It’s a life of practice and classical music concerts for Princeton High School’s musicians

By Marie Louise James

Every weekday morning at 7:50, I unpack my oboe and try to find a reed that works.

Even after being soaked in water, an oboe reed may still be too dry, open, closed, pliable, or inconstant to hold the right pitch: A440, the note everyone in the orchestra uses to tone.

After several adjustments, experimental exercises and improvements, I am ready to play on a suitable reed. The musicians around me also adjust their instruments and warm-up individually.

Once we’ve all settled in, we tune together. First, we sing and use solfège to refine our intonation. Then we tune with our instruments. Afterward, we play several collective scales. Once we are ready, rehearsal begins.

Being an oboist in the Sinfonia orchestra at Princeton High School enables me to keep music in my daily life. Every day in first period, I know I will be inspired by the music we play in class, the other students around me, the music we hear other orchestras play, and by Robert Loughran’s teaching.

Loughran, who received a master’s degree in conducting from Northwestern University and has studied in Vienna, Salzburg and Siena, has been director of Princeton High School Orchestra — or rather orchestras — since 1989. When he started, there was just one ensemble. But he believed it would be “better for the program, better for the students, better for me if we made it more ability based,” he says.

So now there are three separate ensembles: Repertoire, Sinfonia, and the Princeton High School Orchestra. The last is reserved, by audition, for the most accomplished musicians. Auditions are coming up, and those of us in the Repertoire and Sinfonia ensembles are busy preparing our excerpts to perform before Mr. Loughran.

As the auditions approach, there is a competitive atmosphere among the students in Sinfonia and Repertoire. We are motivated to practice and be prepared. Most of the time, our anxiety surfaces only in conversations among classmates when one student asks another about his or her preparations for the auditions.

To be admitted into the top orchestra requires skill and musical vibrancy, though luck — in the form of empty seats left by graduating seniors — can help.

After one year in Sinfonia, Jacob Middlekauf, a violinist and current sophomore at Princeton High School, auditioned and became a member of the Princeton High School Orchestra. He had played in the Sinfonia Orchestra during his freshman year.

“I distinctly remember freaking about if I’m going to get in or not,” Middlekauf says.

But he realized too that a lot of the violinists in PHS orchestra were seniors and graduating, so there was a lot of space to fill. Middlekauf said the level of stress due to competition in the Princeton High School orchestra environment had reached its peak during last year’s auditions.

Once students are accepted in the Princeton High School Orchestra, they remain in the orchestra; there is no need to re-audition. For members of the Sinfonia and Repertoire orchestras, however, every day in rehearsal is, in a sense, an audition: an opportunity to show a grasp of valuable musical virtues.

“If they’re coming new and I don’t know them, they need to demonstrate a sense of pre-thought musical maturity,” Loughran says of new students. “It has to be something they’ve acquired, a great sense of intonation, a great sense of tone: things that are so incredibly important in an orchestra. And if they’re already in Sinfonia, it’s already a great opportunity for them to show on a daily basis these things.”

Many of my classmates in Sinfonia are conscious of the daily opportunity to show their musical sophistication and passion. Yet we have learned to prioritize our performance as a whole over showing off a soloist’s mastery.

Loughran emphasizes the importance of musical unity and harmonious cohesion, of thinking and playing as an ensemble, not just as individuals potentially vying for a spot at the next level.

“I try to teach them their love for the piece, their love for stylistic changes, their love for adapting to fellow musicians,” he said. “It’s another aspect of their music education. Hopefully, this experience in an orchestra will become one of the important things they do with their instrument.”

He likes to see a smooth transition from individual player to team member.

“To be an important part of each ensemble, and to fold into that, in a natural type of way,” he said. “It’s great to see, and it usually happens, the maturation both personally and musically of a member.”

Students recognize and appreciate his commitment to musical education as well as character building, on the development of the individual musician as well as the ensemble.

“He’s a great teacher, and I have a lot of respect for him,” Middlekauf said. “Mr. Loughran has a really great way of motivating the musicians in his orchestra.”

Middlekauf says that a lot of conductors yell when they get frustrated that something isn’t being done correctly, but he has never once seen Loughran angry or disappointed.

“That’s really impressive, and he commands so much respect,” Middlekauf said. “I’m really impressed by the fact that he does earn that much respect without yelling.”

Students from all levels of orchestras appreciate Loughran’s calm and cordial demeanor, especially because he never loses it despite all the projects the orchestras are doing. This year, the orchestras performed for a UNICEF fundraiser, and all three orchestras and choirs shared the stage at the winter concert.

Current events for Princeton High School include playing in the pit for the Spectacle Theater musical, which took place on April 10 through 13. This year’s musical, Beauty and the Beast, brought together many students at the high school: the members of the Princeton High School Orchestra, the cast of the musical, the students who created the set, and many other students, myself included, involved with backstage activities.

Loughran is also the music director of the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County, and on May 5, Princeton High School Orchestra is joining with musicians from Westminster Choir College of Rider University Music Education Department and the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County for a concert on May 5 with American Grammy award-winning fiddler Marc O’Connor. The concert features O’Connor’s new composition, The Improvised Violin Concerto.

The spring concert for all three orchestras is taking place in Bristol Chapel of Westminster Choir College, and Princeton High School Orchestra is also playing for graduation at the end of the scholastic year.

In addition, Loughran has begun organizing next year’s Princeton High School Orchestra tour in the artistic European region of Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne, and Düsseldorf.

Even in the face of such massive projects, Loughran remains composed and prepared. He admits that, for both his students and himself, “it’s possible to panic, but it doesn’t do anybody any good.”

“The auditions are just another way of assessing their ability with the repertoire that we’ve assigned and how they command that repertoire,” Loughran says. “It’s also the aspect of being able to take an audition and be successful at it too. How confident you are in being able to portray what’s in the music, what the composer has intended to another person. That’s a confidence thing. It’s a sense of ownership. And that all comes through in an audition.”

Auditions can inspire anxiety since many students hope for placement in the highest levels. However, playing in the orchestra —in any of the orchestras — is not just about moving up; it is an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company, the music, and the accomplishment of interpreting a piece.

Evi Wu, a violinist and sophomore at Princeton High School, is now a member of Princeton High School Orchestra for her second year. She says orchestra serves as a constant throughout her high school life.

“I know that orchestra is always going to be fun, and I have friends there,” Wu said. “So I’m always looking forward to seventh period because I know I can relax, have a little bit of fun. I know that throughout the rest of my high school career, I’ll just have that time to relax.”

Excitement bubbles in the classroom as students sign up for a day to audition. For the auditions, two pieces are prepared, one more technically advanced while the other more phrased and lyrical. I practice my pieces, scales, sight reading, and the repertoire we play in Sinfonia. I select a reliable reed and make sure all of the keys on my oboe are working.

As I prepare, I get nervous and start to imagine the worst. I worry about my choices for my audition pieces and whether my reed might dry out, choking off the upper register. Yet these worries are unnecessary because I will enjoy bringing music to life with my friends in whatever ensemble. Being a part of the musical environment at Princeton High School has been and will be a high note in my education.

Senior Faridah Laffan, a violinist in the Princeton High School Orchestra, expresses her thoughts on graduating and parting ways with the orchestra.

“Being in PHS orchestra has been a fantastic experience because it exposed me to a ton of different genres of orchestral music, from classical to cabaret and musical theater style music to dances like tangoes and waltzes,” she says. “Overall, being in the orchestra was a brilliant use of my time, since it gave me exposure to music and people I would otherwise never have encountered, and though I am sad to leave, I look forward to continuing with violin at university.”