Pendleton’s not the only rural city maintaining its own symphony orchestra, but it does have a tradition of classical music education that sets it apart.

The school district’s string education program, a collaboration with the Oregon East Symphony, is a big part of what makes Umatilla County such a multifaceted musical community, hometown of composers like Bend resident Chris Thomas and champion fiddlers like Dan Emert.

Decades ago, key community figures recruited a core group of educators teachers, including Shirleen McMichael and Dick Bower, who taught a generation of players. The modern incarnation, however, shares roots with the Oregon East Symphony, founded in 1986.

Pendleton Schools' tradition of string education has created a life-long musical relationship for hundreds of players.

Pendleton Schools’ tradition of string education has created a life-long musical relationship for hundreds of players.

April Baer/OPB

Flutist and charter symphony member Cathy Muller recalls talking with her husband, Steve, about the need for a regular musical activity for adult players they knew.

“It’s very difficult to have the self-discipline to practice and make music when there isn’t a goal or a reason to,” Muller said. “We just sat down and made a list of all the people that we knew who would potentially be interested in playing. And they came from Boardman and Irrigon and Hermiston and Umatilla, and all around the region.”

As the symphony grew and developed, Muller said it became apparent to symphony board members that the ensemble would need some means of maintaining critical mass.

“More than half felt that if we didn’t support beginning strings, we wouldn’t have members of the orchestra, in the long run,” she said.

In 2001, the Oregon East Symphony created Playing for Keeps, a system of student ensembles, summer camps, mentoring and instrument loan programs aimed at getting kids engaged in string music. Perhaps the most important thing it put in young musicians’ path was a way forward: The top-tier students were invited to play in symphony sections.

The school district has always been an important partner, but over the years — especially as the school district budget has varied — the symphony’s begun raising tens of thousands of dollars per year to keep elementary instruction going for fourth and fifth graders. The district, meanwhile, still provides the classroom space at Pendleton High School, buses to get kids there and funds for a coordinator.

Emily Muller Carey started playing with the Oregon East Symphony at age 11.

“It was a bit overwhelming, but it was what you did. I remember, clear as anything, the first rehearsal. I could play hardly any of it. And then very shortly after, realizing, ‘I’m actually playing this. I’m actually keeping up,’” Muller Carey said.

Muller Carey, who now teaches orchestra and choral music in Pendleton’s middle and high schools, said part of the goal of the program is to build social skills, particularly among the more advanced students.

“We started a model of having high school students directly involved in instruction,” Muller-Carey said. “We often tell the kids having a career or lifetime involvement in music doesn’t mean you have to move somewhere expensive. You can be a musician anywhere.”

Zachary Banks, left, is the string instructor for the Oregon East Symphony's Playing for Keeps string education program.

Zachary Banks, left, is the string instructor for the Oregon East Symphony’s Playing for Keeps string education program.

April Baer/OPB

Zack Banks and his partner, Viet Block, are testing that concept for themselves. Last summer, after finishing graduate studies at Portland State University, they packed up everything, and moved from Portland to Pendleton. Banks is the new instructor for the string education program (and working part-time in La Grande with the Grande Ronde Symphony), and Block is doing some teaching for the program too.

There are definitely some challenges — like facing down 50-plus kids in an after school class. But Block and Banks said they’re in it for the long haul.

Muller Carey said she’s had first hand experience of how the interaction between adult and student players makes better musicians. But it goes beyond that.

“This is something that builds community. That’s what music does, it creates more community and more connection,” she said.

The Oregon East Youth Orchestra’s next concert, the Spring Serenade, happens May 9 at the Vert Auditorium in Pendleton.