Whidbey's Saratoga Chamber welcomes young talent

Zoe Hensler plays alongside her mentor, Karis Mills, during a rehearsal on Oct. 12.  - Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times
Zoe Hensler plays alongside her mentor, Karis Mills, during a rehearsal on Oct. 12.
— image credit: Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times

When professionally trained mentors meet exceptional young talent, history and Hollywood tell us incredible outcomes are to be expected. Think Mr. Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso, Socrates and Plato or Yoda and Luke Skywalker. Perhaps those duos are responsible for some of the excitement that surrounds the Saratoga Chamber Orchestra’s new mentorship program that officially launched this summer.

Whidbey’s Saratoga Chamber Orchestra started in 2007 and currently has about 40 full time accomplished classical musicians in its ranks. The orchestra performs four times each year and its conductor, Legh W. Burns, holds his members to extremely high standards.

This year orchestra members started the Talent Development Program. In August and September auditions were held for youth players and three teens were accepted into the orchestra for the 2010-2011 season. Throughout the year, the students will be mentored by section leaders on how to mark their music, work collaboratively in a group setting, follow the director and play the first and second parts on their instruments.

Since there aren’t any public school orchestras on the island, this program gives youths an opportunity to be challenged at a higher level without having to travel off island to Fidalgo or Seattle.

Mentor Karis Mills of Oak Harbor said playing with orchestras in her youth gave her direction. Mills started playing the violin when she was 7 years old. She played for a Skagit County orchestra before joining the SCO.

“The most crucial part of my development was orchestra,” Mills said, “without it, I was without purpose.”

Mills serves as a mentor to South Whidbey sophomore Zoe Hensler. Zoe has been playing the viola since she was 7 and is a past member of the Everett Youth Orchestra.

The other two mentees play violin and are mentored by Coupeville resident Roxallanne Medley. Medley has been making music since she was 5. She was a member of the Portland Youth Philharmonic orchestra for 11 years and the Seattle Symphony for 17. She’s been with SCO since it began. She said playing with others makes all of the practicing worthwhile and helps create a strong bond between the musicians.

“It’s a community,” she said.

Medley’s students, Gloria Ferry-Brennan and Mira Yamamoto, are both eighth graders from South Whidbey.

“They’re an amazing talent,” Medley said of the youth members ... “Some of them are probably more qualified than the full time members.”

Mira is an eighth grader. She started taking violin lessons when she was 3½ years old. In addition to playing with the SCO, Mira is a member of the Seattle Youth Symphony, the Everett Youth Symphony and a student of Music Northwest.

“She enjoys working under Legh’s direction and having the opportunity to expand her knowledge of orchestral repertoire,” Barbara Phillips, Mira’s mom, said. “She wants to be a conductor -— she feels Legh is a good role model and she really likes the varied range of repertoire that he programs for the orchestra.”

Gloria has been playing since she was 4. Her first experience with the orchestra came in 2007 when she auditioned for the Young Artists Solo Competition Concert.

“I have learned so much from all my mentors,” Gloria said.

The Talent Development Program is quite unique among professional orchestras. Though many allow youths to snag cameo performances during one song or a single performance, the SCO allows the kids to stay for an entire season. Additionally, if the kids want to stay in the program, they can continue to audition every year.

Youths who want to participate in the Talent Development Program can contact SCO members at and set up an audition. To encourage young people to join, the orchestra now allows kids 18 and younger to attend performances for free, but those 14 and younger must be accompanied by an adult.

Hear them play

The Saratoga Chamber Orchestra’s first season performance is 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 18 at the Performing Arts Center at Coupeville High School. The same show will be performed Oct. 19 at South Whidbey High School.

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