Zombies in the Orchestra Room!:
The student-directed silent film
By Daniel Henderson
Sometimes creating an activity to motivate and excite your students takes a lot of time to develop. When we are lucky, it jumps into the mind fully formed. The latter is what happened to me during a rehearsal of “The Curse of the Rosin Eating Zombies from Outer Space” by Richard Meyer. I was explaining to my high school orchestra students that the slow section theme had to be played like a love song – with passion and longing. “Look,” I said to my students, “This zombie came all the way from outer space to get our rosin. What he didn’t expect was that he was going to fall in love with a human!” As I was explaining this forbidden zombie/human relationship, a thought landed in my mind fully formed. We have to make a zombie movie.
As soon as I thought of it, I asked my students how they felt about making a zombie film. We would write, shoot, and edit a film that could serve as the visuals to our performance of “The Curse of the Rosin Eating Zombies from Outer Space.” The room exploded with excitement and the students were instantly bursting with ideas! They started sharing thoughts about what the story should be, what the zombies should look like, and where we should shoot the film. After a few minutes, I had to rein them (we had rehearsing to do!). However, before we resumed our rehearsal I told them, “If you are interested in this idea, start thinking about what the script would look like.” Later that day, I had similar conversations with my other two orchestra classes, who were also learning the piece. In the end, I gave all of my high school orchestra students about a week to develop their ideas and get them down on paper. If this project was going to be successful, I knew that it would have to be student driven. I could navigate, but I didn’t have the time – or the technical knowledge – to put this movie together myself.
The students make a zombie film
There was a clear winner in the script “competition”. These two students had taken the time to map out the action with measure numbers and musical cues written in their script. I had a talk with these two girls to find out if they wanted to take on the task of filming and editing this movie. I was extremely excited when I found out one of the girls submitted films to her family’s annual horror film festival – she had experience in both shooting video and then editing it. It should be noted that I would never have learned of these students’ talents in this area had if we hadn’t included this project in our orchestra class.
Students from all three of my orchestras were eager to be a part of the filming. Perhaps as expected, the most popular desire was to be a zombie in the movie. Luckily, our script called for a large number of zombies. There were also some “Earthling” roles for students who didn’t want to be subjected to the “zombification process”. In addition to our actors, our production staff included make-up artists, camera operators, and costume supervisors. Filming occurred after school and there were over 30 students who were involved. (We even had a cameo appearance by the choir director.) I did make sure to tell my administrators that they may be getting phone calls about some strange looking students in the fine arts area of the building!
After the filming was completed, we needed to make a recording of the piece to provide a framework for the video editing. Needless to say, recording the piece that many weeks before our final performance was very instructive. While we would be locked into our pacing decisions, we could certainly keep working to adjust the technical aspects of our performance! Our film directors took the track we recorded and edited the movie to fit to the music. After the movie was completed by the students, I began to rehearse with the film, filling my score with notes like, “bloody Joey looks in window” and “zombie arms attacking!”
Having all three of my orchestras collaborate on this piece presented some challenging, but exciting changes to rehearsals. In the weeks before the video was ready, it was necessary to adapt my teaching so that we would be successful. There is a very large disparity in performance level between my top and bottom orchestras, requiring very different types of rehearsals. I took notes in rehearsal to make sure that I passed on the same information to each group, even as we rehearsed in unique ways. Because we were the “soundtrack” to the zombie movie, I was able to explain to my students exactly what was going on in each section. We changed the formula by which we made musical decisions: Now every decision was made to support the action on the screen. Many times in teaching we tell a class ridiculous things like, “this should sound like a sunrise”. With the help of the film, I was honestly able to say, “She is literally being chased by zombies”. Being able to provide such specific images really helped my students understand the emotions we were trying to evoke.
A week before the performance, I moved a video screen and projector into my room so that we would have plenty of time to rehearse with the film. I put the screen behind my orchestra to mimic the way it would be set-up on stage. Obviously, my students were tempted to watch the movie, instead of playing. However, we needed all eyes on me if we were going to line up some of the more intricate cues. It was a wonderful lesson in watching the conductor.
As the performance approached, word was spreading that the orchestra was going to be doing “something cool” at the concert. The excitement from the students was obvious in rehearsals. As you can tell from the video above, the concert did not disappoint. I was so proud to be able to recognize the students who had given up their time to develop and work on a project that was not required, received no grade, and didn’t have anything to do with playing their violins! The audience loved our performance and the students received a well-deserved standing ovation.
This was one of the first times I, as a teacher, gave up total control on a project that would be presented at a concert. I was nervous at first, but I was so pleased with what my students put together that I will be happy to do it again. Allowing them to direct the work they did on this film made them collaborate, inspire, and question. I am asked frequently, “Mr. H, when are we going to do another movie?” My response is always, “When you write it, we’ll do it!”
Daniel Henderson began his cello studies at the age of 10 in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. He received his Bachelors degree in cello performance from the HARID Conservatory of music where he studied cello with Johanne Perron. He received his Master of Music degree in cello performance from the University of Florida where he studied with Mark Tanner. Mr. Henderson is a two-time winner of the Aldo Parisot Cello Award and was also twice a recipient of the Cello Fellowship Award for the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. While at the University of Florida, Mr. Henderson was awarded the D’Albora Scholarship for musical excellence; the highest honor that can be given to a student. Mr. Henderson has taught secondary orchestra in the Fairfax County, Parkway, and Pattonville School districts. He is currently the orchestra teacher at Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights, Missouri. He also maintains a private cello studio.