Youth orchestra rehearses at Suite de Farm

As for the animals, it’s music to their ears

Young orchestra musicians are finding out if music really does soothe the savage beast.

Well, they aren’t really savage but the Bainbridge Island Youth Orchestra is practicing on a farm with animals like llamas, goats and dogs listening in.

Tom and Misha Gillingham opened up their farm to the orchestra when they found out it needed an outdoor facility to rehearse. Since the coronavirus hit in March, members had only been able to practice individually online.

“I felt frustrated and bored,” said Aria Michael, 9, who has been playing violin for four years.

She said it’s been fun. At a recent rehearsal one of the dogs came in, and some of them stopped to pet it. “We were so happy. We all laughed,” Aria said.

She said their conductor, Tigran Arakelyan, said, “You’re all going to remember this for a long time.”

Because they are practicing outside, Aria said she knows fairly soon when the weather gets bad they are going to have to go back to online. “I’m pretty bummed, going back to the computer,” she said.

Aria’s mom, Amy, said the outdoor rehearsals have been great for her daughter. “She looks forward to it every week. It keeps her motivated,” Michael said. “I can’t say enough positive things about it.”

She said with online learning kids get lonely. “Aria misses being with other kids,” Michael said. “They don’t get many chances to get together.”

High schooler Luke Watson said he’s actually heard some animals when they’ve stopped playing during practice. “I’ve heard a goat or llama. It’s kind of funny,” said Luke, a violinist for 10 years. “It’s not super distracting.”

Because the performers are set up 6 feet apart, Luke said he’s had to “pay attention to what the other sections are playing so we don’t get out of sync.”

Luke said the online practices lasted longer than anyone thought they would. “We expected to be back within a couple of months at the most,” he said.

Arakelyan did his best to keep them engaged. “We would play a piece and record it, and he’d give us feedback, so that was nice,” Luke said.

Arakelyan said some parents of his students started looking for a place when they found out state guidelines for COVID-19 would allow a youth enrichment activity for up to 22 kids.

The covered tennis courts at the Gillingham farm have worked out great. They moved practices from Thursday night at the First Baptist Church to Saturday afternoons at the farm so it would be light out and warmer. They wear masks of course, but they have cut back on rehearsal time and taken out the break.

“That’s one of their favorite things to do is hang out together (at break), but for their own safety and the comfort of their parents” those were stopped, their leader said.

As soon as rehearsal is over, parents pick up their kids, volunteers wipe down chairs, and another set up students comes in.

Playing outside is tough acoustically, but being spaced out is even tougher. “String players usually share a stand, and they are so far apart now. Page turning is a thing,” Arakelyan said.

Listening to each other and playing together is also a challenge. “There are so many obstacles,” he said.

Arakelyan said he likes to smile and have fun but the musicians can’t tell because he also wears a mask. Facial expressions are important for a conductor, he said, adding to prove that he has his students watch a Leonard Bernstein video where he conducts only with facial expressions – no hands or gestures.

Arakelyan said because each of the three orchestras can only have 22 musicians, they are maxxed out. “I can’t accept anymore,” he said. “I’ve never done that. I have to turn them down.”

Arakelyan said coronavirus stoppage occurred right after their last concert, and they went to an online format right away. He gave them music theory and music history assignments. He encouraged them to listen to classical music. “You don’t usually get that in orchestra. It’s all about performance,” he said.

He had them write music. One student dedicated his piece to his grandmother, and even added piano. “He really went for it,” Arakelyan said.

He said this adversity could actually make the students better musicians.

“They’re really listening and adjusting,” he said. “They have to concentrate on the music. These challenges will make them listen even better. This might be beneficial in some ways.”

Arakelyan said this experience will not only be memorable for the kids, but for him as well.

“It’s definitely been memorable for me already,” he said, adding it’s not the only unusual place he’s ever played. He once performed Beethoven in a bar. “This is a space I never thought I’d be in” either, he said.

Joy Tappen, co-president of the orchestra board, said the three youth orchestras practice from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and locals and tourists have been curious about what’s going on at Evergreen Acres Farm. And the parents of the musicians have loved it.

“We’ve looked outside the box to make a live music experience possible for their kids,” she said.

Tappen said Justine Jeanotte conducts the Debut orchestra, and Arakelyan the Sinfonietta and Senior ones. The middle-level group is the only one that includes horns.

Since live performances are prohibited statewide, in lieu of their usual free fall concert at the end of the month at Grace Church a videographer will record it, and it will be shared with the community from their website at by December.

She said most other youth choirs, bands and orchestras only get to get together online.

“The kids get to rehearse in this spectacular space to the accompaniment of goat bleats,” she said.

While the beginning and advanced orchestras are strings only, the middle group includes instruments like horns and percussion.
Along with wearing masks, these violinists sit about 6 feet apart as a safety precaution due to coronavirus restrictions.
Orchestra members listen as conductor Tigran Arakelyan gives instructions.
A garden at the farm can be seen in the background through the windows.
Musicians who play brass or woodwinds without masks perform behind plastic shields.
A sign in the driveway at the farm lets people know where the orchestra is rehearsing.
Justine Jeanotte conducts the beginning orchestra.