even saw the instruments, she had already chosen.

“I heard this beautiful sound and I said I want to play that instrument,” Shannon said.

Shannon, whose husband plays trombone for the Beach City Sling Band, is already preparing her children to follow in their parents musical footsteps. Since her sons were 6-months-old, they have been taking piano and Orff music lessons. In Orff lessons, young children are introduced to music, especially percussion instruments.

Even though Shannon said Orff is basically a parent tapping rhythms on their baby’s back, she said she it gave her kids a goods sense of rhythm.

Meanwhile, Steiner, whose mother was a professional violinist and father a professional cellist, said it was never important to either marry a musician or push her daughter into music.

Since she was 15-years-old Steiner has been performing professionally; she started taking lesson at age 5. By age 21, she was a fulltime professional cellist. She has performed with orchestras on both the East and West coasts including at the Kennedy Center and the Los Angeles Art Museum. However, she decided that the life of a professional musician wasn’t for her and instead went on to study at the University of Southern California, Harvard University, Temple University, and several music schools in France, New York and Vermont.

“It was a competitive lifestyle…somewhat political,” she said of her life as a professional musician.

“I opted very early to teach and play,” said Steiner who, besides teaching at the university, also directs the Chamber Orchestra of South Bay and the Southwest Youth Music Festival Orchestra along with the Carson-Dominguez orchestra. She still finds time to practice the cello.

For many, being part of the Carson-Dominguez Hills Symphony Orchestra meant finding a place where they could keep their musical skills in tune.

“I always looked for opportunities to perform. I was determined when I got out of college to not forget my music like so many other people I knew,” Tuba player Les Woodson said.

Woodson, who is a financial advisor, started playing the tuba in high school.

His father was also a musician who played the violin and the piano and finished fourth in an international competition for barbershop quartets. His mother played the piano and his siblings sang in a choir. When Woodson was a child, his parents made him take piano lessons but he never enjoyed playing music until he found the tuba.

After high school, during the first years of the Vietnam War, he joined the National Guard Band. Woodson thanks the tuba for keeping him out of Vietnam.

Tuba saved my life,” he said repeatedly. Woodson, who doesn’t live in Carson, drives 85 miles from his home in Crestline just to perform with the orchestra.

Woodson isn’t the only musician who goes out of his way to be a part of the orchestra. Joe Jackson, a tuba player for the Carson-Dominguez Hills Symphony Orchestra as well as a professional musician, music teacher, and steam train engineer for Disneyland also makes an effort to play with the group, which he’s been with since 1996.

“It’s really hard to juggle and sometimes I don’t juggle as well as I should. It really comes down to picking and choosing,” Jackson said.

Even with his multiple jobs and his wedding coming up in February, Jackson
makes time to practice from one to four hours a day.

He’s been playing tuba since middle school.

“I always liked things that were big. I saw the tuba and I was really impressed by its size,”

Jackson said. He went on to major in tuba performance at the University of Southern California.

Now, however, he said it’s the tuba’s sound rather than its size which keeps him interested. He often performs tuba solos for the Carson-Dominguez orchestra and freelances for other orchestras.

“I really enjoy solos, that’s really when I’m the happiest,” Jackson said.

Even if they have little else in common, for Jackson and the other members of the orchestra, it’s the love of music and the happiness they get out of it that bonds them together.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it,” Shannon said.

Whatever they are in the rest of their lives-students, teachers, theme park steam train conductors, financial advisors, computer technicians, mother, fathers, sons and daughters, when they come together as the Carson-Dominguez Hills Symphony Orchestra, they’re all musicians.

“Orchestra is like a sense of family,” Salazar said.

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