Urbana Middle School’s Orchestra and Choir Director Makes Music the Core of His Life

Photo | Submitted Tom Mitchell, Urbana Middle School’s orchestra and choir director, has played for The Frederick Children’s Chorus Messiah Sing-Along for 25 years.

Photo | Submitted
Tom Mitchell, Urbana Middle School’s orchestra and choir director, has played for The Frederick Children’s Chorus Messiah Sing-Along for 25 years.

Tom Mitchell cited “a favorite quote”—from 19th century German poet and author Berthold Auerbach—to sum up his thoughts on the importance of studying music: “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

The Urbana Middle School orchestra and choir director—who has worked for the Frederick County Public Schools for 21 years—explained his conviction. “Music is a distinct element of a person’s life that enhances the emotional and relational part of their personality,” he said. “Being a part of a choir, band or orchestra teaches a child so many basic skills—like cooperation, teamwork, listening, attention to detail and accuracy, hard work and the expression of beautiful sounds.

“But most importantly, my students find that their music class is one place they can escape, do something fun and feel good about creating something beautiful.”

Mitchell’s own passion for music—instilled by his mother, he said—has informed his life. Although his Northern Delaware family had farmed for seven generations, he “chose not to pursue that route.” Instead, he proceeded to “pick up” the cello in fifth grade, taking private lessons and making “quick progress,” then learned piano and tuba in middle school.

During high school, Mitchell continued to take cello lessons with a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, performed in the school’s orchestra, band and choir, and attended two six-week summer music camps. At Indiana University, he studied cello and music education and played in orchestras, bands and chamber ensembles.

Mitchell’s first post-university job was a seven-year stint teaching strings and general music in Indiana’s Merrillville School system. He gave private cello lessons and played in the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra. His travels with a music ministry group led him to a master’s degree in Christian education at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, where he also taught music at Asbury College and played in a string quartet.

The new degree brought Mitchell to Maryland as a Methodist church’s youth and education leader, where he also met his wife, Cathy—who plays flute and Celtic harp. Music became extracurricular; he played in the Frederick Symphony Orchestra (he has been its principal cellist for 19 years) and a string quartet.

After eight years with the church, Mitchell returned to the classroom as an orchestra teacher in the Frederick County Public Schools. The Ijamsville resident began playing for The Frederick Children’s Chorus’ annual Messiah Sing-Along, which he has done annually for its 25-year existence. He was the only cellist who showed up for the first concert during a 1994 snowstorm.

The Mitchells have five adult children, two of whom played violin with them in a Mitchell Family Quartet. When the multitude of his commitments “started to get in the way of family activities,” Mitchell modified his schedule. He reduced the time he spends teaching private cello students to one day a week, and in 2017 “ended an 18-year tenure as conductor of the Frederick Regional Youth Orchestra’s Symphonia Orchestra,” he said. “I helped expand the younger level of the orchestra into two separate groups. He also founded the group’s Concert Strings and Summer Music Academy.

What remains suits Mitchell’s current lifestyle. He plays in the Frederick Symphony Orchestra, leads his small church orchestra and teaches at Urbana Middle where, he said, “I am dedicated to providing a wide variety of musical experiences for my students, including large and small ensemble performances.”

What he is proudest of, he said, is “that I continue to play my cello on a regular basis and really enjoy it. I am also proud of all the students I have touched over the years, some of them who have gone on to professional music careers.”

For the future, Mitchell hopes not only to continue “my playing as long as possible, both orchestra and small ensembles,” but also to be successful in a new endeavor: composing and arranging. His goal is “to get a composition performed or published sometime in the near future.”

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