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Programming for Youth Orchestras

As many of us did, I was fortunate as a young musician to have a number of incredible experiences playing in youth orchestras. These opportunities fueled my love of music and led to my inevitable decision to pursue conducting. (Thank you Leo, David, and Alasdair!) A couple of weeks after graduating from my Masters Degree, I won an audition as the conductor of a six month old youth orchestra in Connecticut just outside of New York. During and after that position, I worked with a few more youth orchestras around the New York region which kept me quite busy and (thankfully) employed for a number of years. That is, until I met Kurt Masur (but that is a whole other article). While I was fortunate that my experiences playing in youth orchestras helped me get my first few jobs as a conductor, they did not prepare me for the many decisions that one has to make in these roles, nor did they teach me how to approach many of the challenges that come along with such a position. My goal for this article is to help you avoid many pitfalls that I experienced at the beginning of my career and to make a few suggestions as you navigate your first job.

First, congratulations! It is an incredible opportunity to influence the next generation of musicians and citizens while also paying back (or at least paying forward) the many, many music educators and conductors who helped you get to where you are today. Don’t take this responsibility lightly and remember that you will always learn as much from them as they will (hopefully) learn from you. I firmly believe that my professional conducting career benefited greatly from my podium time with the many youth orchestras I worked with. Here are a few examples of this as we tackle our first topic: Programming.

Program what you love

This sounds obvious and is probably what you are most looking forward to as you begin your new position. Students will fall in love with the pieces that you love for the same reasons that you did when you were their age. This is highly motivating and inspiring. They need your passionate advocacy for this music so that when you ask for tough things in rehearsal and expect at home practicing, they do it to avoid disappointing you or their colleagues by not being prepared. Of course, musicians get a lot of great information from their school ensembles and their private teachers, but I have found the following to be universally true: What students remember most from their time in youth orchestra are the moments when their conductor tells a personal story that is meaningful to them about a piece. To reveal something beautiful about the composer inspires students to give a passionate and (almost) professional performance. Strive to program music that you are personally connected to and of composers you love. These compositions will provide numerous teaching opportunities and will be much more meaningful than a piece that you ‘should’ program, or one that your Executive Director or Board wants you to program. Your connection to the music and composers are extremely important in your first years on the job.

Program for the musicians you have

This is important for a number of reasons and can be seen from both sides of ‘the numbers’. If you have too few musicians to pull off a piece that you really want to do, then it doesn’t feel organic or fair to the musicians. As they see ‘ringers’ on stage when the concert approaches, they will wonder why those musicians get to hop in at the last minute when the organization is ‘so tough’ on attendance. Also, the concert suffers because the new musicians don’t get the benefit of the longer rehearsal process the others experience as you deepen their connection to the music.

If you have too few musicians and still want to perform a specific piece, then I would suggest to be creative and do the work! With my first youth orchestra of 23 musicians, we had only one trumpet, one horn, and two trombones. In order to do a classical symphony with them, I simply wrote the second horn and second trumpet parts out for my trombone players! This was a constant occurrence for my smaller youth orchestras and summer festivals. Of course today, as we ALL move on from Covid-19 and program social distanced repertoire, these creative juices will be paramount to the successful recovery at all organizations in our industry.

As far as having too many musicians on the roster, I would recommend doing your very best to make sure each musician performs on at least one or two compositions. For example, while you may not use the harps, tuba, or additional percussionists on every piece on a concert, you can balance their usage over the course of the concert and the course of the season. It is important to remember that these musicians are paying as much tuition as the other musicians and parents will expect them to be used whenever possible. So, if you decide to program a Brahms Symphony during a season, great! Perhaps consider Brahms 2 which uses tuba instead of the contrabassoon? Also, be sure to do pieces on the first half that use a lot of percussion and harp. Perhaps a contemporary or 20th century overture paired with a nice Debussy or Ravel piece like the Petite Suite or Mother Goose Suite? Of course, if you have many percussionists in your organization, a great way to keep them occupied is to start a percussion ensemble. Most likely, your percussion coach would love to do this - especially if you occasionally feature these students along with the top orchestra in concert.

Program for the level of group that you have

This is a simple one, but one that gets lost as our younger selves get more and more excited about programming repertoire with your first group. However, I really cannot stress this enough: program pieces that are at the level of your group! If you program compositions that are too challenging for the orchestra, then the entire rehearsal process will be unnecessarily difficult and off-putting to your young musicians. The last thing you want is for your musicians to feel embarrassed after a show or feel like you are disappointed. Ultimately, if a concert goes poorly, it is your fault. So, make sure that the difficulty of the repertoire is not the reason! That being said, every concert should have at least one ‘reach piece’ that the orchestra needs to step up to in order to achieve. Be sure that there is only one such piece and that the other works are commensurately less difficult to pull off.

Programming as a teaching tool

Over the course of your season, you will want to use the repertoire you choose to strengthen the orchestra both musically and technically. Here are the different categories that you need to include - and why!

  • Periods - Expose young musicians to at least one piece by a major composer of each major period. This is hugely important to the development of the orchestra musicians and for you as well! When you program a Mozart or Haydn Symphony, it is fantastic for musicians to live in and learn that style of playing. It is equally important for you to explore your ability to rehearse, interpret, and conduct that kind of music . The same will go for all other major periods. You might love the core romantic repertoire, but you can’t have meat and potatoes at every meal, nor should your musicians!

  • Styles - It is not only important to explore the different periods of classical music, but also be certain that your season represents the many different regions where western classical music flourished. A quick checklist: French, Russian, Scandinavian, English, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, Austrian, German, and American (North, Central, & South). This bulks up the styles you will have as a part of your repertoire list but also introduces these young ears to musical languages that they may never have heard of before. Finally, it gives students a similar opportunity to stretch their technique as they attempt to achieve different sound worlds through their instruments.

  • Diversity - Remember to include music that represents both historical and living composers of diverse backgrounds! Please refer to Everything Conducting team member Anna Edwards’ articles and her database for suggestions on programming. These can all be found on our website.

  • Fundamentals - Aside from the above categories, it is extremely important that the pieces you choose have a teaching component to them, especially at the beginning of the season and in your first few seasons. For example, think about doing pieces that are rhythmically driven early on. This will force them to count and keep the tempo as an orchestra so that any tendency to slow gets taken care of at the beginning of your tenure. I have programmed The Chairman Dances by John Adams for this purpose. While the Adams is very difficult for a young group, there are other modern or minimalist compositions that would work well. Even the right Mozart piece would be wonderful for this! Other vital or important fundamentals to program for are:

    • Listening skills

    • Mixed meters

    • Tuning

    • Phrasing or lyrical passage work

    • Extreme instrument ranges

    • Working with individual orchestra sections ( i.e. producing the right string sound)

    • Easier pieces that give opportunities to your non-principal woodwind and brass players

In every case above, the other parts of the pieces should be more straightforward. Meaning, if you are programming a piece where you want to work on a lush and beautiful string sound, then be sure that the key is fairly easy and is not rhythmically challenging. This makes it so the goal of that piece is clear and easy to work on without getting distracted. Finally, over the course of the season, you should make sure you show a trajectory that checks as many of “the boxes” above as possible and culminates in a showpiece that the orchestra will be proud to perform and also give everyone the opportunity to be on stage.

Program for the audience

Program for the audience and rehearse for the audience! I once told an assistant conductor of mine to go into the concert hall during rehearsal and write down everything that parents might be able to hear was wrong or at least did not sound great. I asked him to listen as if he was not a musician and did not know the piece well. Frankly, he was confused, but I was serious. Parents have to buy in. It is your job to sell the piece they are about to hear, which means you need to speak at every performance. The repertoire should be part of an experience that they will have post consumer satisfaction about. Parents/guardians pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time to give their children lessons and opportunities like youth orchestras (don’t forget to thank them at every performance!). It is our job also to make them realize that their investment is a good one. The best two ways you can demonstrate that is 1) when the kids are excitedly talking about the rehearsal they just had in the car on the way home and 2) at the concerts!

Program for yourself

This is the only time I will advocate your experience over that of the musicians. Over my nearly two decades of conducting youth orchestras, summer festivals, community orchestras, all-states, and the like, I rarely programmed a piece more than once. When I say rarely, I can honestly tell you that I repeated a single piece of repertoire (even between different groups in different states) no more than a handful of times over my many years conducting these types of groups. Why? There is a simple answer. Our job as conductors is to learn repertoire, live and work through the compositions of great composers, and consume as many pieces as we can while we are young and still growing. Opportunities where you can learn about a style, composer, or piece of music while conducting it for the first time (before you take it to the next group) are priceless. That being said, there are so many wonderful pieces out there that you do not have to repeat too much AND students will still get an amazing experience, especially if you keep the above principals in mind. Trust me, you can do all of this and still find pieces that you simply love, may have played in youth orchestra, have assisted or covered before, but have never actually conducted. Finding great repertoire is not hard and is an incredibly fun process!

In Conclusion

This is an incredibly exciting time in your career! It is a thrill to conduct a Beethoven Symphony with musicians who have never played it before. To explore his genius in real time, together... How lucky are you? Remember that 23-member youth orchestra in Connecticut I was talking about? Well, it grew to over 100 students playing in three different ensembles before I left. Student musicians from my time there went to schools like Yale, Columbia, Juilliard and Oberlin and now play in orchestras like the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Louisiana Philharmonic. Others are doctors, lawyers, teachers, chamber musicians, and community organizers (as well as other important professions). So, we do have a great responsibility when we work with young people in any situation. What a gift!

Now that we have explored some principals in programming your youth orchestra, we will next tackle a number of other issues in future articles including: auditions, seating, dealing with parents, working with the board, recruiting, fundraising, and other best practices when building and running your first youth orchestra. Until then, happy programming!



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