When talking about Safford High School’s upcoming Fall Concert, Kassie Shields made a promise.

“Grandpa won’t fall asleep in the chair in the audience,” the 16-year-old junior said.

On Thursday, Oct. 28, the school’s philharmonic and chamber orchestras will be performing for the first time this school year at the David M. Player Center for the Arts. Each orchestra will play three songs each, Hallelujah, Ancient Flower and Escape will be played by the philharmonic orchestra, which is comprised of freshmen and sophomores and Ancient Wonders, Andante and Palladio will be performed by the chamber orchestra, which is filled with sophomores, juniors and seniors who must audition for the privilege of playing in the orchestra, said Chip Cheney, Safford schools’ orchestra and piano director.

Kassie and classmates Savannah Barnes, 17, and Lydia McElroy, 16, promised a good time will be had by all.

The music they’ll be playing is different than the classical music they’ve played in the past, they said.

“I like it. It’s my opinion, but I feel like it sounds better than classical music. It’s more exciting to play,” Kassie said. “Some of our music, it’s not boring, but you have to have a taste for it, but I feel like with this music it’s more exciting and it’s more upbeat. It’s going to be a fun concert.”

Savannah agreed.

“It’s fun for us to play classical music when it comes to concerts, but I feel like to some other people they don’t really have the heart for it. It’s going to be a lot more fun,” she said. “I’m really glad our instructor decided to do something different and since we’re more advanced we can do more challenging music.”

Cheney started teaching within Safford’s schools in 2010.

Students can start playing in orchestra in fifth grade and band in sixth grade and from that point on they can actually participate in both all the way through high school, Cheney said. For those who don’t know, those who participate in orchestra play string instruments, such as violin, viola, cello and bass, while those in band play brass, woodwind and percussion instruments.

Cheney splits teaching duties with Scott Green and the two men split their time between the elementary and high schools. Green takes care of the junior high school’s bands.

Thursday’s performance is actually the first of four concerts, Cheney said. They’ll also be performing a winter, spring and end-of-year concert. In addition, the Bulldogs compete in various events throughout the year.

The music program has grown a great deal over the years, Cheney said.

“When I started here 11-12 years we ago only had one orchestra at the high school. The program’s grown so we’ve been able to split it. We’ve basically doubled in size since I started here,” Cheney said. “This works way better because our upperclassman have way more of a challenge. They’re not mixed in with the freshman. It’s been really cool.”

Both the parents and school administration deserve a lot of credit for the growth, Cheney said. They see the value in music education.

Cheney loves his job.

“To be in a high school orchestra you really have to show a high level of commitment because they start in fifth grade and have to keep playing. By the time they get to high school they’re already in their fifth year of playing in an orchestra,” Cheney said. “It’s great being able to start them and see them progress all the way through the program.”

The students are excited for Thursday, especially considering the fact they had to deal with COVID-19 last year.

“This year is so much better. Last year we had to do some of our concerts virtually. I would just record them in class and email the video recording to parents,” Cheney said. “We got to have a couple of in-person concerts, but the audience size was limited. This year as many people as want to come can come.”

The students won’t be given much of a break after Thursday’s concert, Cheney said. The very next week they’ll begin working on their pieces for the winter concert, which will include the orchestra, band and choir.

“I’m purchasing music for it right now,” Cheney said. “It’s fun because we start learning holiday music in October and November.”

You won’t hear the kids complain about the long hours they’ll be putting in; they love Cheney.

“Mr. Cheney is an amazing, positive instructor. H”e is really patient,” Savannah said.

Lydia agreed.

“He’s super sweet and he’s always making sure we’re doing all right,” Lydia said. “Last year I was really struggling and he was always there. He’s really encouraging. He’s someone to look up to.”

All three girls explained how Cheney starts Wednesdays instructing each student to write inspirational notes to one of their classmates every Wednesday and has one student read a motivational quote at the end of every class period.

“I don’t think there’s a single kid out there who would say they don’t like him,” Lydia said.

“He’s never negative. He’s always positive. He’s always uplifting,” Kassie said.

“It’s hard to get frustrated in his class because he’ll say ‘That wasn’t your best shot. I know you can do better. I believe in you,” Lydia said.

“He should be a psychologist, that’s what I think,” Savannah said.

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