When Addison Dempsay played viola in the Chesterton High School orchestra, she had no idea a concert tour in China was just two years away. Right after graduation, she auditioned for the South Shore Orchestra and was accepted. It was to be the next phase of her musical education.

Broadening students’ education and appreciation for music is one of the missions of the SSO, says conductor Troy Webdell. The Valparaiso-based, auditioned orchestra has 60-plus musicians primarily from Porter, Lake, and LaPorte Counties — plus student apprentices.

Music directors from Crown Point, Chesterton and Merrillville High Schools recommend promising students to the SSO. “Troy gives them the opportunity to push them beyond what they’re able to do in a school setting,” says Diane Rosenthal, orchestra director for Merrillville High School and program director for Merrillville Community School Corp. 

Since the program began 15 years ago, 20 students have participated. 

“Being part of the South Shore Orchestra gives (students) a leg up musically if they’re going forward after high school,” says Rosenthal. Beyond music, the orchestra teaches life lessons — time management, preparation, working with different authority figures — says Rosenthal, a violinist in the SSO.

Dempsay, now 23, agrees. “High school orchestra taught me to set goals for myself, things I thought would be beyond my level at the time. My instructors were passionate about music and that helped me be passionate about it,” says Dempsay, of Burns Harbor.

Rosenthal assesses a student’s maturity for working with a professional orchestra and the student auditions for a spot as an apprentice. Next come rehearsals, performances and more: Every other year the orchestra embarks on its New Year’s Concert Tour to China, usually seven concerts in 10 days.

“The China tour expanded my worldview. It was a cool experience to see how universal our music playing was, no matter the culture or language. (The music) transcended all that,” says Dempsay.

Pete Brannen, president of SSO, is the tour director, organizing travel and contracts and ensuring all documents such as visas and passports are in order.

High school students must have an accompanying adult to chaperone. Brannen, who with Webdell established the orchestra 15 years ago, also oversees fundraising and a scholarship of $2,500 for two students with limited resources. The only expense for the trip is a visa and airfare; hotels, food, travel within China and sightseeing are all provided by the hosts there. The tour is organized by Confucius Institute of Valparaiso University.

Brannen is also on the SSO board. “I’m 73 but definitely not tired of this. I love music, am passionate about it. It’s rewarding knowing that in some small way I’ve had a part in making those concerts possible.”

After a nationwide search Webdell has been selected as director of the Ft. Wayne Philharmonic, which has two youth orchestras. In addition to the SSO, “I’m finally a full-time conductor, making music with people pretty much all the time, which was one of my goals. It’s also important for the education of society in music, which is why I’ve been involved in the educational side of it as well,” says Webdell.

Brannen’s passion for music began early. His father conducted a similar orchestra for 20 years and his mother was a cellist. “As a youth I attended all their concerts.” Now his wife is principal clarinetist with SSO.

“I told Troy, if you can organize an orchestra, I’ll find a way to fund it,” says Brannen, though keeping the funds coming is a challenge. Each SSO concert — two or three each season — costs about $10,000. Ticket sales cover 60 to 65 percent of that cost, generally filling more than 200 of the 350 seats at  Memorial Opera House. The Holiday Pops Concert always sells out, says Brannen.

The orchestra provides a stipend for the musicians, with support from partnerships and collaborations including Memorial Opera House, South Shore Arts and the Confucius Institute. Its big annual fundraiser is the annual Wine Dinner, held in September, and it's working to line up corporate sponsorships.

The results are tangible.

“I’ve progressed in my playing career," says Dempsay. "It’s opened opportunities I don’t think I‘d have had otherwise, and it’s something I want to do the rest of my life. Any arts education, especially music, is super important in our education system. It gives kids another opportunity to find their niche and something they enjoy doing.” 

For Webdell, “it’s very encouraging to see so many young students progressing, being into performance and music and the meaning and value of music. Music education is what will thrive in the world, a universal language leading to better understanding.”