Photo courtesy of ETHS

Evanston Township High School’s Department of Music – which has been named a Grammy Signature Award School three times – is a superb resource for its students. That goes for beginners as well as for students already heavily invested in music before arriving at high school. Charles Abplanalp, director of orchestral music; Theresa Reed, director of choral music; and David Fodor, director of bands, are the three people who make sure it all works.

This is the first in a three-part series of articles that takes a look at these three remarkable people.

Charles Abplanalp, who grew up in Lake Forest, studied music education at Augustana College. He did masters’ level work at Wisconsin and Iowa, but, he says, he was, “a very active performer and didn’t want to give that up …” And, as he says, “being an active performer makes me a better teacher.” Mr. A – his name has been shortened by students for obvious reasons – plays classical violin and viola, and “added bass a few years ago,” he says, “to join a Dixieland band a friend was starting.” He has played with musicians of various ranges and types: among them have been The Temptations, Ray Charles and Rod Stewart.

Mr. A and his wife, Elizabeth Gosma, also a musician and a certified orchestral director, run a contracting business that hires musicians for events – they orchestrate “several hundred weddings per year,” he says. In fact, before the two married, Mr. A and Ms. Gosma hired each other for many events and commercial projects, until they finally “combined the business and got married,” he adds.

This was all before Mr. A came to ETHS. For 21 years, he lived and worked in the Quad Cities – in Davenport, Iowa. There he spent his first three years there directing middle school music. When he moved up to high school, he says, 16 kids made up the orchestra; when he departed for Evanston, he left 138 and had taught half of the 1200 students in the school. The system there allowed students to choose one of three high schools, and during Mr. Abplanalp’s tenure, more and more students chose his school – for the music program.

When Mr. A arrived 11 years ago at ETHS, 60 students comprised the orchestra. This, he says, has become a program with two orchestras – a symphony orchestra and a string orchestra made up of less experienced students – and 130 students, including orchestral winds, harpists (the school even owns a harp; they are huge and hard for students to cart around) and pianists. He does not teach private lessons, but he does encourage students to come see him for extra help. (For information on the wealth of music lessons and classes outside of school, see the Evanston RoundTable home magazine).

A student does have to audition to get into the symphony orchestra. Incoming freshmen audition when they sign up for classes midway through the last year of middle school. Mr. Abplanalp says, “Auditions are quite casual, rather meet-and-greet in nature. While we do use them to ‘place’ kids, it’s not a big deal.”

Reseating is done during the year, but with “individual performance assessments” that become part of their grade, rather than further auditions. Mr. A says, “I want them to work as a team, not meet in battle. I don’t even seat from best to worst in sections. I’ll take the top six players out of 12 and spread relative strength across the section.”

Mr. Abplanalp’s philosophy is all about working together. “I view our relationship as collaborative because we all have the same goal. I want to give my students the tools to play the best they can. … [and] as many experiences as they can with a big range of music. I encourage them to be in the pit orchestra,” he says. That is the 50-person orchestra that plays for the annual musical, which was “Oliver” last year.

The orchestras travel for a touring and educational experience every two years. Three years ago they went to San Francisco, where they played at Grace Cathedral and did clinics at San Francisco Conservatory (where college-level instructor/musicians worked with students on their technique). Last year, they played the United Nations in New York City, attended a performance of the New York Philharmonic and had clinics with its members. In fact, Mr. Abplanalp told the RoundTable, the NY Philharmonic’s second trumpet, Ethan Bensdorf, is a 2003 graduate of the ETHS orchestra.

With a trip every other year, the students have two years to raise funds. The trip is much less expensive with a group, Mr. A says, and parents and the school help to make it “cost-effective.”

At the school’s solo and ensemble festival, 28 different groups of student musicians – string quartets, for example – play. Mr. A also helps groups get experience in the community; some they even get paid for.

Mr. A also teaches music theory, electronic music – both learning about and how to – and a seminar in western music, starting with medieval music, which began, as he says, the “period of common practice” in Europe.

Classes meet every day and students receive full credit for them. Technically, says Mr. Abplanalp, orchestra is a “co-curricular” class; students are expected to put in work outside of the classroom. Sectionals – the horns or the violins, say – may be held during a lunch period. But students’ schedules are often arranged to allow them three periods in a row to cover rehearsals and many students eat lunch with other music students when they can.

Mr. A is enthusiastic, warm in talking about his students and excited to be have been teaching at ETHS for the past 11 years. He says, “I can’t believe I get to do what I get to do on a daily basis. I like this school and I love Evanston.”