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VIDEO EXCLUSIVE

Butler Area orchestra director builds confidence in musicians of all skill levels

Katie Black, orchestra director at Butler High School and Butler Intermediate High School, leads her students through practice on Friday, Oct. 20. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle

BUTLER TWP — Katie Black knew she wanted to be a teacher, but she wasn’t sure what subject she wanted to pursue.

Given that she had been playing the violin since age 7, she decided that teaching elementary school music would be for her.

“I auditioned on violin (at Seton Hill University), and here we are,” Black said.

The music major initially eschewed teaching secondary-level students because, at age 22 upon graduation, she would not be that much older than her students.

Then the position of orchestra director at Butler Senior High School and Butler Intermediate High School was posted.

“My mom pushed me to do it,” Black said. “I got the job and ended up loving high school.”

That was in 2015, and Black has been elevating the orchestra program at the two schools ever since.

Black leads the sixth grade orchestra, the grades seven and eight orchestra, and the 95-member high school orchestra.

The latter performs four concerts per year, including the Halloween-themed Spooktacular, winter and spring concerts, and a pops concert.

Skill differential

In her position, Black must conduct student orchestras that contain musicians of varying skill levels, as some have taken lessons on their instrument for years, while others might have started playing more recently or in fourth grade in the district’s elementary school program.

“I try to start them all at the basic level and bring them up,” she said.

Black encourages the more skilled students to serve as leaders in their respective orchestras, as well as participate in the advanced opportunities within the music department.

For example, 22 orchestra students from Butler Senior High participated in November in the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association’s Stringfest.

Advanced students are invited to participate in other PMEA competitions throughout the year, Black said.

But her main goal is to create a cohesive unit among her orchestra members.

“It’s all about the team,” Black said.

Educational tenets

Black loves working with secondary-level students, and encourages them to be the best musician they can be.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to build those relationships with the kids,” Black said. “If they believe that you believe they can do it, they can achieve incredible things.”

She said, occasionally, she will present one of her orchestras with a challenging piece of music and get the deer-in-the-headlights response from students.

Black always tells her students she would not expect them to tackle a piece of music she didn’t think they could handle.

“It’s more teaching kids to believe in themselves and build their confidence,” she said.

School of rock

Much to her students’ delight, Black orchestrated the creation of a rock orchestra that contains violin, viola, cello, electric bass, electric guitar, electric keyboard and drums.

“It started because the kids wanted to play rock and you don’t see that much,” Black said.

The rock orchestra was modeled on the Trans Siberian Orchestra, and has played selections by Guns ‘n Roses, Nirvana and other rock icons.

“We played ‘Crazy Train’ at the spring concert,” Black said, referring to the Ozzy Osbourne classic.

She said a very special performance occurred in May, when the rock orchestra played before 200 people at Missing Links Brewery in Connoquenessing Township.

“That was our first community performance,” Black said proudly. “The kids did great.”

The rock orchestra plays at the annual Fine Arts & Beyond Showcase at Butler Intermediate High School and tours elementary schools in the Butler Area School District during the school year to play for young students.

Each of the 46 members of the rock orchestra auditioned to be accepted, and the group meets to practice each Wednesday, Black said.

She also instituted Orchestra Club at the intermediate high school, where musicians in orchestra meet to play music, eat snacks and enjoy one another’s company.

Black oversees Viola Buddies, in which high school musicians work with their younger and less experienced counterparts at the intermediate high school.

“It was piloted by a senior last year, but it’s a tradition we have been continuing,” she said.

Arts funding

Regarding the concerning trend in the U.S. of school districts decreasing funding in art and music, Black said there are no worries at Butler Area.

“Despite what you might see across the nation, our music program is growing,” she said.

Black points out that the high school choir has 200 members.

“There is great support from our administrators,” she said. “The music program is definitely a strength at Butler.”

Long-timer

Black said she has no plans to pull up stakes and move to a position in another school district, as her job at Butler Area is extremely satisfying both musically and educationally.

She said other districts have tried to recruit her, but she has no reason to change paths.

“I love the kids at Butler and I’m here to stay,” Black said.

Katie Black, Orchestra Director at Butler High School and Butler Intermediate High School, leads her students through practice on Friday, Oct. 20. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle
Katie Black, Orchestra Director at Butler High School and Butler Intermediate High School, leads her students through practice on Friday, Oct. 20. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle
Katie Black, Orchestra Director at Butler High School and Butler Intermediate High School, leads her students through practice on Friday, Oct. 20. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle
Students from the 95-member orchestra at Butler Senior High School practice on Friday, Oct. 20. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle
Students from the 95-member orchestra at Butler Senior High School practice on Friday, Oct. 20. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle

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