BALLSTON SPA -- Orchestra students in the Ballston Spa School District have set Beethoven aside in favor of The Beatles.
For the last five weeks, more than 200 cellists, violinists and bassists have been practicing orchestral versions of The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," as well as Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" and Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild."
Their work will culminate on Thursday when Mark Wood, an original member of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, visits the Ballston Spa High School to rehearse and perform with the fourth- to 12th-graders who have been studying the rock songs through sheet music and recordings.
The hour-and-a-half performance, free and open to the public, is part of Wood's "Electrify Your Strings" tour, in which he works with schools to prepare and stage highly amplified concerts featuring classical instruments.
Local teachers prepare the students, and Wood comes later to rehearse and perform with them through the program, which will be repeated at about 50 schools nationwide this year.
Ballston Spa's show will include several features not typically expected at orchestra concerts, including choreography, fog effects, intense lighting and powerful solos. Wood will also bring his seven-string fretted violin and join in with the students for the show's closing number.
"It's going to be chaos in a wonderful way," Chelsea Reeves, the orchestra teacher for grades 6 through 12, said this week during a momentary break from rehearsal.
The prospect of the high-energy concert has renewed enthusiasm in the district's
orchestra classes, which meet for an hour several times a week.
"I wasn't sure how this would work because it's so different, but it's great to have a change, and who doesn't like rock music?" Paris Walkowiak, a seventh-grade cellist, said after a class in which students rehearsed a number called "String Thing."
Sydney Rule, a seventh-grader who has played the violin for the last three years, predicted Thursday's show would also lead to more interest among students who may otherwise shun orchestra.
"I'm hoping more kids will show up now that we've mixed it up a little bit," Rule said.
School officials who helped coordinate the program say the sounds emanating from the orchestra classroom have already engaged those unfamiliar with or uninterested in the class.
Students who abandoned their violins and violas are also now saying they wish they hadn't left and are expressing interest in returning, said Peg Brady, the school's arts in education coordinator.
Those who stuck with it, she said, "literally have not stopped practicing this music since the day they learned this was coming together."
"They have all been extremely excited by this," she added. "They all kind of feel a little bit like rock stars."
The transition from classical to rock hasn't been an education just for the students, either.
Reeves, who teaches grades 6 through 12, and elementary orchestra teacher Kevin Norris, admit they have had to adapt to the modern music and that this has been "a little outside of the box" for them as well.
But the students' embrace of the change may have a lasting impact on the school's orchestra program, Reeves said, given how much interest has grown.
"I think this experience has shown them that it's all music, and that it doesn't all have to be stale," she said.