Chatterbox Orchestra: From cacophony to harmony

Delaine Fragnoli
Managing Editor

It’s not hard to understand how the Chatterbox Children’s Orchestra got its name. Twenty minutes into a recent practice, although their mouths are moving, the young musicians have yet to play a note.

But when director Johnene “Johny” McDonald raises her baton and the first note finally sounds, the noise in the room resolves from cacophony to harmony. Without a doubt, these kids can play.

That was the consensus of judges at last week’s High Sierra Music Festival in Susanville, where the Chatterboxes made their public debut. It marked just the third time the whole group had played together. The string section and the wind section practice separately and those rehearsals have been underway for a mere few months.

“You’ve practiced how much together?” one judge asked. “That’s amazing.”

He and his fellow judge were amazed enough to award the group a superior rating, the highest mark.

“Awesome!” said fifth-grade saxophonist Emily Walmer, exhibiting the exuberance the Chatterboxes are known for.

McDonald said she was proud and delighted with the orchestra’s performance. She noted it was the only elementary group to play at the festival.

The Chatterboxes are 16 young people, ranging in age from 8 to 17, who play strings, woodwinds and brass. They take private music lessons from McDonald, but most also play in school bands. Although a few older students participate, the bulk of the musicians attend local elementary schools.

McDonald said when she helped school music teacher Tanner Johns with his beginning band last year she realized “so many of my private students were in the band, I saw an opportunity to bring them to a new level and to put the strings with the winds.”

Although she has organized children’s string ensembles in the past, including an honor ensemble with a youthful Johns on clarinet and a single flute, the Chatterbox experiment is her first full-fledged children’s orchestra.

McDonald herself played in a children’s orchestra from the time she was 10 years old and called the experience formative.

“It’s fun,” said violinist Krystina Oravetz, 11, of the Chatterbox orchestra. “And Johny’s a really good teacher.”

Walmer agreed, “It’s a lot of fun. I like being with my friends and performing together in front of people.”

The Chatterbox experience seems already to have brought its players to a new level. Their repertoire for the festival featured a folk medley of “Rose Red” and “Star of the County Down.” The Chatterboxes both sang and played “In Dreams” from “Lord of the Rings.” They closed their set with a rousing rendition of the Bulgarian folk tune “Elenke,” repeated three times with a faster cadence each time.

“How much faster do you think you could play it?” asked one judge.

“My arm would fall off!” replied Whitney MacIntyre, 11, the group’s sole trombonist.

The Chatterboxes display no such limitations on their verbal stamina. One parent who drove to the Susanville festival described his car as the “chattermobile.” “It was like a rolling birthday party,” he said of the decibel level.

All such tongue-in-cheek comments aside, parents of the budding musicians are unanimous in their praise of McDonald. “She’s a treasure,” said Aimee Heaney, whose son Benjamin, 11, plays clarinet. “I feel blessed and lucky to have someone in our community who can nurture our children musically. Ben has grown in confidence through his participation.”

McDonald is just as quick to credit the parents’ commitment — their willingness, for example, “to drive all the way to Susanville for a 10-minute performance.”

It takes a village, it seems — and a sturdy set of earplugs — to raise a Chatterbox.

Luckily for all involved, the group’s upcoming performances will be much closer to home. Folks can catch the Chatterboxes at McDonald’s annual spring concert, set for Sunday, May 1, and at Concert on the Green at Quincy High School May 25. The latter is outdoors, weather permitting, which will give the young musicians an appropriate venue to do what they do second best — chatter.


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