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The HU Orchestra Strings Together the Howard Community

In the wake of the global pandemic, the music of the HU Symphony Orchestra regains a full wind section ahead of its Spring performance, as it pursues a full symphonic level orchestra in the future.

HU Orchestra’s community players and students practice with their wind and string instruments for their upcoming spring concert.

Advice as vague as “don’t let the bow travel, keep it under control,” and “don’t back away from it, the function of the slur is to carry through,” may puzzle the average person. But, for musicians in the Howard University Orchestra, these are crucial directions from the conductor, Timothy Macek, toward the final symphony of sound ahead of its April 23 Spring concert. 

On the basement floor of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts are Saturday morning practices for orchestra members. For roughly three hours on Saturdays, and the additional hours of independent practice throughout the week, musicians rehearse diligently to prepare for their upcoming performances.  

“The pandemic honestly hit us really hard,” said Macek, the HU Orchestra’s director and conductor since 1998. “There was a better part of a year when we couldn’t rehearse at all because you can’t rehearse remotely. Even with the various software solutions that there are, they don’t work well. I did try them.” 

The concert for Howard’s symphony orchestra will be held in the Ira Aldridge Theater.  

“This is actually the first semester when we’re having a full wind section,” said Macek. “Our goal is to build back up to a symphonic level orchestra where we [will] have a substantially sized string section and a full wind [section] with brass players.”  

Student members of the HU Orchestra’s string section hold their instruments in resting positions while receiving further instruction from the conductor.

Student members of the HU Orchestra’s string section hold their instruments in resting positions while receiving further instruction from the conductor. (Source: Rin-Rin Yu)

Auditions for the Spring semester were held in the first week of January for all string and wind instruments. Students who were chosen to be involved in the orchestra said they are “excited to perform collectively” for one of the first times since the pandemic’s aftermath.  

“We’ve been rehearsing since the beginning of the semester,” said Piper Menser, a viola player and senior sociology minor. “We have rehearsals every Saturday that are usually around three hours with a little break in between, just hammering out all the tough little spots and intonation. Things like that are how we make it good.” 

The Orchestra’s Community Players

While the HU Orchestra consists mostly of students, there are some members involved who fall under the category of “community players.” These are non-students who have joined the Orchestra for many different reasons, one of the most important being their connection to music.  

“They bring the benefit of their more years of experience,” said Macek, also a violinist for the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. “Most of them have played and do play in other orchestras around town, so they have a certain familiarity with the music. I think it’s great to have a mix of ages in the group also.” 

For certain music majors, involvement in the orchestra is required for at least six semesters. In the case of some students such as Darren Roberts, a senior cello performance major, members will return to the orchestra outside of its required semesters.  

“I came back because my section also came back,” said Roberts. “Also, the orchestra is a full symphonic orchestra this semester, and that’s the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve had that.” 

Roberts explains that a full symphonic orchestra is important for putting together an ensemble and can create a powerful feeling for the musicians.  

“It’s exhilarating having the winds behind you, providing embellishments on what you’re doing,” he explained.  

Gathered in the hallway outside of the practice room, HU Orchestra musicians enjoy refreshments during their brief break.

The Rarity of Black Orchestra

For the Howard students in the HU Orchestra, this experience may be the first time they have played in a majority Black symphony orchestra. In 2023, The New York Times reported that Black players make up 2.4% of all orchestra players.  

“It’s good to be in a space where it’s Black musicians, especially in string section. That’s not something you see often,” says Menser about her experience with the orchestra. “In middle school, I was one of the only Black players there, so it’s just amazing to be surrounded by so many people like you with common interest that you weren’t exposed to in high school.”