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All City Strings Festival now 1,000 youth musicians strong

Massive concert has won the hearts and minds of parents, teachers

March 14, 2012

Diane Roznowski was happy to learn that she still had time to attend this year's All City Strings Festival held this past Tuesday evening at Wisconsin Lutheran College.

"Oh, I may need to go," Roznowski said beforehand. "It's always fun."

Roznowski should know. She figures that she has experienced 20 straight years of the festival as a parent of three music students who have performed from fourth through 12th grades. This would be the first time she would attend without one of her children performing.

"I am sure I will know a lot of parents and students there," she said. "It's a great tradition."

Participation has skyrocketed

The All City Strings Festival started out as a simple way for students to showcase their musical talents for parents. It has grown from a few hundred students performing at one of the local high schools to a size now requiring a college's gymnasium.

Because the event draws more than 1,000 musicians and twice as many parents, it is still considered a family-only event.

"We began this to get teachers, students and parents involved and to show how students' skills have progressed," said David Topolovec, who was an original festival organizer and still teaches at Whitman and West. "It has exceeded my expectations."

Paul Thorgaard, another founding music teacher who has been retired since 2006, said those who began the program had no idea it could get large enough to outgrow district venues. His experience in large festival programs through Milwaukee Public Schools, where he was a music student, helped shape Wauwatosa's festival.

"I suppose not having enough space is a good problem to have," Thorgaard said. "The reason it has gotten so large is that the administration has always supported it."

He noted that once the event began to grow there was a suggestion to split the event geographically between the two high schools.

"Administrators and parents definitely wanted to see the program as one," he said. "So that is why it has stayed that way."

Thorgaard continues to help set up chairs at Wisconsin Lutheran College for the event. He said he is always glad to help.

Help also comes from music teachers who work with students to coordinate rehearsals for individual orchestra and all-orchestra numbers ranging from classical to rock. The entire contingent ends the program playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Other communities take note

"A lot of teachers begin planning for the next year right after the festival is done," said Lygia Topolovec, David's wife, a music teacher at Madison Elementary. "We are a team that pulls together the music, and we work hard to make it cohesive."

That cohesiveness has spawned music majors who have come back to teach in the district and begin their own festivals.

Diane Roznowski's daughter, Lauren Hayden, was influenced enough as a festival performer to plant the seed of starting a similar festival in the Kettle Moraine School District, where she is the high school orchestra director.

Closer to home, Haley Slozek teaches music at Jefferson Elementary. The former music student who performed at the festival during her days at McKinley, Longfellow and Wauwatosa East said the combination of grades is the most dynamic part of the event.

"I remember performing as a fourth-grader and being excited to play with the high school kids," Slozek said. "Then when I was older I got the opportunity to mentor the younger students. That's what makes the festival so important and fun."

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