Musicians to play at safer location

Penny Johnson pumps her fist in a strong show of support while talking about moving the Richmond County honors orchestra.

Since 1999, the orchestra has been housed at the Martha Lester School, an unassuming facility on Broad Street that Augusta commissioners have mistaken for an abandoned and neglected building. The location has drawn the ire of some parents concerned about safety.

The orchestra is moving to Tubman Middle School this year so Martha Lester can be sold as surplus property to help balance the school board's budget. The move to Tubman also fits into the school system's efforts to better use its facilities.

Dr. Johnson, the director of fine arts, and others are excited about the orchestra's move.

Tubman provides greater accommodations, including more practice room, and the school is more centrally located, Dr. Johnson said.

"Plus, people know where Tubman is," orchestra teacher Sarah Rhodes said.

Patricia Asmundson, whose daughter participates in the orchestra, welcomes the move.

"I'm thinking it can be much worse, but I'm hoping it will be better," she said, referring to the area around Martha Lester as "seedy." "There would be drug deals going on. There would be prostitutes walking up and down."

Rehearsals were held at night and the school isn't well lit, Ms. Asmundson said.

Orchestra teacher Robert Browning shares her enthusiasm.

Tubman will provide better parking and less traffic jams for the orchestra, a program in its 45th year that continues to grow, Mr. Browning said.

Research shows children who participate in music programs tend to perform well academically, Dr. Johnson said.

"Parents want their kids to be part of the program," she said. "They know their kids will excel."

About 800 pupils take orchestra classes, and 450-500 participate in the honors orchestra.

The orchestra program is one of only a few in Georgia, Mr. Browning said. Outside of Augusta, the closest programs are in Athens and Atlanta.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.