Before her final concert with the Charlottesville High School Orchestra, Laura Mulligan Thomas walked students through different elements of the program, thanked the group for their work, and snapped one last selfie with them from the stage of the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center.
“I’m excited about this,” she told her students. “You are going to play beautifully.”
The May 18 concert was a final coda for Thomas, who has led the orchestra program for 40 years and is retiring. Although this is the last week of school for Charlottesville City Schools, Thomas won’t officially pass the baton to the incoming director until after the orchestra’s trip this month to Los Angeles.
During Thomas’ tenure at CHS, the orchestra program has grown from a handful of students to more than 100 strong, scooping up dozens of state awards along the way and developing a national reputation for excellence.
“I don’t really feel like I am at all [ready to retire] because I just absolutely love everything I do,” said Thomas in a recent interview before her final concert. “And also, the CHSO and I are the same entity. It’s really hard to separate myself from this.”
Thomas, who started working in Charlottesville in 1982, said she’s stepping down to help her aging parents. Emily Waters, the orchestra director at Walker Upper Elementary and Thomas’ daughter, is taking over the program.
At the May concert, Thomas talked during the transitions between pieces about her upcoming retirement, thanking those who have helped her along the way. The concert concluded with a series of surprises including a performance of a new piece composed specifically for Thomas.
“You have made our school and community better,” CHS principal Eric Irizarry told Thomas at the end of the concert. “Although you are leaving, your legacy will last a lifetime.”
The windows of Thomas’ office and walls of the orchestra room are adorned with photos of concerts and former students as well as copies of articles about the program. The memorabilia serves as a hall of fame for her students and the program, highlighting awards won, guest performers who have played with the orchestra and international trips.
The CHS Orchestra has traveled to London, Vienna and Rome with the financial help of supportive community members. Thomas had hoped to take the group on a sixth European trip in 2020 to Lisbon, but the pandemic canceled those plans.
“This is like a jewel that needs to be shared because these kids play incredibly well, and they’re capable of moving people with their soulful performances,” Thomas said.
The orchestra’s String Ensemble regularly earns the highest rating on the highest difficulty of music at its annual assessments. The overall orchestra received its 12th Blue Ribbon award for excellence from the Virginia Music Education Association this year.
At the Williamsburg Heritage Festival of Music this spring, the CHS Orchestra and String Ensemble won every award possible while competing against schools from six states, according to a division news release.
Thomas herself has been recognized nationally. This year, she received the American String Teachers Association’s Elizabeth A. H. Green School Educator Award, which is given annually to a string teacher with a distinguished career in a school orchestral setting, according to the association.
Many of Thomas’ students have become professional orchestral musicians, music educators, or violin-makers. One of her goals in retirement is to go watch her former students work and perform, wherever they are.
She said at the concert that the greatest thing about teaching in the city schools is the relationships with students and families.
“I love Ms. Thomas,” said Bea Wiles, a senior at CHS. “She has her vision, and she wants it to be done. I’ve never had a concert with her that I felt bad about. She programs good music, and we execute well.”
Wiles has been playing the viola since fifth grade and performed a solo at the May 18 concert. She said she’s grown a lot as a musician while at CHS.
“She definitely wants the best for us, and she can sometimes be tough, but you always know that it’s because she wants to bring us up to the next level,” Wiles said.
Thomas said in an interview that she does ask a lot of her students.
“I do have high standards, but the kids rise to them,” she said.
The trips, awards and recognition weren’t in Thomas’ plans when she moved to Charlottesville at 22 after graduating from James Madison University. In fact, she only planned to teach for a few years.
“Actually, I remember telling my father that if I might teach for a few years and then go do something really important. Those words came out of my mouth,” she said. “Now I know that what I’m doing is the most important thing I could have possibly ever considered doing.”
An Alexandria native, Thomas said she started playing at the urging of her parents and fell in love with music. She’s a cellist and pianist.
“Music has the potential to really speak to everyone and to move people and touch people in a way that, in my mind, mathematics doesn’t,” she said. “Maybe mathematics speaks to some people. It doesn’t speak to me.”
Growing up, she had great music teachers, which led her to become an educator because she wanted to provide a similar experience for students.
Elizabeth Roberts, director of youth educator of the Charlottesville Symphony, said Thomas has been a consummate and dedicated teacher and artist.
“I have no doubt she could have chosen a performance career, but she lived teaching, so that has been her focus,” said Roberts, who has known Thomas for 21 years. “She’s always been there for her students [and] sees the potential of each individual.”
When she asked Thomas recently what she would miss most, Thomas said her students.
“She made it cool to be in the orchestra, and she made it possible for anyone to participate,” Roberts said.
The orchestra’s enrollment has been as high as 145 over the years, according to the division. As the orchestra program has grown at CHS and throughout the division, so did the program’s diversity, which was important to Thomas. She’s also worked to include more music from underrepresented composers in the orchestra’s repertoire.
“More than the numbers, I’m just really proud of the quality and the diversity because we feel like everybody can play a stringed instrument,” she said. “Everybody is welcome to come and we’ll support you along the way and whatever people need, we’ll do to get you energized and excited about this program and hopefully keep you through.”
Teamwork among the division’s orchestra teachers was critical to growing the program and building a pipeline to CHS, she said.
When the high school orchestra was featured in Southern Living magazine, Thomas said the middle school director at the time, Don Brubaker, posted it in his classroom as a way to show students the opportunities available at CHS.
Over the years, Thomas has embarked on a range of collaborations with the orchestra and other musicians. The one she is most proud of is the school’s collaboration with a group of Nashville high school students in the wake of the deadly events of August 12.
The Nashville students recorded a rendition “Right Now (We Need One Another)” by BeBe Winans for the Charlottesville community. Thomas and the CHS choir director Will Cooke saw the video and worked with division administrators to bring the Nashville students to Charlottesville for a performance.
At a school concert in September 2017, the CHS orchestra and choir performed with the five Nashville students, all wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with a heart and the word “Cville.” A video of the group’s performance was played at the Concert for Charlottesville later that month.
For a music teacher, the pandemic posed a challenge. When schools were closed in March 2020, Thomas said her goal was to keep up each student’s individual skills since the whole orchestra couldn’t play together over Zoom.
She also wanted to ensure the broader CHSO community stayed together.
That community, Thomas said, is more important that “any note or instrument that I could ever teach.” The group practiced individually on Zoom until December 2020 when the orchestra could finally play together again — albeit outside.
“It was terribly windy when we were together and the first thing we played was the Hallelujah chorus,” she said. “It was just magnificent. They sounded so good.”
The orchestra capped an unusual school year with a spring concert on the football field wearing shirts that proclaimed, “We survived Zoom rehearsals,” she said.
Thomas, who will be 62 this month, said it didn’t occur to her to retire until everyone kept asking her about it.
“I feel wealthy beyond measure because of the relationships with families,” she said. “When I moved to Charlottesville, I didn’t know I’d be here forever, but it’s such a great community, and my roots are deep here.”
Even though Thomas is stepping away from CHS, she’s still going to be part of the local music scene. She’s the president-elect of the Virginia Band and Orchestra Director’s Association and will be the Youth Orchestra of Central Virginia’s music director.