By Tom Tolen /

In 2017, the Brighton Area Schools administration under then-superintendent Greg Gray felt that a high school as large as Brighton, with over 2,000 students — but no orchestra program — should have one. Its music program — including several choirs and its marching and concert bands and ensembles — had won many competitions, and it was felt that in order to have a complete performing arts program an orchestra was a necessary component.

The Board of Education was enthusiastic about the idea and the proper funding was provided. However, instead of trying to add orchestra in one fell swoop, and possibly taking students away from the excellent band and choir programs, it was decided the best way would be to introduce the program slowly into the schools, starting with the lower grades.

The decision was to begin orchestra in 2017 at the 5th grade level and add one grade each year. Since it is now five years later, the program has advanced to the freshman level of high school, and it is at a point where the lower grades are expected to start acting as feeder programs for the high school.

Steven Fernandez has been the director of the orchestra program since its inception. After receiving his Bachelor of Music Education degree from Western Michigan University, Fernandez taught at the Waverly Community Schools in Lansing. He is currently pursuing a Master’s of Music Education degree at the University of Michigan.

Fernandez teaches the high school orchestra class, as well as the 5th and 6th grade classes at Maltby Intermediate School. Jen Evans is the teacher of the orchestra program in 7th and 8th grades at Scranton Middle School. Fernandez, who is himself an accomplished bass player, teaches stringed instruments including violin, viola, cello and bass.

After the COVID pandemic hit, the numbers of students in the 5th and 6th grade orchestra programs suffered a major drop, with 111 students enrolled in 2019 and only 41 in 2020. However it is now beginning to rebound, with 56 in the program this year at that grade level. There are 21 students enrolled in orchestra in the freshman program at the high school. Since it's the first year of the program at the high school level, that figure includes a small number of sophomores and seniors.

In spite of COVID, the young musicians have been busy learning, practicing and performing this school year. The 5th and 6th grade orchestra held a holiday concert in December at the Brighton Center for the Performing Arts, and both Scranton Middle School and Brighton High School conducted orchestra concerts in October and again in December, also at the Performing Arts Center.

Regardless of the pandemic and the disruption it has caused with in-classroom learning, Fernandez says the program has survived, and its future success is all but assured. He cites "strong community support” as a positive, while adding that support from administration has been an important factor, saying, “Administration (led by Superintendent Outlaw) has done a very good job of providing everything needed.”

Photos: The 8th grade orchestra (featured) and the 5th grade orchestra, performing at their Dec. 2021 holiday concerts.