Dunlap Orchestra Builds the Tempo

Rosemary Ardner is on a mission to put instruments in the hands of as many children as possible, as early as possible.

by Kathryn Eissfeldt with Kratika Tandon
Rosemary Ardner is on a mission to put instruments in the hands of as many  children as possible, as early as possible.
Rosemary Ardner is on a mission to put instruments in the hands of as many children as possible, as early as possible.

A child learns an incredible amount in their first decade and a half of life, progressing in leaps and bounds from infancy to near-independence. For the Dunlap Schools orchestra program, the first decade and a half of life has similarly witnessed momentous strides, from its inception in 2006 to the present. Much of that growth and development has been overseen with tremendous positive and forward energy by orchestra teacher Rosemary Ardner.

Building on Inspiration

As a graduate of Ball State University in Indiana, Rosemary Ardner settled on the teaching job in Dunlap partly due to the quality of life and cost of living the Peoria area offered. The largest draw, however, was the opportunity to build an inspiring orchestra program from the ground up. “The foundation was there,” she remarks. “We have some really awesome music and choir teachers in the district… It was just a very ripe field!” From this foundation, she grew and nurtured an orchestra program—and has never regretted the decision to lay down roots here.

Once a largely rural district, Dunlap Community Unit School District 323 has grown at a fast tempo in recent years, adding temporary classrooms and new school buildings to contain its expanding student population. It now comprises five elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school—and orchestra is offered at each building. Between 2006, when Ardner began, and the 2010-11 school year, student participation more than doubled. 

Dunlap orchestraArdner built the program by a grade level each year, following the inspiration of her own orchestra teacher, who did the same thing when he arrived in the suburban Pittsburgh school district where she grew up. High school orchestra has been an option in Dunlap for just over a decade—the same year the second middle school opened. Jason Shea, who plays upright and electric bass, teaches both band and orchestra at the high school, while Sarah Long covers orchestra at Dunlap Middle School and the other elementary schools.

Being the sole practitioner of one’s trade in a building can be difficult for so-called “specials” teachers—those who teach electives, usually in the fine arts. But one advantage for Dunlap teachers is the joint professional planning period they hold every Wednesday afternoon, when the students go home early. With three teachers now covering orchestra among the district’s eight schools, these sessions are crucial to building an integrated orchestra program that is streamlined and adds value to the rest of the academic curriculum. 

Even during a pandemic year, orchestra was a thriving part of Dunlap schools. In a typical year, 90 to 110 students in the district will enroll in orchestra in the fourth grade—the first year it’s offered. During the 2020-21 school year, with pandemic accommodations, there were still 95 students who chose to begin orchestra.

And that enthusiasm runs both ways. As Ardner notes, “The biggest plus of working in Dunlap, especially as a fine arts faculty member, is the sheer amount of community support we have for our programs.” All she has to do is pick up the phone, and parental support will materialize for things big and small. For example, one parent recently donated an upright piano, and there are always plenty of volunteers to staff events such as music showcases and concerts in the schools.

Musical Force

Not only are Dunlap families supportive of their music program, so are the larger community of Peoria and its civic organizations. For as long as she’s been in the area, Ardner has played second violin with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra (PSO), which regularly sends its guest artists into local orchestra classrooms. One highlight for Ardner was when violinist Catherine Cho, a professor at the prestigious Juilliard School, visited Dunlap Valley Middle School as a guest teacher. 

The PSO is also a supporter of Strat & Strad, a small ensemble featuring Ardner on electric violin, her husband Aaron on guitar, and occasionally a drummer. They offer an eclectic mix of original songs with world music influences and covers of Americana from across the decades. Among their regular venues are The Twelve Bar in Peoria Heights, Tres Rojas Winery in Washington, and Obed & Isaac’s in downtown Peoria.

Strat & Strad features Ardner on electric violin, her husband Aaron on guitar, and occasionally a drummer.
Strat & Strad features Ardner on electric violin, her husband Aaron on guitar, and occasionally a drummer.

Ardner likes to use Strat & Strad to dispel the myth that string instruments are elitist. In one recent teaching moment, an audience member in her nineties told her that she hadn’t known there was even such a thing as an electric violin. Among her middle school students, Ardner enjoys sharing her love of pop music to counter the kids’ expectations that you can’t be a fan of Vivaldi and Katy Perry at the same time. In fact, she points out that some of the PSO’s most popular concerts have been film scores like LaLa Land in Concert and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone™ In Concert. “One thing my husband and I keep wanting them to do, but I haven’t been able to convince them [is] the Final Fantasy video game music, which is fully orchestrated and amazing,” she adds with an infectious smile.

In addition to the PSO and her band, Ardner has made numerous other civic connections. She volunteers with Youth Music Illinois (YMI), in which many Dunlap students also participate. One board member, who worked with Ardner when she led YMI’s preparatory orchestra, notes that she “is motivated by the mission to put an instrument in the hands of as many children as possible,” and that she is “contributing directly to increasing the number of young string musicians in central Illinois.” Indeed, Ardner would relish the opportunity to bring orchestra to even younger students in Dunlap elementary schools. 

Ardner also volunteers as a string instructor at Proctor Recreation Center, teaching free lessons in disadvantaged neighborhoods on Peoria’s south side. During the pandemic, she added a volunteer role at Art Inc., reading to children and letting them know they matter, even when school was not in session like normal.

For Ardner, hands-down her favorite thing about teaching orchestra in Dunlap is that “we build such strong relationships [because] I have the students essentially for five years in a row,” from fourth to eighth grade. In the words of one Dunlap parent, “Rosemary cares deeply for young people and invests in their potential with patience, passion and ingenuity… She is a force—a courageous spirit who goes where the need is and uses her talents to find creative ways to reach and teach young people directly.” 

Inspirational music, indeed. PM

This article was sponsored by Big Picture Initiative. Learn more at bigpicturepeoria.org.