For 35 years, Karen Bishop taught orchestra in the schools, working with kindergartners through high school seniors. She saw it all. Or, so she thought.
Nearly two years after her retirement — and the immediate realization that she “missed it terribly’’ — Bishop has organized a community orchestra that motivates her passionate musicians and helps worthy causes at the same time.
The “Play It Forward Orchestra’’ is a 25-member group that adheres to its motto — “A group of beautiful humans making the world a better place through music.’’
Last July, Bishop called around, trying to assemble a few violinists for a driveway concert to benefit the medical needs of a former student. More than two dozen musicians showed up. There was no rehearsal, just some inspired music for the cars that drove by. Someone asked, “When are we doing this again?’’
It has been going strong ever since.
In December, the orchestra held a fundraising Christmas concert for one of its own, violinist and Steinbrenner High School senior Daniel Ramos, who has cancer. Drinks and snacks were served by the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation Fighters, a Steinbrenner group formed by Lexie Mulvihill, whose brother died of cancer last year.
The orchestra, open to anyone with high school or college music experience, includes current and former musicians from Blake, Gaither, Hillsborough, Steinbrenner, Hillsborough Community College, the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida.
“It’s all volunteer and people who are doing it for the love (of music),’’ said Bishop, who spent the last 12 years of her career at Martinez Middle School. “It has been so much fun. The people in the group are loving and caring. If you tell them, ‘We have something next week in Ybor City at 8 in the morning,’ they will be there.
“I hope it continues to grow. They love practicing and performing. There are a lot of fundraising and benefits we can do to help out.’’
In turn, the orchestra has been a helpful experience for the musicians — even beyond their love of music and performing.
Just ask violinist Bryan Camus, 32. He was in the orchestra at Blake, a performing arts magnet school. He became a nurse practitioner and lost himself in that career, partially losing his identity in the process. Life’s stresses seeped in. He experimented with drugs, considered suicide and spent nearly a month in rehab.
When he heard from Bishop, who was his middle school teacher, Camus hadn’t played his violin for nearly four years.
“We went through all of the pieces, and Karen and I were both shocked at how well I was playing,’’ said Camus, now a nursing professor at Rasmussen University. “Music has saved me.
“Looking at my life, I had some trauma piled on top of other trauma. My career didn’t help. In nursing school, you learn to put your emotions aside to help others. But you break at some point. “Now I have found an outlet, my love of music, and I look forward to everything we do,” he said.
The group gathers for a weekly rehearsal and for events, as needed.
Camus said the level of music ranges from intermediate to advanced. The enjoyment level? Off the charts.
“The basis for this is having fun and raising money for people who need it,’’ Camus said. “I think we will continue to grow. When Karen wants something to happen, it tends to happen.
“This isn’t like a full symphony. It’s still a small group. We all enjoy each other and pick fun at each other. I am the oldest and half these kids are better than I am, even though I’m twice their age. But it’s a very welcoming, inclusive group and you feel great just being around everyone.’’
Bishop said the group’s numbers could easily double, perhaps incorporating more adults who haven’t played in a while but never lost their musical interest. She’s looking into requesting nonprofit status and exploring other fundraising options.
By Joey Johnston
Published March 17, 2021