Across the world, dedicated musicians have helped nurture the talents of new generations of young performers in the classical tradition through a variety of youth symphony orchestra experiences. These organizations, regardless of their location, share a set of common goals: to train young men and women in the rigors of musical interpretation while helping them develop vital life skills such as cooperation, self-discipline, goal-setting, and professionalism.
Here are summaries of the histories and work of only a few of the world’s many youth orchestras active today:
1. The Children’s Orchestra Society
In 1962, Dr. Hiao-Tsiun Ma established the Children’s Orchestra Society (COS) as a means of teaching children to appreciate and perform music, and to understand the values of collaboration and teamwork. Since then, the New York-based nonprofit organization has transformed the lives of numerous young people by helping them gain skills in musicianship and performance that have had lasting positive effects on their lives. Thanks to the training COS offers, young musicians can perform at high levels as members of groups dedicated to classical and chamber music, and play alongside established adult performers.
The COS continues to operate under the principles of its founder. Dr. Ma, a musicologist and teacher in his native China and in the West, was the father of world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and of Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, who currently heads the COS. The society’s child-centered philosophy aims to provide a supportive environment optimized for the unfolding of each student’s own innate musical gifts, with parts written specifically to enhance individual competencies.
2. The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra
The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra was founded in 1999. Originally funded with grant monies from the local Jewish Community Federation, the organization—then known as the Los Angeles Jewish Youth Orchestra—focused on Jewish-themed liturgical and other music. Its mission soon widened to include performance of the full range of music from the world’s musical heritage, both classical and contemporary.
Under the leadership of composer and music director Russell Steinberg, who arranged several symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn and created original compositions specifically for the group, its musicians’ talents blossomed.
As its repertoire grew and diversified, so did the orchestra’s membership. By 2003, its performers included some five dozen students from a variety of backgrounds and representing about 50 Los Angeles-area high schools. In acknowledgement of this broader focus, that year Steinberg renamed the group the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. In 2008, the group earned official nonprofit status.
Since its debut, the LAYO has hosted West Coast and world premieres of a number of original compositions. Its schedule includes regular public performances, and it has planned a 2019 Argentina Tour, in which its members will perform four concerts in Buenos Aires, including an outreach concert in one of the city’s most poverty-stricken communities.
3. Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras
The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras has served the community as a nonprofit group providing music and performance education since 1946. Today, CYSO works with hundreds of young people from the primary grades through high school. These youth take part in a variety of ensembles including four full-scale orchestras, several string orchestras, jazz and steel orchestras, and chamber music groups.
Prominent Chicagoland professional musicians serve as teachers and mentors to the youth as they train to present major performances. Former CYSO participants have gone on to distinguished careers in music and other fields. Many today perform in well-known orchestras and other ensembles around the world, while others have used the skills they learned with CYSO to become lawyers, physicians, and community leaders.
Thanks to CYSO’s Community Partnership Programs, more than 8,000 young people have had the opportunity to gain musical training through neighborhood-based groups and through other venues over the course of the 2017-2018 season. These programs focus particularly on serving youth in under-resourced parts of the community, with the goal of making a strong music education a core part of the life of every Chicagoan.
4. The New York Youth Symphony
The New York Youth Symphony was founded in 1963 to highlight the talents of young people ages 12 to 22. Today, after winning numerous awards and earning praise as one of the most prestigious of the world’s youth orchestras, the symphony continues its program of preparing young people for careers in music, and for becoming lifelong students of—and advocates for—the art.
Over the half-century and more of its existence, the New York Youth Symphony has benefited from the guidance of world-renowned music directors. It has also served as the training ground for some of today’s most in-demand composers and performers, and has for almost 35 years actively commissioned new compositions from young musicians themselves.
5. The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura
In Paraguay, young people with few material resources have established themselves as a remarkable orchestra playing exquisite music on instruments made from garbage. The 2016 documentary film Landfill Harmonic takes viewers inside the creation of this extraordinary youth orchestra, founded by renowned maestro Luis Szaran and led by music director Favio Chavez for the benefit of the children living in the slum of Cateura, Paraguay.
The orchestra has thrived thanks to the dedication of Szaran, Chavez, and a local recycler whose family has sustained itself by collecting and recycling trash. Now, the area’s youth have become skilled musicians playing violins, double bass, wind instruments, and more, all made from scrap metal, old barrels, discarded spoons and buttons, and other trash. And Szaran’s organization, Sonidos de la Tierra, or “Sounds of the Earth,” continues as an instrument workshop and worldwide musical touring ensemble supporting the orchestra.
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Photo used under Creative Commons from Marina K Caprara