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Patrick Jackson leads Kirkwood orchestra students to Carnegie Hall

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2009 - This coming March, the Kirkwood High School Symphonic Orchestra will take the stage at Carnegie Hall as one of three musical groups selected to perform at 2010's Instrumental Music Festival, hosted annually to provide a rich educational experience for students from across the nation.

"I don't think it's going to hit me until we're on stage," says KHS senior Shelby Weiss, though students, parents, teachers and administrators have been preparing for the concert since last May, when they began a campaign to raise the $72,000 necessary to fund the four-day trip.

The highlight of their fundraising efforts comes later this month with "The Road to Carnegie Hall," a benefit concert featuring KHS alumni including bassoonist Felicia Foland and violinist Rebecca Boyer, both members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; Meg and Liz Freivogel of the Jupiter String Quartet; and their brother, J Freivogel, of the Jasper String Quartet. (Margaret Wolf Freivogel, the mother of Meg, Liz and J, is editor of the St. Louis Beacon.) 

Also on the program are performances by father and daughter Patrick and Patrice Jackson , on double bass and cello, respectively. Patrice - a graduate of KHS, who now has degrees from the Yale School of Music and The Julliard School - represents the sixth generation of Jacksons to play strings. Her father, Patrick, was her first teacher and continued to shape her career at Kirkwood, where he has directed the now-flourishing orchestral program for the past 18 years.

Rehearsals Are Demanding

Today's rehearsal begins at 8 a.m.

"First notes," Jackson says.

The students raise their bows. He raises his hands. The students play. He stops them.

"Start softer," he says.

He raises his hands. They play. He stops them.

"The peak is at the third measure, not the second measure."

He raises his hands. They play. He stops them.

"You guys have to keep practicing. This is getting worse, not better. You have to go over this somewhere in your schedule."

He raises his hands. They play.

"It's not doing anything. You're just playing some notes."

He stops them.

"How many bars is one phrase? Every four measures, something is happening."

"It's the violas that aren't doing the phrasing now."

"There's a crescendo at letter A. You're doing nothing!"

"You're playing notes. You're not making any music. If you can't think of anything, every four measures, make a diminuendo."

He raises his hands. They play, and finally, 15 minutes into rehearsal, he lets them play on, his motions summoning the sound.

And then he stops them.

"It's too soft. It's too pretty. It's got to be an intense sound. It's got to sound like it's in a hurry. You can never play this too loud."

He raises his hands.

No Symphony Came Calling

When Patrick Jackson left his native Mississippi in 1981 to study double bass performance with Henry Loew at the St. Louis Conservatory of Music, the move was supposed to bring him one step closer to a spot in a major symphony orchestra.

By the time he finished his master's, Jackson had studied with some of the best in the business. There was no doubt that he had talent. His supporters believed in him so thoroughly that when his part-time job at Camelot Music wasn't enough to fund audition trips to Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, they pitched in to keep him going. He began playing with the Missouri State Ballet, kept studying, practicing, auditioning -- still, no offers came his way.

You've heard this story before: Young artist finds himself less young with each passing year. Finds himself married. Finds himself expecting his first child. And that's when Loew, not only Jackson's teacher but principal bassist for the St. Louis Symphony, recommended that his star pupil step over to the other side.

"No one would hire me," Jackson recalls of his early attempts to find work as a teacher, but eventually, he was offered a job in the St. Louis Public Schools - as a band director. The double bass player rose to the challenge. In their first round of inter-school competition, his students received a middling rating of "good," By the following year, "good" had become "superior-plus." The next fall, Jackson accepted a position in the Normandy School District's orchestral program, working with elementary and junior high students, and assisting with the high-schoolers.

Still, Jackson wanted more responsibility and, with it, the freedom to teach and lead as he saw fit. When he arrived at Kirkwood in 1991, the orchestra was ready to disband. Only 19 students remained in the high school program, just 38 in Grades 6 through 12. If a concert took place on a rainy evening, players competed with the sound of water dropping into buckets. Jackson's first challenge, then, was to convince the district not to give up on the program.

On the one hand, he faced a musical challenge. Jackson felt confident he could improve his students' musicianship, and that he has: For the past 18 years, Kirkwood's orchestras have earned superior or superior-plus ratings in every competition they've entered. On the other hand, Jackson's new job presented a more personal test - finding his place in a school district with deep-rooted politics and in which the student body was predominantly white.

Playing Strings for Five Generations

Jackson received his early musical education from his grandfather, Mississippi blues guitarist Willie Jackson, himself the son and grandson of fiddle players. As a young man, when Willie Jackson played at local parties hosted by whites, his parents didn't worry about his performance; they feared for his life.

His grandson Patrick, came of age in the 1960s, at the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. Patrick's music lessons took place in the family kitchen every evening at 5 p.m. By age 11 - just a few years after Freedom Summer, the voter-registration campaign in Mississippi that led to hundreds of arrests, the beating and murder of civil rights workers, and the burning of black churches, businesses and homes - Jackson was out playing with his grandfather's band.

Twenty-five years later, the American racial landscape had certainly changed, but still, in 1995, the number of African-American musicians playing in the top 25 American orchestras was just that: 25. By 2005, that number had doubled, but still, African-Americans held just more than 2 percent of seats.

Though Jackson doesn't presume his skin color kept him from a career in performance, when he came to teach at Kirkwood, he was understandably nervous about fitting in. It didn't take long for him to find his way, however; and soon, he'd made himself indispensable, expanding the district's orchestral program from 38 to 315 students, with participation beginning in Grade 4.

During his tenure, Jackson has received the Missouri American String Teachers Association's "Secondary String Educator of the Year" award, the Emerson "Excellence in Teaching" award, and has been named the Kirkwood School District's Teacher of the Year, among other honors. He's witnessed the construction, after a 1993 bond initiative, of the Thomas N. Keating Performance Center on the campus of the high school, featuring an 821-seat theater, and soon enough, he'll be conducting a concert at Carnegie Hall.

"You build it," he says now, "and they will come."

Today, more than 90 percent of KHS orchestra members continue to play an instrument in college, and many choose a school based at least in part on its musical offerings. The director of the KHS Concert Orchestra, Kelly Judge, is a former student of Jackson's. Under Jackson's leadership, the program has produced more than its fair share of both music teachers and professional musicians, many of whom will return for the upcoming benefit concert on Dec. 22.

Students return to school and stay in the orchestra for more than music. Freshman Rachel Bruns credits her participation in orchestra with introducing her to friends she might otherwise have simply passed mutely in the halls. Neither Rachel nor senior Shelby Weiss is planning a career in music, but Shelby knows her time in orchestra will be "something [she'll] always remember."

Former student Jenn Bidstrup, class of 1996, recalls that Jackson created a place where she could feel at home, appreciated by her peers. He made sure orchestra members received letters for their letter jackets, an honor previously reserved for athletes and members of the marching band.

"I still have my letter. I have it framed," Jenn says. "Mr. Jackson took the time to give people individual attention. He treated us like we were something. He tried to connect with the whole community. He didn't care what other people thought of him. I'm sure the guy has flaws, but...."

Instilling Confidence

Sitting in on one of Jackson's rehearsals, it might be tempting to conclude that he's a tyrant, impossible to please, picking on each and every mistake, calling individual students out by name.

"You can't play that loud, sweetheart," he says to one soloist, cutting things off as soon as she comes in. Then, though, he reminds her to breathe, to relax. He tells her to set her nerves aside.

"Just focus on what we're doing," he says. "Don't focus on the paparazzi. All these people keep coming here and taking pictures. You're all busy watching her, but we've got a concert to play."

And that's just it: Though he may seem tough in the moment, ultimately, Jackson isn't concerned with what his students play today; he's concerned with what they'll play tomorrow. His criticism is simply evidence of deep confidence in his students' ability to improve, to rise to new challenges, to be great, even - and they can feel it.

When it's time to move on to the second piece, Jackson shifts a few players around in the room. Students wrestle with their sheet music. They raise their bows. He raises his hands. They start to play. He stops them.

"Guys, it's 'three and one, two, three, and one, two, three....'"

To see a recent KSDK/Channel 5 story about the orchestra and Patrick Jackson, click here .

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a freelance writer.

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