Banner year: Mulligan Thomas eyes prize

When 22-year-old Laura Mulligan arrived at Charlottesville High School in the fall of 1982, the string program was in its infancy. There was no orchestra, just a small chamber ensemble made up of eight students who played string instruments.

Fortunately, she says, "the kids were good. They could play."

Twenty-two years later, under orchestra director Laura Mulligan Thomas (she's now married), a whopping 10 percent of CHS kids can really play string instruments.

On the wall of the orchestra room, orange banners announce high points in the orchestra's history. Interspersed among the orange are two black banners. The first dates from a Chicago competition in 1994, and the second from 1998, the year the orchestra went to Vienna to compete internationally.

Though travel has been of the domestic variety since then, Mulligan Thomas says there's been no shortage of proud moments, the most recent coming last month. During a national competition in Dallas, the CHS Orchestra was one of eight finalists and earned a $2,000 check. That showing, says Mulligan Thomas, will earn the orchestra its third black banner. A second international trip is "not out of the question."

But it's not a simple decision. "It's a matter of do I want to devote myself full time to fundraising again," she says.

Closer to home, the orchestra performed Peter and the Wolf to a sold-out house in late February– a gig that earned each student $100 to use for an upcoming trip to Fiesta-val, a student music fest happening in Virginia Beach at the end of April.

Mulligan Thomas credits "arts friendly" Charlottesville for the program's success. "There's an expectation that people will learn to play an instrument," she says, "and they'll learn to play it well."

Also important, she says, is the city schools' willingness to fund the arts. "We are unique in this area for that reason," she explains. "It's truly a priority."

But the modest conductor, who brings her students donuts after each concert, unwittingly explains another reason for the program's success: herself.

"I don't consider myself a snob about classical music," she says. "I like to bring people into it with fun– the other stuff will come."

Age: 43

What brought you here? I came here right after graduating from JMU at age 22 to teach in the Charlottesville City Schools' Orchestra program.

What's worst about living here? Traffic. I often underestimate the time it takes to get anywhere in town because I'm thinking about the amount of time it took in 1982.

Favorite hangout? I'm a working mom; who has time to hangout? :)

Most overrated virtue? Hmm

that's tough; I have respect for most virtues. I think tenacity is the most under-rated virtue.

What would people be surprised to know about you? Probably that I listen to as much funk, jazz, and rock as classical music.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My enthusiasm for new projects often overshadows the fact that there's a finite amount of time in each day, resulting in my utter inability to say "no."

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Probably that I've helped thousands of kids learn to love great symphonic music. Also my role in making the school orchestra cool to join

What do people find most annoying about you? My obsessiveness, though I think I've outgrown some of it. Having kids will do that to you.

Whom do you admire? I admire many, many people in Charlottesville and beyond. Boyd Tinsley and the Dave Matthews Band, for their humanity. Arletta Dimberg, for her vision and commitment to the arts. Teachers who are passionately committed to helping shape the lives of young people.

Favorite book? Whatever I just completed; I read The Pact by Jodi Picoult while on the plane last weekend. Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Burns is probably my all-time favorite.

What subject causes you to rant? Injustice and insensitivity to kids

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Being able to share photos immediately via e-mail

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? The post 9-11 security that we have to endure

What do you drive? A 2002 BMW station wagon. My husband sells Beemers, so we got a family discount!

What's in your car CD/tape player right now? Schubert's Death and the Maiden and Dvorak's American Quartet, played by the Royal Philharmonic Strings. My friend Philip Clark is arranging the Dvorak for the CHS Orchestra this week.

What's your next journey? Literally– I'm going to Fairfax to adjudicate the District XI Orchestra Festival. Figuratively–I am still ruminating. For the longest time the journey was the National Orchestra Festival in Dallas, and that's now over... ask me again in a few days!

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I can remember some incidents when I was in high school, but I won't elaborate– I don't want to set a bad example for my students!

What do you regret? Not very much. Maybe worrying too much in my younger years

Favorite comfort food? Scrambled eggs with cheese

What's always in your refrigerator? Milk. We're big on dairy; we lived on a farm for years.

Must-see TV? Okay, maybe this is the thing people would be most surprised about. My husband and I love The Osbournes. We are also huge Saturday Night Live fans, have been since our college days.

Favorite cartoon? SpongeBob, of course

Describe a perfect day. One with six extra hours in it

Walter Mitty fantasy? Playing cello with the Dave Matthews Band

Who'd play you in the movie? My students know me best; maybe one of them.

Most embarrassing moment? When I found out that my slip had shown rather obviously as I conducted when I was extremely pregnant and wearing a maternity dress. Why didn't someone tell me?

Best advice you ever got? Check your slip in the mirror before you hit the stage.

Favorite bumper sticker? Bush/Cheney '04: No Child Left Untested

Laura Mulligan Thomas