My Time in Youth Symphony

In an attempt to go semi-chronologically here, I thought I’d talk about my time in the Kansas City Youth Symphony (7th grade-12th grade, or 1991-1997).  They have a website now! (Websites didn’t exist when I was in it.)

I auditioned at the end of my 6th grade year when I’d only been playing cello about a year. I was at first turned down becuase I wasn’t quite ready, but then they started a younger string group (I think that was the first year of the Junior Orchestra, later renamed Symphonette) and I was accepted into that. Then going into the 8th and 9th grade I played in the Middle (Philharmonic), and then for 10th grade I made Senior (Symphony). At the end of my junior year, I actually auditioned on both viola (which I had started playing about 4 months prior when I got one for Christmas) and cello. My plan was to play viola in Middle and continue on cello in Senior. Imagine my surprise when they put me on viola in Senior! Here i was playing Suzuki book 3 stuff and was given the full orchestra part to Symphonie fantastique. I took lessons (Thanks Carl Cook) and muddled my way through some pretty impressive literature. Actually, all 3 years I was in it I muddled my way through impressive literature.

It’s hard to know where to begin explaining what an impact that Youth Symphony had on me. Without it I probably would have dropped out of school orchestra (too boring), which would have been horrible in retrospect as that’s where the majority of my good friends in junior high and high school came from. I also made some AWESOME friends in youth symphony – people that I am still friends with on facebook. They are people I would not have met otherwise.

I also would not have practiced nearly as much, as I HAD to practice my youth symphony music or face Dr. Block’s wrath. (Which I did anyway – “can’t either of you Harris’ count??” after my brother and I both managed to mess up Der Rosenkavalier.)

It also made me aware of what “real” music was. The first piece we worked on at start up camp when I made senior orchestra was Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. I fell in love. I had no idea what real music was until I started learning that. It made such an impact on me I even did my 10th grade joint English/Social Studies research paper on Shosatkovich and loved learning all about his compositional style and run ins with the communist government. (Little did I know then that I would eventually get a graduate degree in musicology. It all makes sense now.) During the 3 years I was in that orchestra we also did Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 or 5 (I did one in YS and one in college…), Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 (Organ), Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, Sibelius Symphony No. 1, Stravinsky Firebird Suite, among a myriad of concerti and overtures, and of course the yearly Concert for Champions horse show (at which we always did the 1812 Overture). I have youth symphony to thank for me flooring my Music Lit teacher in college. We were talking about Symphonie fantastique and he mentioned it was written in 1833. I raised my hand and said, “Really? It sounds more like Tchaikovsky, late 1800’s. 1833 isn’t that long after Beethoven.” Needless to say he wrote me a GLOWING recommendation for graduate study in musicology.

I also got to go on 3 wonderful trips thanks to youth symphony, including my first trip out of the country. In 1995 or 1996 we went to Banff (in Canada) to play at a festival. I had an amazing time. Then, in 1997 I got to play in Carnegie Hall (and tour New York City, of course). It was a trip I will never forget. The following year, even though I was in college already, the symphony was asked to send some musicians for a youth orchestra to play in Carnegie Hall. They needed violas, so I volunteered (as I was still 19). (Thanks to my brother for still being in the orchestra!) Another amazing trip.

So, did youth symphony have an impact on my life? Yes. Just a few months ago I got all kinds of excited when the community orchestra I’m a ringer for called and asked me to play on their upcoming concert and told me they were doing the Organ Symphony. Who gets excited about stuff like that? Orchestra nerds, that’s who! Would I be a music teacher today without having been in youth symphony? It’s hard to say, but my guess is no. Chances are I would have gone into journalism or biology out of high school.

And I’d probably be making more money now, but wouldn’t be nearly as happy with my job. 🙂

How I Got Into Music

Most of my students have asked me at one time or another, “when did you start playing [insert instrument]?”  Well, here’s the long answer.

Like many of the composers I lecture about in my music appreciation classes, I was “born into a musical family.” My mother is a musician (a flutist/piccolist with a music ed degree). It wasn’t really a question of “are you going to play an instrument?” growing up. It was more “what instrument are you going to play and when are you going to start playing it?” I was actually shocked in school to find out that not everyone played music. I thought it was a given like eating and sleeping. (Not sure how I came to that conclusion since my dad doesn’t play an instrument, but you know – 5 year old logic.)

At 5 I started rather informal piano lessons with my mother, on the piano that is now sitting directly behind me right now in my studio at Notable Beginnings. I got through a blue or green Bastien piano book before she threw in the towel. To this day I distincly remember “Indian Dance” and wonder if they’ve renamed it to be more socially conscious since 1984.

After my stint on piano, my mother decided to try me out on flute. She even got me the curved headjoint. As you can probably surmise since I’m a cellist, that didn’t last too long. I have a bit more of a stronger personality than my mom and we didn’t mesh well as teacher/student.

So, the next step was to have me decide what I wanted to play. Mom took me “in the pit” with her for a summer musical rehearsal. My job was to look around and pick which instrument I wanted to play. I chose the violin, and thus, my bowed string career began.

Mom got me violin lessons – I was 7 years old, in a class of maybe three other 5 year old beginners. And I loved it. And I feel I was pretty good at it. 🙂 You’ll have to ask Mom about my practice habits back then, but I don’t have any bad memories about them. My teacher, I believe, was a lady named Miss Maria.

My school program started in 5th grade. By that time I’d already been playing for 3 years, give or take. I played with the 6th grade orchestra that year. Problem occured the next year, when I was in 6th grade, I had to repeat it since I couldn’t go the the junior high for orchestra. So, I decided to try out the cello instead of playing violin again. And that, as they say, is history.

After a year of cello in school and switching to cello lessons, my mom had me (and probably my little brother – I don’t remember) go to the local youth orchestra concert (Kansas City Youth Symphony). It was amazing. I couldn’t believe that those were all kids playing!! I tried out for the program, but was initially rejected – I just wasn’t at that level yet. But alas, they ended up starting a lower level string orchestra that year (for my 7th grade year) and I was invited to join it. Playing in a (good) orchestra was the beginning of my first, and longest running, love affair and introduced me to my soul mates Tchaikovsky and Brahms. (I’ll write about my youth symphony experiences another time – they deserve a separate post explaing WHY you NEED to join your local youth orchestra.)

Moving through to high school, I was once again bitten by the “I want to learn a new instrument bug” my junior year. I asked for a viola for Christmas that year. (Who does that? What other 17 year old wants a viola for Christmas??) Over the years I’ve also done time on tenor sax (to play in concert band in college), oboe (I needed another credit hour to keep my scholarships my last semester of undergrad, so I took oboe lessons), guitar (on and off and for a musical in 2005), and I own a mandolin and am really good at playing the Vivaldi a minor concerto on it, as well as anything from suzuki violin books 1-4. I’ve also sung in many choirs, church choirs, etc. but have never done voice lessons. I’m positive that I’m one of those annoying church altos who belts out random harmony parts (and is super-bitter that the hymnals disappeared).

I know I’m biased, but I really think that the arts (not just music) are critical to having a well-rounded education. Especially for someone like me who isn’t a STEM person. How horrible it would have been for me to go through school from ages 5-18 having to focus on subjects I really didn’t like and wasn’t that great at. But that’s another topic…..

And I have just begun this journey again, but as the parent of a 5 (almost 6) year old piano student…