Rosemary Lather can't get enough of teaching music. The veteran educator, who plays violin, is orchestra director at River Hill and Marriotts Ridge high schools. But every Thursday, Lather adds a third orchestra, this one made up of middle-schoolers, to her teaching responsibilities.
Since 1991, Lather has directed Howard County's Middle School Gifted and Talented Orchestra. The group attracts the best young strings players in the area.
"I love high school, but it's very refreshing to still work with the middle-schoolers," Lather said. "They're very eager and very enthusiastic. ... We have major concertos coming out of itty bitty violins."
The program has become so popular that it expanded this school year. The Office of Advanced Programs and Fine Arts -- which includes the school system's music and gifted- and-talented programs -- sponsors enrichment and gifted-and-talented orchestras at the middle school and the elementary school levels.
Rebecca Braukus, music resource teacher for the school system, said, "Rosemary [Lather] and Patrick Walls are the ones that brought up the idea because there are so many interested students."
Walls teaches at Lime Kiln and Folly Quarter middle schools and directs the elementary-level gifted-and-talented orchestra.
All four orchestras will perform at Marriotts Ridge this weekend -- the gifted-and-talented orchestras at 7:30 p.m. Friday and the enrichment orchestras at 4 p.m. Saturday. The concerts are free and open to the public.
"All four of these groups are just terrific. They all have access to a higher-level performance experience," Braukus said. "It's a way of expanding the program and extending the experience to as many students as we could."
According to Lather, the "purpose of the program is to provide a higher-level performance opportunity for our students who are excelling." She said that the orchestras do not use student arrangements. "We do actual work in its original form." The students are "phenomenal. I'm quite blessed to wave a stick in front of them."
Allen Leung is assistant director for the middle school gifted-and-talented group. "The level of musicality is so high," said Leung, who teaches music at Hammond High and Patuxent Valley Middle schools. "You can really start to play a lot of professional music. ... The kids are all really amazing musicians and great kids in general."
Brian Kim is concertmaster for Lather's group. "Since these are the best musicians from the county, we play more advanced music, and I think that makes it more interesting," said Brian, an eighth-grader at Mount View Middle. But hard work is not the orchestra's only attraction. "You get to meet other musicians from other schools, and you get to make other friends," he said.
When the school year begins, audition information goes to every elementary and middle school orchestra director in the county. The September auditions are open to any student who participates in a strings program.
Fifty musicians in the gifted-and-talented middle school orchestra play violin, viola, cello and bass. Lather estimates that about 300 middle-schoolers tried out in September. "We did five days of violin auditions from 4 to 9" o'clock, Lather said. The orchestra directors served as judges.
Heejo Choi, 14, who attends Clarksville Middle School, plays violin. Many of the friends she made while in the elementary gifted-and-talented orchestra still play together. "It's a really good opportunity for me ... to have the experience to play with people your age and your friends," Heejo said.
She said she enjoys working with Lather and Leung, who make "musical jokes and things to keep our attention going, but they still make progress with us" during weekly rehearsals, she said.
Parent James Downing is a fixture at the middle school gifted-and-talented orchestra rehearsals. His daughter, Jessica, is an eighth-grader at Ellicott Mills Middle School and has been a violinist in the orchestra for three years.
Downing said he likes the program for his daughter "because of the opportunity to play with great musicians and because of the challenge of the music they play."
He said that Jessica has learned the importance of discipline and working cooperatively with other children. "To accomplish something like this gives you a very good feeling," Downing said. "It's made her more confident to know she can perform at this level."
The groups perform two concerts a year, in December and May.
"We're doing a very ambitious program, and we are featuring seven soloists," Lather said about Friday's middle school concert. "I think that they [the audience] will have heard an evening of music -- not just children playing instruments."
Heejo plans to perform a solo from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. "It has thunder and water and spring things, but he put it into musical notes so you can hear thunder and water and birds in the piece," she said. "The concerts are always exciting."