Michael Kokus, the music director at Cambria Heights High School in Patton, chose to audition for a spot in the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra 12 years ago for two reasons, he says.
First, playing in an orchestra is a great way to "maintain ... an artistic outlet" and to keep his own musical skills sharp, Kokus said: "Teaching kids every day is wonderful – there’s a certain reward and satisfaction to it – but it’s not always artistic."
Second, Kokus said, his participation in the JSO gives him "a more innate understanding" of the challenges his students face: "Because I am an active player and because I challenge myself on a daily basis, I don't lose my kids' perspective on what it's like to be in an ensemble … fine-tuning your ear and your skills."
Kokus grew up playing the saxophone in Ebensburg.
In seventh grade, his school's choir director recruited him to play the bassoon so that the school's ensemble could play certain pieces of music that required it. (School-aged bassoonists are often in short supply, Kokus said, because the complex, many-keyed instrument "can be daunting to play for a young kid.")
Buoyed by the encouragement of his teachers, Kokus chose to pursue a career in music, obtaining a bachelor's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and a master's degree in bassoon performance from Pennsylvania State University.
Moving back home to Ebensburg, where he still lives, Kokus established himself – he got his job at Cambria Heights, successfully auditioned for a spot in the JSO and began playing with community bands and at musical theater gigs around the area.
Over Kokus' 12 years as a member of the JSO, he went through what he described as the orchestra's "big transitional period" – the end of longtime Maestro Istvan Jaray's 31-year career at the head of the ensemble. Jaray stepped down in 2015.
Maestro James Blachly, tapped in 2016 to fill Jaray's shoes, is "bringing a different perspective to the orchestra," Kokus said.
"He’s trying to expand what we do and what we’re capable of," he added, "and I’m excited to be a part of that."
Kokus urged area residents to consider seeing a JSO performance, calling the orchestra "a wonderful thing" for Johnstown and for the musicians who comprise it.
"The years of dedication that all these people have put into music and into their instrument, specifically, is incredible," he said.
"In a world where we're all isolated by our devices, it's an incredibly refreshing, incredibly human experience to go see an orchestra play ... You see all this artistry unfolding in front of you. It's amazing as a player and as an audience member."