The Hillsdale College Symphony Orchestra has long provided beauty and culture to campus through its challenging yet lovely performances. But in the last couple years, it has gained well-earned national recognition.
In July, American Prize awarded Hillsdale’s orchestra second place in the college division of its nationwide arts competition. Davidson College Symphony Orchestra in Davidson, North Carolina, beat out Hillsdale for first place, but Hillsdale came in ahead of College of William and Mary Symphony Orchestra based in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The competition is based on application. Orchestras can send recordings of performances two years old and newer. Last year was the first time Director of Music James Holleman submitted recordings from 2015 through 2017 concerts.
“They’re looking for quality arts in the country, where you wouldn’t expect it, or it doesn’t get recognized,” Holleman said.
He said the American Prize judges professional, university, community, and youth orchestras, as well as composers, vocal performers, and more. The Hillsdale College Symphony Orchestra had won a spot on the stage at the College Orchestra Directors Association Conference and was the smallest college ever to perform there.
“I thought, ‘Why not throw our hat in the ring and see what happens?’” Holleman said.
So Holleman decided to apply for the American Prize.
Founded in 2009, The American Prize is a series of competitions, administered by a nonprofit organization in Connecticut called Hat City Music Theater, according to the American Prize blog.
Junior Sara Becker has participated in the orchestra since she was a freshman and held the position of second violin during the 2017 – 2018 year. She said the last couple years have been exciting for the orchestra as members have grown in community and talented new members have been recruited.
“It’s nice recognition for the program, and really nice recognition of the work the students put into it, balancing with difficult academics,” Holleman said. “They’re mostly not music majors, so it’s just really nice recognition for all those efforts and spirit.”
Becker said winning the award reflected on that unique dynamic of Hillsdale’s orchestra, in which students join simply because they enjoy music.
“You can be excellent in all different areas,” she said. “The mentality I see encouraged throughout the college is, if you’re going to do something, do it well.”
Heather Woodhouse, ’18, was a principal flutist, as well as picillo player.
“You’re there because you love it,” she said. “An instrument is something they put in your hand in elementary school or some later time, and it’s like a wand. You can do crazy things with it. Why would you want to stop?”
She said that the prize was won through a team effort. Last year, she said, the members learned to listen to each other more. Holleman said that while national recognition has come in the last couple years, it has been a long process of building the program that has brought recent success.
“Anybody who’s been a member shares in this,” he said.