String ensemble's musical journeys

The 10 young members of Ursa Major are building their repertoire to play for formal occasions and travel to China next year

Posted: Thursday, July 18, 2002

On a brief break from Brahms and Bach, the teen-age members of the Ursa Major string ensemble shot pool, snacked and laughed.

Moments later, they returned to their seats, lifted their instruments and brought the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 to life.

"They know each other well," said Guo Hua Xia, a local strings instructor and conductor for the group. "They're like brothers (and) sisters. Judges compliment them on this sense ... It's easy to work with them."

The 10 members of the group, all of whom are in middle or high school, have met once a week to practice for almost four years. In that time, they've steadily added to their repertoire and learned how to play as a cohesive ensemble.

"I consider it to be similar to team sports, because everybody has to play their part and practice and do their best," said Nancy DeCherney, whose daughter, Ren, plays first violin with the group. "(Ren's) not a particularly athletic person and doesn't enjoy the competition and whatnot of sports, so she's getting that same team cohesion and camaraderie through her music work."

Violist Nina Schwinghammer, 15, said the group provides security - but requires trust.

"They hide your mistakes," she said. "It's easier, but then you have to depend on other people to know their parts."

Ursa Major plays a variety of music, ranging from pure classical works to some fiddle pieces. The group has performed at concerts with Xia's students and at a number of public events, including the 2001 University of Alaska Southeast graduation and the 2001 and 2002 Juneau Jazz and Classics festivals.

"They would like to move toward doing weddings and parties of that sort, and we keep hoping that they'll get a strong enough repertoire to allow them to do that, but it really does take them a while to put their pieces together. They're working toward it," DeCherney said.

Xia worked previously with The Fireweed String Quartet, a group of four high school students who frequently performed at local formal occasions. The quartet disbanded when its members left town to attend college.

Playing chamber music has been beneficial for all his students, Xia said.

"All the kids are very excited to play chamber music, and all the parents are very supportive of them," Xia said. "It does good things for the kids. They love instruments now. They are able to enjoy themselves."

Many of the young musicians said they were excited about an upcoming trip to China, which will take place at the beginning of next summer. They'll travel around the country performing and meeting with other students, DeCherney said.

Before the trip takes place, however, they'll split temporarily into two smaller groups.

"This would broaden the repertoire when they're giving concerts," DeCherney said.

It will also make it easier to assemble groups for local performances, she added.

"Sometimes it's hard to rally the whole 10, but if we have a majority out of one or the other of the groups, it can happen," DeCherney said.

With the conclusion of the students' intensive one-week string camp at Northern Light United Church, violist Nina Schwinghammer was feeling enthusiastic about Ursa Major and their music.

"If you keep playing the easy stuff over and over again, your brain turns to mush," she said with a smile.

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at

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