String ensemble ‘makes joyful noise’

Wehnwood UM hosts free spring concert

Rachel Zeak (left) and Michelle Grill play their violins during a recent Wehnwood Community String Ensemble rehearsal at Wehnwood United Methodist Church.

There are many ways a church can make a difference in the community. At Wehnwood United Methodist Church, the love of music has inspired bell choirs, choruses, summer music camps and the Wehnwood Community String Ensemble, the latter of which will be performing “A Profusion of Composers” at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

“Our motto is ‘we make a joyful noise unto the Lord,'” music director Amy Perchy said of the church.

Perchey, who provides private lessons to cellists, knows from experience that stringed instrument players spend months learning music, but then really have no place to go to show off all of their hard work.

After retiring from the Altoona Area School District after 34 years as a music instructor, Perchey had the time to realize her dream of forming a stringed instrument group.

“I always had this vision of giving people in the community a place to get together to play as a group,” she said. So, she approached her church’s leadership team with her ideas and “they were very supportive,” she said.

The church provides monetary support for the music and the use of the building so that no one has to pay to play, she said. In addition, the concerts are free to the public.

After gaining support, Perchey started the group, opened it up to the community and lined up mentors to help out young players.

Today, the group includes members from the Altoona Symphony Orchestra as well as the Nittany Valley Symphony, along with young players from the neighborhood and from Penn State’s Altoona campus, which is located nearby. The group is open to middle school students up through adult, with the youngest member being 9 and the oldest in their 80s, Perchey said.

The mentorship is an important aspect of the group, Perchey said, as she feels being mentored can really help young players. “I was mentored in my music career and it meant a lot to me. … Adults showed me the ropes,” she said.

In fact, several of the string ensemble members are now in college. “They have grown up in the program and now mentor,” she said.

The string ensemble began coming together in fall 2016, making Sunday’s concert the group’s fourth.

“We do an 8-week segment and then we do a concert,” Perchey said, explaining the group is for those who already know how to play their instrument, as it’s not an instruction class.

The younger group members have private lessons with other teachers or have lessons in school, she said. And, when it comes time for the concert, she asks if any of them have a piece they’ve been practicing that they would like to perform.

“It gives them a chance to perform in front of their peers and in front of a live audience,” she said.

“I know as a teacher, I always had these kids that would practice pieces and then have no place to perform,” she said, adding she wants to give them an opportunity to share their enjoyment with others through performing.

A lot of the adult players, whether orchestra members or former students, just want to play for fun, she said, so when she’s picking out music, “I try to provide a wide selection of music from classical to modern day.”

For instance, Sunday’s concert contains music from European and American composers and covers the early 1600s to modern day. “D Jam Blues” is a piece by a current composer, while the oldest piece,” Quartetto in F Major” is from the 1600s, she said.

Perchey will take time on Sunday to tell the audience a bit about each composer, and also talk about the soloists — Paul Rose, Heather and Lizzie Pierson and Ariel Walton.

With an average size of 25 to 30 players of all ages, the ensemble is a perfect size to fit comfortably in the space between the pews and the pulpit, she said.

Attendees will notice that the youngest ensemble members are seated beside an adult who can help them along the way. They’ll also notice that the church “has excellent, excellent aucoustics,” Perchey said.

It’s the church’s strong music program that brought Perchey to the church and it’s the strong music program that continues today that she hopes brings others to church, as well.

“One of the reasons I went to this church was for the music program,” she said.

“We have a junior bell choir, senior bell choir, adult choir, children’s choir and a church orchestra” in addition to the community string ensemble, Perchey said.

Pastor Evelyn Madison, who has a background in music, said she was excited to learn about the various music programs at Wehnwood when she came to the church in 2010.

“Now, with Amy’s leadership, we have added the string ensemble. What a wonderful opportunity for young musicians to sit beside experienced, even professional, musicians and learn from them,” Madison said.

Once the string ensemble wraps up with the concert, it’s time for other groups to practice their music and then perform.

And, then there is the summer music camp held in June each year, Perchey said. After a week of practicing together, the students give a free concert held in the Altoona Area High School.

More than 100 campers usually turn out for the camp, now in its 12th year, and a lot of people from the ensemble help out, Perchey said. Participants must have at least one year of instruction under their belt to participate, as again, it’s not individual instruction, it’s more a fun activity and gets everyone together to enjoy the music.

The church orchestra, which also performs two concerts a year, plays for a kickoff to music camp, she added.

Music, in one form or another, is “almost continuous” at the church, Perchey said.

Being involved in the church and its many music programs, has “been a really, really great experience,” she said. “It keeps my fingers in music.”

Perchey, who began piano lessons in first grade, moved on to the clarinet and then the cello, graduated from Penn State with a degree in music education. She is an organist at church, sings in the choir and helps out wherever it’s needed, she said.

For those attending the concert, Perchey warns they may leave with a smile on their face and a tune stuck in their head.

“I always do a fun piece at the end. I was always taught you want the audience to leave with a tune in their head and their toes tapping. That’s what I try to do,” she said.

Wehnwood United Methodist Church is at 2511 Juniata Gap Road, Altoona.



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