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Top orchestra teacher instills passion for music

Works to make music key part of school culture.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014 - 12:01 am

FLOYDS KNOBS – A particularly tough part of the piece confounded some of the violinists in Floyd Central High School's orchestra last week. In preparation for a contest, Doug Elmore could have gone to the whiteboard to explain it note by note.

Instead, the program's director opened his office door, came out with his own violin and showed them what he wanted them to do.

Maybe that's part of the reason Elmore is the Indiana American String Association's high school orchestra teacher of the year.

“This award was wonderful because it was given and selected by a bunch of my peers — people who do this for a living,” Elmore told the News and Tribune. “Being selected by your peers is great and there are a lot of really fine string instructors in Indiana who have done this for a long time. A lot of people other than me could have gotten this and I would have been fine.”

Elmore has taught orchestra at Floyd Central and Highland Hills Middle School for nearly 30 years. Aside from helping students master their instruments, he said he hopes to spark a passion for music that goes beyond his classroom and permeates the culture of the schools where he teaches.

“At both of the schools I teach at, I work very hard to make sure the orchestra isn't just some peripheral thing, but an integral part of the school's culture,” Elmore said. “I try to build relationships with the students and with the other teachers and administrators at these schools so that the students who are in the orchestra program feel highly valued, connected to the school, connected to me, connected to their instruments.”

He and his students have set the record for the number of appearances at the Indiana State School Music Association's state orchestra finals, going to the competition for the last 24 years.

He said he's proud of what his students have helped him achieve, but he wouldn't have gotten them there if he couldn't make them as passionate about the music as he was. And part of that was his work with the school's other music programs to eliminate the derogatory part of “band geek” culture. He said his orchestra includes football players, cheerleaders and students from all sorts of backgrounds.

He also said getting the rest of the school involved was key. For the last 15 years, the school has held a spring assembly focusing on the Holocaust of World War II.

Bringing in Holocaust survivors to speak and playing music written by prisoners in Theresienstadt, a German concentration camp, he said, shows how music affects entire cultures and is one way to break down preconceived notions of classical music.

“Music isn't supposed to be a thing for a select few people,” Elmore said. “It's supposed to permeate an entire culture or civilization. The only way you can really succeed in doing that is to convince everyone of its value. No one has ever come to an orchestra concert here that I know of and walked away thinking, 'None of that music spoke to me, I didn't get any of that. I didn't like any of that.' That never happens.”

Brian Smith, a double bass player in the Indianapolis Symphony, is a 1993 graduate of Floyd Central. He said his in-class and out-of-class experiences with Elmore not only taught him to love and appreciate music, but to pursue it as a career. He said learning how to view the music with the rest of the orchestra rather than simply focusing on his part is something he continues to carry with him.

“Doug always was supportive of us trying to work together as an ensemble,” Smith said. “When you're working on your instrument, you're focused on your own skill level. In his classes, he sort of galvanized us as unit that made the performance as impactful as possible.

“It was more than just the individual. It was this whole teamwork atmosphere. That's something I use every day at work.”

Elmore said he can't imagine what life would be like without music and the orchestra and hopes he can pass that along to the students in his pit.

“That's the mark of a successful music program, when you can connect a lot of kids to the beautiful things about playing music together,” Elmore said. “It's a transformative experience, it changes these kids. Working hard on music like this changes these kids for the better. It opens windows in ways of looking at the world that they didn't have before.”