The ABC Orchestra is far from the elementary music group their moniker conjures up. ABC actually stands for “Anything But Classical.” This high school touring group is fully capable of performing the beautiful works of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Schubert but instead chooses to explore and perform alternate styles of music including fiddle, jazz, bluegrass, rock, and world music to the delight of music lovers wherever they play. Far from chamber music, the more than 20 member touring group incorporates an electric guitar, bass guitar, and a full drum kit.
This ambitious musical troupe is led by Eric Hudson who is the conductor of the Philharmonic and Symphony Orchestras at East Kentwood, as well as teaching at the middle school level. “It began back in 2007 at Pinewood Middle School, explains Hudson. “Just a handful of students hanging out and trying out different types of music.”
Now in its 7th year, ABC Orchestra is a zero-hour graded class meeting four days a week. As its popularity has grown, Hudson’s colleagues, Ingrid Dykeman and Anna Townsend have continued to offer ABC as an after-school activity at each of the Kentwood Middle Schools.
The EKHS class is unique in the state. “No one else has this curriculum,” states Hudson. There are other high school groups in Michigan, such as Fiddlers Restrung out of Saline, who focus on traditional Celtic and folk music, but no group that as boldly encompassed so many different types of music. ABC can break into Irish Medley, followed by Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones, and make the crowd tap along with the Theme from Shaft.
As ABC began performing at events such as Grand Rapids Festival their popularity grew. With each continuing year the group has come to adopt a theme. In 2004 the theme was rock music as the group planned a performance at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. They chose a jazz theme for their planned performance in the Lake Odessa Jazz Band Festival. Last year ABC expanded their set to focus on Celtic music for a trip to Ireland where they performed at the Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin, as well as in Galway, Limerick, and Spital. In the coming season the ABC musicians will focus their attention on Bluegrass and Country styles as they anticipate a trip to Nashville.
The commitment of these students is tremendous. Not only do they have to audition for a place in the touring group, hours are spent in rehearsal, as well as writing and rewriting music for each stringed instrument. Being a zero-hour class means each student must arrive prepared to rock at 6:30 a.m. Transportation to gigs and uniforms are dependent on parents. All performances are done on the students’ own time. It takes a great deal of time and energy from all involved to run this program.
“I would say 50% of my preparation for teaching is spent on ABC,” says Hudson.
In addition to the diverse repertoire of music, the ABC Orchestra is unique in that they use no sheet music or music stands when they perform. Every piece is memorized. This allows the musicians the freedom of movement to stomp, swing, and jump while playing, adding to their avant-garde style. In recent years the group has also added their vocal abilities to accent Irish ditties such as “Drunken Sailor” or using their hands to tap out rhythms on the wood of their stringed instruments in songs such as the African-based “Kaki Lambe.”
The ABC orchestra has had the privilege of playing two concerts with Mark Wood, a well-known rock violinist and founding member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Wood, who runs a Rock Orchestra Camp and travels throughout the country working with students of all ages through his “Electrify Your Strings” program has high praise for ABC.
“Kentwood Public Schools is truly one of the five best orchestra programs I have seen in this country,” exclaims Wood. The admiration is mutual as it is exciting for these young music students to have the ability to play and learn from musicians at the level of Wood.
ABC orchestra shows no signs of slowing down. They put out their first CD “Unpacked” in the fall of 2012 and last year released their second CD “Moving On.” In 2013 ABC graduated eleven seniors, most of those who had originally started in a middle school music room in 2007. The skills and diversity these students practice in their music studies has increased their ability to audition in college and professional music settings. As Hudson puts it, “Be it Latin rhythms, Celtic traditions, or driving rock beats, our kids know them inside and out. They are ready to play at an advanced level.”
ABC Orchestra is committed to community service and performs at Kentwood Public School events at little to no cost. The group is also available for performances at outside venues, as well as for clinics. For information contact Eric Hudson at Eric Hudson@kentwoodps.org.