Life Lessons Through Music

Director Brian Cole — shown here with sixth-grade orchestra members on the first day of school — says Horizons Middle School’s program is about more than music: “High-quality music is expected, but we’re also teaching lessons for everyday life.” (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson
This is a big week for Horizon Middle School’s 6th grade string musicians. It’s when they order their orange-and-black orchestra jerseys – just one of the traditions that sets Moorhead’s music program apart from all the rest.
“People recognize us by those jerseys,” says Brian Cole, who – along with Doug Neil — shepherds the four middle school orchestras made up of 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders. “They’re something the kids are proud of. I guarantee every one of them knows exactly where their jersey is in their closet.”
As this year’s preteens place their orders at Sportland, they are carrying on a 25-year tradition that’s bound almost 3,000 youth to the school’s orchestral classes. All have sported jerseys with the same big, bold M on front, just the same as the ibes that fill hockey players with pride. Their backs are emblazoned with names and numbers that the students choose themselves. Suited up, they’re a musical force to be reckoned with – part of a musical traditional stretching back almost 70 years.
Moorhead’s string program is widely considered one of America’s best. Established in the early 1950s by famed director Vince Pulicicchio, the emphasis on strings has grown ever stronger until, today, the program is believed to be the largest in the nation in terms of the percentage of students who take part. Brian estimates nearly 500 of Horizon’s 1,600 students will participate in orchestra this year.
-eight percent of them start out never having played an instrument before,” he says. He and the rest of what he calls “our coaching staff” – his colleague Neil and senior high directors Jon Larson and Anthony Eddleston – have built the program on a foundation that goes beyond the core of serious music instruction. He assures beginners that success is well within their reach. “If you’re a hard worker with a good attitude, we guarantee – yes, guarantee – that you’ll be a success.”
Success amounts to more than mastering the violins and violas they carry to class or the cellos and basses the school provides. As Brian tells it, “We try every day to live up to our motto, ‘Life lessons through music.’
“When I think back to my own experience in school, it’s clear that very few of us chose careers in sports or music … but we still remember lessons our coaches and teachers taught us. What matters most, in the long run, is not ‘running 24 power’ or running a D scale in tune, but how to live a good life – how get along, respect others and work together as a team.”
Placards of what he calls “the five values” are prominently posted on the orchestra room’s wall: Life, joy, peace, patience and kindness. Every class period includes some moments exploring how to apply those harmonious values to everyday life. “The most important thing,” he says, “isn’t just what you do, but how you go about doing it.”
A native of Marshall, Minn., Brian graduated from Marshall High School, then studied music education at the University of South Dakota in Vermilion. He later completed his master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. He taught one year in Thief River Falls before joining the faculty in Moorhead. “My mother jokes that I chose it because it shares Marshall’s school colors,” he notes.
That’s 25 years in the land of the Spuds. During that time, he says he’s learned as much from his students as he has taught them. The idea to outfit his violinists and cellists in jerseys came from one of them, suggested – perhaps as a joke – by one of his young string players. “Coming from southern Minnesota, I knew as much about hockey as I did water polo,” he laughs. “But I knew right away that it was a great idea.” The teamwork of creating beautiful music does, after all, bear some resemblance to the sport. And it, too, runs in families: “We’ve gotten to know many ‘orchestra families,’ with every single kid in orchestra over the years,” he observes. “Now I’ve been here long enough to start getting the children of former students. They keep coming because of the kind of experience we want them to get.”
He adds, “It’s been a good day in orchestra when I can make every single kid smile.”
There’s plenty to make them smile beyond the classroom. The 7th and 8th grade orchestras perform concerts for younger students around the state, last year in International Falls and Baudette. Moorhead groups have visited more than 120 schools, he says, over the past 20 years. “Sometimes there are more of us than in the student body,” Brian reports. “Doesn’t matter.”
They’ve also played bigger venues, including the Twins’ and Redhawks’ stadiums, where they’ve performed the national anthem before their games, and at music contests around the state. “They’re great experiences for the kids – performances they’ll never forget,” Brian says.
And audiences remember, too. “When they see all that orange and black,” he notes, “they know they’re listening to Moorhead.”
Moorhead’s middle-school orchestras accept new students at any time. For more information, email Brian:

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