BHS orchestra wins first at national competition

Blind, autistic pianist helps group win Spirit of Washington, D.C., award

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published January 30, 2013

BERKLEY — Every day, when John Robertson tunes up the Berkley High School orchestra, he asks for help from one of his students.

“Lance, let’s hear an A,” the longtime orchestra director says. Lance Vardon dutifully plays an A note on his piano, and the rest of his classmates use it to tune their respective instruments. The orchestra is now ready to play.

Vardon is not the leader of the ensemble; he is merely one member among dozens. But even though he is blind and autistic, the other young musicians never treat him as anything less than equal. Like the rest of them, he simply follows wherever the music takes him, channeling his talent into sounds and feelings that words cannot express.

“Lance plays so beautifully that it can just bring tears to your eyes,” Robertson said, “especially when you know about his personal story. You can play almost anything for him only once or twice, and he can play it right back for you. He has an amazing ear and a terrific natural ability on the piano.”

Vardon helped the BHS orchestra chamber ensemble win first place at the WorldStrides Heritage Music 2013 Presidential Inauguration Festival near Washington, D.C., Jan. 19. In addition to being crowned champions in the category of string orchestra performance, the group was recognized as the most outstanding orchestra in the competition. They also received the Spirit of Washington, D.C., award for exemplifying the highest ideals in both character and performance, due to their inclusion of Vardon in the ensemble.

The BHS chamber ensemble, a combination of symphony and concert orchestra musicians, is made up of 73 students. Robertson and his students made the trip to the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, Md., to compete against 45 other schools from across the U.S. and abroad. There, they performed the first movement of “Serenade for Strings” by Edward Elgar, “Andante Festivo” by Jean Sibelius and “Fugue in G Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach. The group participated in a similar inaugural program in 2009, when they also finished in first place.

“From the beginning of the (school) year, our goal was always to achieve the highest awards at every competition,” Robertson said. “We were very intense about it, and the kids put in a ton of hard work to get there. They were so happy that we actually achieved what we set out to do.”

Vardon has been a member of the BHS orchestra for the past four years. The 21-year-old is part of the district’s Post-High educational program, which teaches life skills to students with special needs between the ages of 18 and 26.

According to Lisa Barnett, a certified music therapist who works part time in the Berkley School District, while Vardon has very little verbal communication skills, he understands everything that is said to him, can read Braille and knows how to type answers to questions using a special computer program. But it is through music that Vardon is best able to communicate with others.

Barnett has been working with Vardon since he was just 8 years old. She noted that his musical abilities first started to develop when he was in middle school, and they have grown exponentially since then. For years, Barnett has helped Vardon cultivate his piano technique by sitting next to him on the bench and recording parts on a cassette player for him to practice, all the while marveling at his ability to pick out melodies and rhythms by ear.

“Lance is just an incredibly gifted pianist,” she said. “His auditory skills are simply extraordinary because his condition has given him a heightened sense of hearing. He used to play a lot more mechanically when he was younger, but now he really feels the music when he plays. He has become a true musician.”

Although both of Vardon’s parents are deaf, Barnett pointed out that they have always gone out of their way to support his musical talent by enrolling him in private lessons and finding other young musicians for him to play with. She also credited Robertson for doing “a wonderful job” of embracing Vardon as part of the BHS orchestra and thanked two BHS students — sophomores Haley Bennett and Kennedy Sawicki — for helping Vardon in recent months by practicing with him on their violins during his weekly lessons.

“I really feel like Lance enjoys playing music with other people more than anything else,” Barnett said. “It’s something that comes very naturally to him; it has provided him with a terrific avenue for self-expression and a way to develop his social skills. We’d like for him to eventually take his talent one step further by performing in hospitals, nursing homes and other public places.”

Robertson is grateful to Vardon and the rest of his students for their willingness to push themselves further, enduring long rehearsals and logging many hours of dedicated practice at home. All the hard work has certainly paid off; the BHS orchestra is currently rated in the top 10 percent of performing high school ensembles in the nation, based on its strong performances at national and state competitions.

“These students really put the time in,” Robertson said. “They’ve proven that if you want something bad enough, then you will find a way to get it. Our success at this competition was not a fluke — we’ve been very consistent with each new group of kids. I feel like we’ve created an environment here where our orchestra can achieve its goals, which is very gratifying. We have a long-standing tradition of success, and these kids want to make sure we continue that tradition.”

In addition to the performance and awards banquet, the BHS orchestra’s five-day trip to Washington, D.C., included stops at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and the Museum of American History, a guided tour of Arlington National Cemetery and a visit to Mount Vernon. The students ended their remarkable journey by joining the crowd near the Washington Memorial Jan. 21 to witness President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

“It was an incredible experience, all around,” Robertson said. “We had a great time, performed at a very high level and got to be part of a historic event. I think this will be a trip that these kids will never forget.”