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2024 Yamaha "40 Under 40" educator Julie Russell

Julie Anne Russell

Orchestra Director
Blythewood High School
Blythewood, South Carolina

Blythewood High School Orchestra Director Julie Anne Russell has found several ways to bridge the gap between middle school and high school orchestra programs. First, she reconnected with colleague Netta Hadari to perform his piece, “Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like,” which was written for beginning strings (performed by middle school students), advanced strings (Blythewood High’s chamber orchestra), winds and brass (local teachers and professionals) and four soloists (Russell and three professional players/teachers). “At the performance, the audience and students could see the progression from first-year playing to the outer limits of what can be accomplished as an adult,” Russell says.

This performance was emotional for Russell because she was able to perform alongside her best friend, students, future students, colleagues and her son, who was part of the middle school orchestra. “In the final measures of the piece, I actually missed a cue because I couldn’t see through my tears. I was overcome with joy with all that we had accomplished,” she says.

Other initiatives that involve the middle school and high school include a composition unit with the middle school where students write pieces based on children’s books, and the orchestra mentor project where Russell’s high school students teach free private lessons to middle schoolers.  

Russell is known for her out-of-the-box ideas. During the pandemic and resulting shutdown, Russell wanted students to be able to still connect with musicians and music “beyond these walls,” which has become a catchphrase for her vision of the orchestra program. Respected musicians from Hong Kong to California and many countries, states and cities in between, graciously created videos talking about their life and what they do. The unit, called “Meet the Artists,” resulted in about 12 videos explaining different aspects of what it means to be a musician and how it can shape your career.

She also spearheaded a full day of workshops and rehearsals for Richland School District 2 honors orchestra students with the esteemed musicians of Varna International. Several students were given the opportunity to perform on actual Violins of Hope, and students were able to meet and ask questions to Avshi Weinstein, one of the luthiers who restored the instruments from the Holocaust.

A special fundraiser for the orchestra is the Painted Fiddle Project, which began in 2009. Students lead the project and are in charge of the collaborations, designing and logistics. They work closely with the National Art Honors Society where students and local artists are encouraged to paint the fiddles. “My dad, Jim Wilson, and I work together in the wood shop to hand cut each fiddle,” Russell explains. “At each concert, 10 to 12 fiddles are auctioned with proceeds going to purchase equipment, sheet music and supplies for the program as well as fund a scholarship for a local student to attend the University of South Carolina String Project Summer Camp.”