Cellists from schools all over western Pennsylvania practice for the PMEA District Orchestra festival at Sharon High School. The event’s finale is a public concert at 7:30 tonight in the high school auditorium.

Mackenzie Aurandt of Sharon first picked up a violin as a child because his father played, he said Thursday during a break from rehearsing works by such masters as Aaron Copland and Richard Wagner.

Now Mackenzie is one of more than 150 students from high schools all over Western Pennsylvania that rehearsed from morning into the night for the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association District 2, 3, 5 CQ Orchestra Festival at Sharon High School.

The students will play for the public at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Sharon High School Auditorium.

“They’ve been working hard,” Sharon orchestra director Jennifer Helms said. “I think they’re overwhelmed.”

A sea of string instruments played a haunting tune by Igor Stravinsky — the number that will close tonight’s concert — and a few kids were barely taller than the upright basses they play.

“You’re playing difficult music — this is the real deal,” conductor Robert Nordling, a professor at Calvin College in Michigan, told the group before they took a snack break.

Mackenzie said they got the music they’d be playing about six weeks ago and he practiced two hours a day, as the pieces are challenging.

Hickory High senior Allison Gavala made her first trip to districts.

“I really like it. It’s a good experience,” she said.

Greenville band director Eric Schrader said kids get a lot out of the festival, including the camaraderie of working with other musicians from a larger area.

“And they get to play some really great music,” he said.

“I think the best part is playing with a bunch of good people and bringing that back to our orchestra. I think that helps us out a lot,” Allison said.

Students from schools a couple hours away came to Sharon Wednesday night and began practicing the music.

“It’s really going to be good,” Allison said.

Mackenzie said tonight’s concert will “probably be the best” one folks familiar with Sharon’s orchestra will hear since there are many more musicians — 38 schools combined — and they’re tackling more complex music.

An orchestra is different from concert band because it involves string instruments and as well as percussion, brass and woodwinds, though it doesn’t include saxophones, Mrs. Helms said.

Sharon and Hickory are the only Mercer County schools that have full orchestras, Mrs. Helms said, though other schools incorporate strings into performances sometimes.

Musicians who ranked high in their audition at the district festival will move on to the regional orchestra in Erie, Mrs. Helms said.

Mercer County students performing in the concert are: Russell Rader, Rachael Swanson and Steven Hecking from Greenville High School; David Potsubay, Phelan Robb and Kristina Miller from Grove City High School; Caleb Stelle, Allison Gavala, Carly Leonard, Anna Wallace, Annie Moroco, Jeramy Laird and Hannah Piston from Hickory High School; Brittany Mohney from Mercer High School; and Mackenzie Aurandt from Sharon.

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