Youth orchestras: killing two stereotypes at once

Berkeley Youth Orchestra

Berkeley Youth Orchestra beginning bass class

Young people these days can’t be pried away from their cell phones. They’re lazy and undisciplined. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype.

Classical music is just about dead according to obituaries that seem to appear in magazine articles and well-read blogs every year.

No one cares about such old-fashioned music except an increasingly aging population. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype.

Don’t be fooled. Youth orchestras all over the country (and all over the world, for that matter, in case the stereotypes cross international borders) work very hard to polish performances of the standard orchestral repertoire. They love the music, and they work hard to master it, taking lessons, practicing, and attending rehearsals (including sectional rehearsals). 

And those cell phones? Teenagers’ musical experience is not limited to music videos and rock stars. Even teens who would never think of listening to classical music hear the orchestral sound as backdrops to games they can play on their mobile devices.

Just from my own experience, “Catapult King” opens with two different short orchestral pieces while the game is loading. “Pearl’s Peril” has music, mostly orchestral, in the background for playing all the scenes, working the jigsaw puzzles, and other aspects of the game. Pieces include a minuet and a landler. The sound of the standard orchestral repertoire would not be foreign to anyone who plays these games.

The Syracuse Youth Orchestra released a video looking back on their 2014/2015 season. It gives several of the members a chance to express their enjoyment of the music and the comradery of being in the orchestra.

That video has music in the background while the musicians are speaking. For an uninterrupted performance, here’s the Louisiana Youth Orchestra performing Morton Gould’s American Salute—a very tricky piece to play.

And where do youth orchestra members come from? Children’s orchestras. With more and more schools cutting back on music programs in a misguided attempt to save money, it’s up to outsiders to take up the slack.

Susan Pascale moved from Long Island to Los Angeles in 2001 and tried to enroll her children in the school orchestra. There was no school orchestra. Determined to provide an orchestral experience for her children and others, she spoke with other parents in the school yard and offered to give free violin classes. Twenty-five children signed up.
That was the beginning of the Pascale Music Institute and its three ensembles, including the Los Angeles Children’s Orchestra (LACO). The orchestra is all strings. Elementary school bands are more common than school orchestras. Wind players can start there in fourth or fifth grade. Actually, string players usually begin much younger than that.

In 2015 the LACO competed in America’s Got Talent. Here is a video of their performance in the second round, playing the Beatles’ tune “Eleanor Rigby” with some pretty spectacular choreography, including a marching cello section. The judges unanimously passed them on to the next round.

Success of performances of classical music on America’s Got Talent does not require choreography and other antics. In 2010 then 10-year old Jackie Evancho was runner up, and all she did for her final performance was stand in front of a microphone and sing “O mio babbion caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

Here are some of my other articles about young people and classical music.

Children and classical music
Children and classical music revisited
Children, music education, and opera
Education at the Eastern Music Festival
Opera rocks: Jackie Evancho’s new album
Student chamber music at the Eastern Music Festival

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