Playing Mahler in an Eminem world

Youth orchestras overflow with serious talent. But will they have an audience in the future?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

What's the most difficult college to get into (that doesn't prepare students to defend America's coast)?

No, it's not Harvard, Stanford, or MIT. It's The Juilliard School in Manhattan, a premier training ground for tomorrow's classical musicians. The competition is so intense that just 9 percent of applicants are accepted each year. (Only the Coast Guard Academy accepts a smaller percentage.)

Across the United States, thousands of teens lugged violins and trumpets, even bulky harps and double basses to music camps this summer – and will be playing them in school and private youth orchestras this fall. Many have a goal of getting into a top conservatory like Juilliard. Some 400 private youth orchestras alone are home to 50,000 young classical musicians.

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These children and teens range from those with broad interests to those who are already single-mindedly committed to pursuing a professional career. In a world where the TV and radio airwaves are filled with the sounds of Eminem and Lil' Kim, not Mendelssohn and Mahler, they're committing themselves to an art form that some say has an uncertain future. But as the audience for classical music grays and sales of classical recordings slide, a look at a sampling of these young players reveals a brighter picture: Musicians who are in love with and committed to performing the music that has helped define Western civilization over the centuries.

Since pop culture is devoid of this kind of music, these youngsters needed someone or something – a parent, teacher, or school program – to open up the world of classical music to them. For Erin Arai, it happened over a meal.

'My parents rented me a harp'

Erin first heard the harp being played in a dining room at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen or ever heard," she says. "I was about 11. I asked my mom if I could try that. But it's really an expensive instrument.... So we waited until I was 13, and my parents rented me a harp for four months and gave me a few lessons. And it just took off from there."

Her dad and mother both play some piano, and they "love to listen" to classical music. "I've always had classical music around me," Erin says. "I wanted to make it instead of just listening to it."

"It's a sad day if I can only play an hour," says the 15-year-old harpist from Andover, Mass.

Asked if her musical tastes extend beyond classical music, she replies, "I love salsa and mambo. I'm not too big a fan of pop music." And, say, Britney Spears? "No, not at all! Gag!"

Those who might wonder where the classical musicians of the future will come from need only wander into a school like the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, where Erin attends a summer program, to see that the pipeline of talent is overflowing. The real question, observers say, is how many professional orchestras will there be for them to play in – and will there be an audience to listen?

"There are more really, really qualified artists coming out of the conservatories than there are professional entities to hire them," says Polly Kahn, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. The quality of playing in youth orchestras and conservatories is "astonishing," she says, resulting in a level of new talent available to professional orchestras that is "fantastically high."

The training available today in the US is superb, drawing students from around the world. "Most people would concede it has never been stronger than now," she says, even though she concedes that can't be proved objectively. The system "feeds on itself" as great players in turn teach the next generation.

While many of the top-level teens train privately outside public schools, even classrooms have seen a modest comeback in support of music programs. "We're probably at the level we were about 20 years ago, which is a pretty healthy level," says Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the Music Educators National Conference in Reston, Va.

'There was an open cello'

That's where Tara Hanish of East Lansing, Mich., was introduced to her instrument. When she was in grade school, a string ensemble of older students visited her public school classroom.

"They would let you try out the instruments after the concert," she says. "So I went up. Actually, I wanted to do violin, because my cousin played violin. But the line was so long. And there was an open cello," she says with a smile. Thus are life-changing decisions made.

After she tried the cello, "I loved it," she says. "I begged my parents to let me play it." Now 21, she's continuing her cello study on a full scholarship in graduate school at the University of Miami.

While there are no reliable national statistics on how many youths play in school orchestras, only about 18 percent of US public schools offer instruction in stringed instruments, according to a study by the American String Teachers Association and National School Orchestra Association.

Christopher Johnson's Boston school was among the 82 percent that didn't. Instead, the double bass player became involved through a private foundation, Project STEP, the String Training and Education Program, which helps young string players of color by providing instruments, instruction, performance experience, and career counseling.

Every STEP graduate has gone on to college or conservatory. Christopher's older brother first joined STEP and now studies viola at Indiana University. (Another younger brother also plays viola.) Christopher, who practices one to two hours a day and will attend NEC this fall, followed in his older brother's footsteps. His goal is "to play in a major orchestra."

Not all, or even many, of the young musicians will achieve that goal, Mr. Blakeslee says, but that's not the whole point. The students "are just better human beings for that experience," he says. "It stays with them for the rest of their lives." They learn discipline, he says, by taking part in a highly complex art form. They accomplish shared goals. And research suggests that participating in music leads to students doing better in other subjects.

Benjamin Zander, a conductor who has taught students at NEC for more than three decades, is another close observer who is bullish on the future of young classical musicians. "I'm a great believer that [interest in] classical music is about to explode into everybody's life. I'm not a believer in the dearth and end of classical music [in the next generation]. You'll have to talk with somebody else if you want to hear that story."

That doesn't mean it's a time to be "blasé," he cautions. "There are things that should worry us. People aren't learning music in schools" as much as they should.

But during his tenure at NEC he's "seen a colossal growth" in interest. Blakeslee suggests two possible reasons for such growth: Public schools are doing a better job in music education, and general affluence in the 1990s allowed parents to provide private instruction.

Today, NEC alone has nine youth orchestras, some so large the players nearly spill off the stage during performances. Though there's no Leonard Bernstein popularizing classical music for young people with televised concerts, Mr. Zander says the radio show "From the Top" is a modern equivalent. Broadcast on more than 230 stations, it reaches teens nationwide with a lighthearted approach to classical music that includes guests, quizzes, and performances by teenage musicians.

Still, serious music students, surrounded by talented peers, know that forging a professional career will be a mighty challenge. But just as a high school basketball star might dream of being Shaq or Kobe, teen cellists wonder if they could be the next Yo-Yo Ma.

Sixteen-year-old trumpeter Brian Kelley of Weston, Mass., is both a dreamer and a pragmatist. He'd like to play professionally, "if I was good enough.... But I don't know if I see that happening. It takes a lot of work, and there's still a lot of stuff I need to be better at."

'I thought it looked cool'

He took up the trumpet at age 10 when his public school offered instruction. He was handed pictures of instruments and chose the trumpet because "I thought it looked cool.... Then I started listening to it, and I liked the sound of it.

"I like playing trumpet in an orchestra because it's the loudest – you get to be heard," says Brian, who also attended an NEC summer program. But he admits, "There's still a lot of stuff I enjoy doing other than playing," including watching TV, going to movies, and competing on the high school swimming team.

He says he loves to listen to classical music, too. " I like Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak: Those are my favorites," he says. "They've just got a lot of mood."

But no matter what happens regarding a professional career, says Erin, the young harpist, playing in an orchestra has already touched her life. "It's a bonding experience," she says. "You really have to be completely in tune with the other [players], really aware and sensitive to what they do.... You learn to lock in to each other."

Thirteen and already on tour

María Jimena of Lima, Peru, might top five feet if she stood on her violin case. But the 13-year-old violinist already knows what she wants to do with her life.

"I would like to be a great soloist in the future," she says solemnly, as a interpreter turns her Spanish into English. "I am preparing and spending a lot of time on that goal."

María is one of 115 young musicians from 19 countries in North and South America, including 29 from the United States, who make up the first Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA).

The orchestra has just finished a six-country tour through the Americas that followed three weeks of intensive rehearsal at the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston.

Benjamin Zander, who teaches at NEC and conducts major orchestras, led YOA performances in Boston and Washington and was impressed. "It's really gorgeous playing," he says.

At the orchestra's Boston performance, "every piece got a roaring standing ovation," Mr. Zander says. "It was like a rock concert.... As long as we're putting [out] concerts like that, we shouldn't have to worry [about the future of classical music]."

For years, Mark Churchill, dean of the division of preparatory and continuing education at NEC, had cherished the idea of bringing together young musicians from across the Americas to create an orchestra. So had José Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan who formed a network of 117 youth orchestras across his country, a concept that has been imitated throughout Latin America. Their efforts were joined together in the founding of the YOA.

Private funding allows everyone chosen for the YOA to be on a full scholarship that pays all expenses. A panel of judges reviewed 300 videotaped auditions from young musicians, whose ages range from 13 to 23, in 33 countries before making the final selections.

In addition to Zander, Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted the orchestra at a performance at Wolf Trap outside Washington, D.C., and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma taught the orchestra the intricacies of Dvorak. The tour continued on to Mexico City; San José, Costa Rica; Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires; and Caracas, Venezuela.

Similar multinational youth orchestras exist in Europe and Asia, so it was "time for the Americas to have a youth orchestra," says Debra McKeon, the group's CEO. This year, as the YOA performs in each country, a member of the orchestra from that country leads the playing of the national anthem.

"Oh, we had no idea that was going to be so popular!" she says, smiling.

Though the students are serious musicians, that hasn't prevented them from having fun, Ms. McKeon says. "They dance the salsa ... everything.... I don't think they're missing anything."

Zander, meanwhile, says he couldn't be happier with them. "They play so beautifully," he says. During rehearsals, he hosted the group for a meal at his home near Boston. "They're so sweet – very enthusiastic and deep and happy."

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