Gig Harbor bandleader finds resonance with young musicians

By Ric Hallock, Gig Harbor Life

The Peninsula Youth Orchestra’s first auditions for the 2012-13 season will take place on Thursday, June 7 at Harbor Covenant Church, 5601 Gustafson. Auditions will also take place in the fall. For more information, contact PYO’s Managing Director, Paula VanderPoel, by email at

What: The Peninsula Youth Orchestra’s 14th Annual Spring Concert will feature concerts by its four orchestras and selected soloists.

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, June 3

Where: Boyd Auditorium at Peninsula High School, 14105 Purdy Drive NW

No cost


Students rush into the classroom at Harbor Covenant Church in ones or twos, carrying mostly violins, some with violas, a few cellos, and a bass or two.

They find their chair and put their music on a support, some with notebooks too heavy to manage to rest on a desk, their notebooks fall? musical pages unfold on the floor.

Some of the musicians of old throw themselves into spontaneous music, while others hold back and silently observe those who play. A casual listener might hear a few bars of Mozart, a short burst of Vivaldi, maybe even a few bars of Haydn. But above all, is it a cacophony of noise? irreverent, loud, sometimes discordant? but often with a youthful passion.

Karla Epperson, bandleader/teacher/mentor/surrogate mother of the naughty band of musicians, comes with plenty of greetings and a beaming smile that could burst into song.

And so begins another of countless musical rehearsals for one of the four orchestras that make up the Peninsula Youth Orchestra.

Epperson, who has been with the organization for 14 years for 10 years, is duplicating? conduct and teach the Debut (first year) and Encore (young intermediate) orchestras. PYO also includes the Junior (more or less middle school) and Youth (high school) orchestras, under the direction of Stuart Hake and Andrea Bryant, respectively.

While challenges and demands are placed on all orchestras, Epperson has perhaps the greatest task as she is tasked with accommodating students who may have never even picked up or plucked a musical instrument in their young life? and she must help this child discover the love and the joy of making music.

It is a task for which she is well suited.


Epperson grew up in Aberdeen, the only child of a mother who studied singing at Julliard and gave piano lessons to neighboring children and a father who worked in the logging industry, his only musical experience being the monotonous note of a plywood sawmill.

Thanks to this unique couple, she said music has always been a part of her life.

She first took violin lessons as a child and “hated it”. So her teacher switched her to the cello and she fell in love with its sonorous, vibrant tones and set pieces to this day. “It calms my soul,” she said.

Because his mother taught piano lessons, a piano was always part of the house and Epperson practiced? getting up at 4:30am to do this as the piano was busy during the day being used for lessons.

“My dad would get up at 4:30 a.m. and listen to me practicing,” she recalls. When she started playing the cello, he drove her to Olympia for lessons and also to Tacoma for piano.


After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma and from there began teaching elementary orchestra and strings and three choirs at Olympia High School.

His portfolio also includes creating a ropes program from scratch in the Bethel School District. This program started with just 12 students in a summer program on an experimental basis and has grown to now include string classes in elementary and middle schools in the district.

Although she left that program in 1999 to pursue teaching in the music department at UPS, Epperson? who now lives in Gig Harbor? still returns to Bethel each year to lead musicians of all skill levels for an annual string festival. The program continues to grow, as evidenced by the problem they faced this year: they had too many beginning musicians and fire regulations did not allow them to play with as many musicians at a local school.

Alongside her current duties with PYO, she also works with two other local youth symphonies, plays cello in a string trio? called A Trio Classique, also including violin and flute, plays keyboard in a Tacoma orchestra and was for many years a member of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra and later active on the board of directors of the Symphony Orchestra. Although she has no interest in writing music, she has found that she enjoys arranging for her trio.

When not performing, she enjoys listening to light classical and admits a penchant for jazz and has stated that she wishes she could play jazz, “but I’m very stuffy and clumsy”.

This might explain her statement when helping tune a room filled with two dozen instruments, she can be heard saying, “That’s close enough for jazz.”


Epperson’s teaching years are evident in the way she handles her young PYO charges. She shows infinite patience with the rowdy and the rowdy, while displaying a calming and nurturing side for those who are shy and reluctant to be noticed.

“No matter how exhausting it can be, they rejuvenate you,” she said. “I love children. Most of them do their best.”

She admits it’s a good balance of keeping those interested who grasp concepts quickly while maintaining the level of interest and excitement for those taking longer.

“Karla is truly irreplaceable,” said PYO executive director Paula VanderPoel. “She can reach students at their level, while maintaining a level of professionalism that she maintains. She plays an important role in the development program.”

In the Debut Orchestra, Epperson begins with how to correctly hold an instrument and then the bow? both, she said, are “very awkward and unnatural”.

“Then we get all the parts working together, then we bring in a book with notes and add in things by heart such as the finger exercises. It’s hard to get everyone in the middle.”

But that’s exactly what she does. From the beginning of the first rehearsals in the fall, within a few months, she had them play together for the PYO winter concert, organized each January.

Because the students change every year, she said every year is a new challenge and every year brings surprises. She is pleasantly surprised with her two orchestras this year and how quickly they have been able to move forward.

When things are going well, she likes to add challenges. This year, in her Encore orchestra, she began bringing in fresh music for students to sight-read at each rehearsal, which teaches them what to look for when they see new music for the premiere. time.

She said it’s good professional development because often an adult orchestra gets some new music, goes through a few bars, and then plays the music.


One of the main reasons she is part of PYO is the current lack of string offerings in the Peninsula School District. The jazz band allows for a bass, but the middle and high school bands consist of percussion, brass, and woodwind? but not the strings.

“I hope one day a ropes program will be part of the school district,” she said. Being in an orchestra teaches students to be aware of others around them and to work together, she said.

PYO provides additional opportunities through programs such as its annual school tour when two of the orchestras travel to local elementary schools to perform. Epperson said it can open their eyes to a whole new world when they see their peers play.

For older students, there are opportunities to be part of string quartets that play at various locations in Gig Harbor.

Every August, returning students can enroll in String Camp, an intensive week-long course that gives musicians the chance to be exposed to music theory and different styles of music. They perform an outdoor concert at the Pavilion in Uptown to end the week.

Can the youth orchestra take an annual overnight trip to perform in larger areas of the state? this year’s high school students played at Leavenworth.

The entire organization hosts the Winter Concert in January and the Spring Concert in June each year, featuring each orchestra in a free concert in the auditorium at Peninsula High School.

More importantly, she says, it gives every student a sense of accomplishment. “They are excited to play part of an orchestra,” she added.

To ensure students don’t lose any of the drive or knowledge they’ve gained between orchestral seasons each summer, Epperson also runs a handful of free “tune-up” classes over the summer for one of its current or former students? and even to those considering joining PYO.


As students progress, do they advance to higher level orchestras? a bittersweet time for Epperson. “But it’s so nice to see how they are progressing in the other groups.”

It’s also evident how much of an impact she has on her students, as any rehearsal given often begins with a former student coming over to give Epperson a hug.

“I tell them, once they’re mine, they’re mine,” she mused.

And she has a strong working relationship with Hake and Bryant? all three accomplished musicians in their own right.

“The good thing is that (we) don’t have egos between our groups,” Epperson said. “We all want the best for the musician and the organization.

“Music is the sport of life,” she said emphatically. “I’m really blessed. I love what I do and I really love getting them going.” She hopes to continue inspiring new generations of musicians for years to come and doesn’t expect her work with PYO to slow down.

She sees herself very much as a child in the young musicians under her tutelage and she works to create lasting memories for them? much like she had done with her father.

“I cherished the time spent playing music with my dad,” she said. So much so that she still gets up at 4:30 in the morning to this day.

About Roy B. Westling

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