Case Study: A Performing Arts Academy Offers Individual Learning and Career Exploration

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Imagine training as a music educator while you’re still a senior in high school.

That’s what Dani Buschini, a recent graduate of Orange Lutheran High School in Orange County, California, did during the 2020-2021 academic year. As her capstone project for the school’s Performing Arts Academy, she taught and conducted “The Seal Lullaby” by Eric Whitacre in the student-led spring concert.

The Performing Arts Academy is one of six academies at Orange Lutheran, and all provide specialized instruction so students can explore potential career paths. Students apply to academies during their sophomore year, participate in their junior and senior years, and receive an endorsement on their diploma upon successful completion of the work. In addition to performing arts, the school offers academies in business, humanities, ministry, STEM and visual arts.

The Performing Arts Academy has multiple pathways; students can choose from instrumental music, acting, dance, musical theater and vocal music. Instrumental music is the only one with specific concentrations: music education, composition and performance.


female student conductingInstrumental Music Specialization

Director of Instrumental Music Aaron Zeilinger explains that academies “bundle current higher educational offerings with field trips, master classes and extra projects.”

He provides college-style programming and nearly individual learning to hone the passions of his students. All of his instrumental music academy students take Music Theory 1 and 2, but the rest of their coursework varies.

Music education and composition students study with Zeilinger independently after school. Education students learn score study, lesson prep, classroom management, as well as conducting and educational concepts, while composition students work on preparing original pieces to be debuted in spring of their senior year. Performance-focused students must take private lessons in their instrument and plan a 30-minute recital. All must also participate in honors-level ensembles.  

As a result of their varying interests, culminating senior projects have been diverse. In the 2016-2017 school year, Zeilinger’s composition student wrote two original works, one for wind ensemble and one for string ensemble. For the wind ensemble, he created an original march, called “Old Hundredth,” that drew inspiration from the marches of Karl King and John Philip Sousa. The string ensemble piece, called “Rush,” was based on scale patterns in increasing and overlapping forms to weave an intricate, almost mathematical-style composition. In 2019, a performance student played the “Concerto in E Minor: Movement 1” by Felix Mendelssohn on violin as well as arranged “Time” by Hans Zimmer for three violins and a piano.

Collaboration with other classes has also been encouraged. For example, “we had the Acting 3 class write a monologue as an intro to one of our concerts,” Zeilinger says.


Customized and Student-Driven Program

If students are interested in teaching at younger levels or in music technology, Zeilinger says that he would find ways to make those experiences possible. “I want each student to pursue what they are truly passionate about and have a culminating project that represents their unique abilities and desires,” he says. “It’s very student-driven.”

In fact, Zeilinger’s overall philosophy with all of his students has been to “support them where they are and where they want to go,” he says. 

As a faith-based private high school with no specific feeder programs, Orange Lutheran has a student population of 1,355. About 250 to 300 students overall participate in performing arts with 50 involved in instrumental music each year. Approximately 12 students per year have chosen to participate in the Performing Arts Academy with one to three involved in the instrumental music program. Students at Orange Lutheran are not required to enroll in an academy, but those who do can participate in as many as they want after their successful application.

All 50 instrumental students — whether or not they are in the academy — have a plethora of musical opportunities. Orange Lutheran has a marching band, wind ensemble, string ensemble, chamber ensembles, full orchestra, jazz band, jazz combos and percussion ensembles.

Zeilinger who is also the corps director with the Impulse Youth Arts Organization in Buena Park, California, is the head teacher for all of those groups — anything instrumental except the praise band — and he brings in coaches where needed.

female clarinet student In past years, Zeilinger has even taught hand bell and steel drums when students express the desire. “When I see the interest, I’m going to go down that path because I want my students' high school experiences to be memorable. … My program is really focused on developing the desire among students to pursue something they’re passionate about.”

All students have a chance to make decisions for the spring Student Showcase. Zeilinger will ask students what they are passionate about and run with it. “My main purpose in education is providing experiences for the kids who want it,” he says.

The need for customization has arisen due to the wide variety in students’ instrumental experiences. For instance, Zeilinger might have musicians who have taken private lessons since the age of 2 and others who have just started learning their instruments a few months ago. “I have to figure out how to meld that into an ensemble that everyone feels excited about,” Zeilinger says.


Master-Class Experiences

As part of the academy experience, about three master classes are available for students to join each year. “I normally bring in people from industries that students wouldn’t have access to on their own,” Zeilinger says.

These professionals have included studio musicians, studio arrangers, a Broadway composer and a group called LALA Brass.

While all performing arts participants have access to the master classes, academy students are required to attend at least two per year and get exclusive privileges, such as more intimate Q&A sessions or the opportunity to work directly with the guest artist in demonstrations.


Evolution and Expansion

The Performing Arts Academy has made changes to its structure over time. “It’s been a continually evolving process,” Zeilinger says.

In the first year, each director bundled up existing coursework and put it into the academy pathways. During faculty meeting days, instructors brainstorm ways to improve the academies. Creation of the new dance program is one example.

male student playing the pianoStarting in the 2021-2022 school year, students will have the option to participate in the academy and benefit from a field trip to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and master classes without the capstone project, or take the academy honors track with all of the individual and culminating work. The Performing Arts Academy staff believes that more students would participate if they didn’t have the pressure of pursuing the stand-alone project, Zeilinger says.

“We’re continuously coming up with ideas to make this more defined and … worth their time,” Zeilinger says.

In the future, Zeilinger says that he would like to pivot the instrumental music program to offer all types of specialties without specific divisions, to offer AP Music Theory and to coordinate with state colleges.

While approximately 70% of the Performing Arts Academy students have pursued the discipline in college, about 30% do it just for fun. “The parents and students … are always thankful that they get to do something like this,” Zeilinger says “It is 100% my philosophy to try and give students something unique in high school before they get into college. … High school is the last chance to try something without it affecting the rest of your life. That’s why I offer so many things. … I want students to walk away from high school having done something really cool [and] special.”
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