by Lisa Kaborycha
The sun streams in to the hall as concert time draws near and the members of the Villa Sinfonia Orchestra begin to file in. There are kindergartners wearing suits with bow ties or crisp party dresses and shiny shoes. Preteens slouch past, in overalls and sneakers. Teenagers stride in, the girls wearing platform shoes and long skirts and the boys sporting impossibly white shirts and pressed slacks, hair slicked back. As the ritual of tuning comes to a close, the musicians take their places and the audience settles into their seats.
First on the program are the “Twinklers”, the youngest group of beginning Suzuki violin students, ages 3–6. As the applause fades, the children raise their tiny violins to their chins and begin to play. Contrary to all expectations, these kids sound great! The children play the Suzuki variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” not only with perfect concert deportment and posture, but in tune and with musical expression! It does not hurt that they are accompanied from the pit by a full concert orchestra, and the sound is unbelievably good.
After the youngest children finish performing, the Villa Sinfonia Orchestra gets down to business playing Brahms, Bartok and Vivaldi. For the past 25 years, Lynn and Roy Oakley have taught over a thousand San Franciscans of all ages to play music together. What sets their violin studio apart from others is that they manage to pull off the miracle of uniting young and old, professional and amateur musicians in the sheer joy of making music. “By mixing it up, both the energy and the musical values are higher,” says conductor Roy Oakley, “the professionals set a standard of playing which everybody rises up to.”
Glancing around the orchestra pit, you see what he means by “mixing it up.” The majority of the string section is made up of the Oakleys’ students, of all ages. Father Phil, a 70 year-old Marist priest at the church of Notre Dame des Victoires who began studying violin two years ago sits beside violinist Vicki Martin, mother of 6-year-old Caitlin, also an Oakley student. Across the way sits Paul Yarbrough, the violist from the celebrated Alexander String Quartet.
Bay Area concert goers will in fact recognize many familiar faces in this group. Luis Baez, clarinetist with the SF Symphony and Carol Rice, principal cellist of the Berkeley Symphony are regulars with the Villa Sinfonia. Roland Feller, the well-known violin maker and string repairman sits in the cello section, sharing a music stand with a slender redheaded girl of eleven — his daughter, Miriam. Teachers sit beside their young students, parents with children and siblings.
What induces professional musicians, with their busy rehearsal, performance schedules and many touring engagements to participate in a children’s concert? Many, such as Feller, Baez, Yarbrough, and Gail Edwards, the flutist, have children who study violin with Lynn or Roy Oakley and share their time and musical expertise with this group because they know what an important gift the Villa Sinfonia is contributing to the community. They also know how valuable it is for families to share musical experiences with their children as they are growing up and are frankly thrilled to be performing with their kids.
As Edwards, a music teacher at the San Francisco School of the Arts and San Francisco State University puts it: “One of the most rewarding parts of being a musician is playing music with other people. Making music this way in the Villa Sinfonia creates a special bond between the members of your family.”
Others, like professional bassoonist Bob Hughes, come back year after year to play with the group, because it is so satisfying musically. Says Hughes: “I have known Roy Oakley for 25 years; he is both an accomplished violinist and a dynamic conductor. Perhaps because of his experience as a seasoned orchestral player he has a multifaceted view of the orchestra — he can feel it from both inside and out. Like all conductors he is a kind of father figure, but he is never tyrannical. Instead he creates a familial atmosphere. The synergy of age and youth meeting in a common expressivity is a result of Roy’s magnetic leadership. Everyone always plays their best for him.”
While Roy is the center of attention on the podium, his wife Lynn, as concertmistress, works at pulling together loose ends and coaxing the best performance out of her students. She is also the force behind the scenes leading group classes in ear training and musicianship, which builds the musical resources that the young players need in order to play in these ensembles.
“Lynn really knows how to motivate kids,” says Gail Edwards. “My daughter Rebecca started studying violin in kindergarten and is now thirteen. Over the years she’s had a number of plateaus and valleys in her playing. Lynn has always been able to provide challenges and stimulate her interest, particularly during the middle school years when many kids drop music. Studying with the Oakleys, there is always something to look forward to, there is always a performance on the horizon; it is a joyful part of being a musician.”
There is indeed always a performance on the horizon for the seemingly inexhaustible Oakleys. Over the years, their studio and goals have grown to include solo, ensemble, symphonic and choral concerts. In 1994 they established the Villa Sinfonia Foundation, a non-profit organization to help promote and support the activities of the Villa Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra, the Villa Chamber Orchestra, the Adult Sinfonia and the Villa String Quartet.
Students, professionals and “professionals in training” have wide range of performance opportunities with the group. In addition to the yearly Winter concert, Spring concert, Family Ensemble concert, workshop concerts and master classes, the group’s community outreach includes performances at Ghirardelli Square, the Veteran’s and UC Hospitals. There is holiday caroling in San Francisco as well as concerts at Oakland’s Jack London Square, for the Cancer Society and at the San Francisco Sequoias.
The Villa Sinfonia Foundation also sponsors a concert series each year in which the Oakleys perform for their students, an essential part of the learning experience. As Roy Oakley says, “Lynn and I feel that it is most important for all teachers to perform for their students. In this way students can directly experience the love we feel with regard to making music.” Also in the interest of furthering and deepening their students’ musical experience, the Oakleys run a program every summer, the Zephyr Music Camp in Lake Tahoe which concentrates on chamber orchestra and ensemble practice. Here students get a chance to play music with their families and others, experimenting with new styles and music in a relaxed natural setting.
The group has toured extensively, in Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom and has performed at the Pacific Basin Music Festival in Hawaii. Upcoming plans include a tour to Boston, Newport and New York, with a possible performance at Carnegie Hall.
In the words of pianist Nancy Bachman, who has performed frequently with the Villa Sinfonia over the years, “Playing with the various Oakley groups is profoundly satisfying musically and personally. The world of professional classical music requires players to have a very high level of professional expertise and talent merely to survive in the field. Too little work, not much money and a highly competitive atmosphere combine to put great pressure on professional musicians. The Oakley school is the antidote to all that. Here the professionals play with all levels and ages of students, teaching and supporting each other like a huge family.”
Family is key to the Villa Sinfonia experience. Once a year, the Oakleys organize a family ensemble concert. The group has grown so large that this concert must now happen in several installments. This concert is always a favorite, in which parents, siblings, young and old are encouraged to perform together. Recorder and violin, guitar and violin, trumpet and violin, traditional Chinese string instruments, you name it, this is when families get together to make a joyful noise. Last year Aliseo, Silvano and Lucia Purpura-Pontoniere, who study violin with Lynn Oakley played an ensemble with three of their siblings, one on cello and the others, still too young to formally study an instrument, provided rhythm on drums and sticks.
Instead of the sad and lonely message parents sometimes inadvertently give their children by saying “Get in your room and practice your instrument!”, the love of music and families spending time together go hand in hand. The music produced is better, and the family bonds are stronger. Lois Feller, who plays piano and French horn with her family in the Villa Sinfonia, says, “I get an enormous bang out of playing music with my kids in the Oakleys’ concerts and family ensembles. It gives me much more enjoyment than studying piano alone ever did.”
Patrick Galvin plays in the family concert each year with his mother, Helen on cello. Patrick began studying with Roy Oakley at the age of five. He is now eleven and wants to be a violinist when he grows up, “playing classical and romantic music as a soloist with orchestras.” He got that chance this October when he soloed with the Oakland-East Bay Symphony, in the Bruch Violin Concerto. Asked what he thinks of playing with his mother in the family ensemble concert, Patrick immediately responds: “Really fun!” Several years ago he joined the Villa Sinfonia Orchestra which he said “was hard in the beginning because of all the sight reading, but then it got really fun.” Chamber music? “Fun.”
It seems only fitting to sum up the Villa Sinfonia experience this way. Despite all the hard work, care and professionalism that the Oakleys invest in every performance, what the musicians young and old, amateur and professional all seem to come away with is a sense of fun — the sheer joy of making music together.
Lisa Kaborycha is a writer and translator living in San Francisco. This article, which initially appeared in the final issue of the San Francisco Examiner Magazine, is reprinted with the permission of the author.
On February 11, on behalf of the Villa Sinfonia Foundation, Lynn and Roy Oakley accepted the Governor’s Award for Community Service, presented at the San Francisco chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences’ 2001 Nominee Celebration & Governor’s Awards Dinner. Guests arriving at the event were serenaded by members of the Villa Sinfonia and were so impressed that they continued to comment on the performance throughout the evening.
Both Roy and Lynn have been long-time members of Local 6; and, though their busy teaching schedules no longer allow, in past years they have performed as members of the Marin and Oakland Symphony Orchestras. Lynn continues to perform regularly with the Lamplighters. Also, we are happy to announce that the Villa Sinfonia Foundation has recently entered into a collective bargaining agreement with Local 6, covering the professional members of the Villa Sinfonia Orchestras.