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Violinist Hits a High Note

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Arizona school partners with symphony

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - What began as a simple request to start an orchestra at
the local high school has progressed into some sweet music for freshman Leo
Norris.

Now 15, Norris, while in the sixth grade, wrote a three-sentence letter to
the Desert Eagle Secondary School (DESS) in his home Salt River
Pima-Maricopa Community. His motive was simple. He wanted to emulate one of
his favorite musicians, Emily Erwin of the country western band the Dixie
Chicks.

In just three years however, Norris' talents have him focusing on classical
pieces rather than country tunes. This ninth grader has become the first
student from DESS to take his skills outside the classroom as a first
violinist for the Arizona Youth Symphony (AYS) based in neighboring
Phoenix.

Norris knows he's bucking traditional teenage musical choices. "Most of the
people are into sports and aren't into that music [classical] because it's
less popular." In his spare time he eschews basketball for the Boston Pops.
"Classical is better than other music, like rap, because that has cuss
words."

Leading the music department at DESS is Chris Wakley, whose resume includes
graduate work in opera at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York
City.

Five years ago he returned to teaching and was permitted the opportunity to
start a choir at Desert Eagle with kids who he knew had limited, if any,
formal background in singing.

Undaunted, he set about a rigorous schedule that including a Christmas
concert within six weeks. While some kids dropped out, 22 applied for the
program the following year which then incorporated instruments. "We started
a music program for kids who didn't know a note from a beat," Wakley said
laughing about the musical genesis at the school.

From those humble beginnings, a half-decade later Desert Eagle's orchestra
is playing alongside the city's best professional musicians. In what is
believed a first for an Indian school in the country, DESS has partnered
with the Phoenix Symphony creating One Nation, funded by the National
Endowment for the Arts.

During the past two years, symphony members have provided one-on-one
lessons with the students in Salt River on a weekly basis. Tutoring Norris
is violinist Lenore Wilkison, who's been part of the Phoenix Symphony since
1976. Wilkison said her prodigy is "attentive to detail" and has noticed
the rise in his skills since he joined the AYS back in the fall.

"I really saw quickly a marked improvement in all of his playing based on
having been challenged and approaching the music intuitively," she said
about the benefits of practicing with other talented youth from across the
state. "The only way kids can be here is that they have to outsmart the
music and need to be less methodical."

One Nation wrapped up for the year with an annual concert performed by the
Phoenix Symphony at the Scottsdale Community College, the campus located on
tribal lands. More than 200 attended the event on Feb. 29 including 17
students from the school's advanced orchestra relishing the chance to play
along with the pros during a piece. While Mozart's four-minute "Overture to
the Marriage of Figaro" was re-written to allow the DESS performers an
easier time, for Norris the joy of being on stage was pure rapture.

"I was kind of nervous and anxious to play with them with the audience
watching," he said. "It was something that no other school or person hardly
gets to do."

As Norris and his classmates share in the excitement of a professional
atmosphere, his teacher emphasized the importance of having the Phoenix
Symphony reach out to the community. Especially in Salt River where
otherwise classical music had no presence, One Nation is a perk that can be
appreciated by older students.

"At 12 years-old, we're getting them for the first time but I have to teach
them like kindergarteners," Wakley said respectfully. "For 7th and 8th
graders, they're not jumping up and down excited [like younger learners]."

That Norris has performed with a renowned urban symphony, his more
immediate success is with his peers. Conductor of the Arizona Youth
Symphony, Steven Bardin praised Norris for his dedication and preparedness.
At AYS, Bardin explained, its goal is to perform original scores with few
compromises or changes.

Notwithstanding the ages of the performers, all of whom are under 20 and
must audition to join, for a recent concert AYS played an exhaustive trio
of pieces, including Mozart's "Overture to Don Giovanni", Greig's "Peer
Gynt Suite #1" and Beethoven's "7th Symphony."

"The difficulty of the literature and the polished state of the
performances are as professional as we can get," said Bardin, whose choice
of music is unrepentant.

With summer approaching, Norris is preparing for his annual pilgrimage to a
music camp located at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Constantly
surfing the Internet for information on colleges with music programs, he's
intrigued by Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, students at Desert Eagle will look forward to the 2004 school
year when they move into a new music department. In addition, three more
students are expected to try out with the Arizona Youth Symphony hoping to
follow in Norris' successful footsteps.

"It shows that if one person can do it, they all can," said Wakley.

"They thought Leo was gifted but they've learned that if you practice, they
can have a shot."