Trans-Siberian Orchestra original string master helps Milford students be creative

MILFORD — The district's music students recently had a rare chance to learn from a world-renowned musician when Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Mark Wood brought his two-day workshop to Milford.

"It's been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because I never thought I would play with someone famous," said Violet Rumford, an eighth grader at East Shore Middle School who participated in the program. "It's been mind-blowing being here."

Wood started his workshop, Electrify Your Symphony, in 2001 as a way to boost students' self-esteem and motivation, as well as increase engagement with school music programs.

He and his team arrived in Milford on Thursday and worked with the students all day, splitting it up with the high schoolers in the morning, followed by elementary- then middle-school students in the afternoon. There was also a rehearsal on Friday and the program culminated with a concert directed by Wood Friday evening.

Wood said he wants the Milford students to express themselves and share their lives through music, rather than words.

"They think it's complicated, but it's really not," he said. "So we have to teach them that way. That's why we are here, to teach them to tell me a story about themselves through their instrument."

He said doing that will help them feel valued. 

"When they ask me where they start, I tell them to start on this F-sharp," he said.

Wood said he decided to accept Milford's application and bring his program to town because of the leadership exhibited in the music program.

"If I don't see the leadership, I want nothing to do with it," he said.

Amy Perras, Milford's superintendent of music, arts and library media, said "it's a huge honor" to be selected.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our kids," Perras said. "The opportunity for our students to come and play with a world-renowned, award-winning and innovator in music has been something they will remember for the rest of their lives."

She said it's also great that Wood recognizes the caliber of the program.

"Milford is proud of our arts programs," she said. "We have an incredibly supportive board of education, superintendent and assistant superintendent. When there's a leader, vision and director for a program, it helps, and he knows we are doing something right, and I believe we are."

Rumford said the class with Wood was a little intimidating initially, but once they got to know his personality and teaching method, they all started relaxing.

She said the biggest takeaway for her was not to be afraid to play loud.

"People don't always want to hear quiet music," she said. "They want to be blown away by the sound."

Both Perras and the students could notice a change among the ensembles during the workshop, including when they had to yell "black hole" as part of one of the songs.

"It was a little embarrassing at first because not many people were saying it, but I feel like once we got into the zone, we started to come out of our shell," Rumford said.

Perras said it was great to see the students opening up when Wood directed them.

"They started to be creative and be musicians outside of the rigid music lessons," Perras said.

Wood said traditional orchestra programs tend to lean on a little of the European classical 18th-century experience, but it's good to have other genres.

"Classical is wonderful, it's history, and I play classical myself, but I believe America has contributed multiple styles — hip-hop, rock and roll, jazz, blues, everything — so we need the orchestra programs and the music programs to reflect diversity and inclusion," he said. "So everybody is handshaking instead of doing one thing against something else."

Wood said students are now facing many challenges they weren't in the past and music can help.

"How do we handle that and help them," He said. "We handle it by using creativity, emotional stability and intelligence. You can cry, but I want you to know why you are crying. When students enter the music room, they should have a place to channel their sadness, loneliness, anger and joy."