When I was about 12 years old, I used a good deal of the money I had saved up to buy myself a $150 violin. This marked a moment of tension between my mom and I- she reasonably assumed my desire to learn the violin would be a short-lived child’s urge, while I felt a magnetic pull to it that I had never felt to any other hobby: not ice skating, not tap dance, not even horseback riding. You know something is a big deal to a little girl when she values it over horses.
I took to it like a duck to water, carrying it around everywhere and playing Twinkle Twinkle on day 1. My mom wisely decided that I needed lessons and signed me up with a kind and gentle private teacher. My teacher knew that I was playing the violin in my school band, but she urged the importance of joining the Sacramento Youth Symphony as soon as possible so I could play with other string students in a proper orchestral setting. At that point in my life, I was shy and underconfident, so I hesitated- but with the support of my family and teacher, I signed up to audition. “Putting myself out there” in this way may have been one of the most vital turning points of my life. Playing in a youth symphony is a hugely positive experience that serves as an integral part of becoming a professional musician.
Some positive experiences of playing in the youth symphony include all of the big events my orchestras attended. When I was in the Academic String Orchestra of SYS, the whole orchestra loaded onto a bus and took an all-day field trip to multiple elementary schools and old folks’ homes in the Sacramento area. At each school, my conductor Mr. Angelo Moreno introduced the assembly of children to each instrument and how they worked, followed by a performance of a few of our pieces and a chance for one lucky child to try conducting us. Some of my orchestra-mates found the pizza lunch to be the best part of the day, but I most enjoyed the look of wonder in each child’s eyes as they heard a live orchestra for possibly the first time, igniting some unknown passion just as I experienced mere years prior.
As I mentioned earlier, being a part of the Academic orchestra introduced me to Angelo Moreno, one of the best violinists and conductors I have ever worked with in my life. He was the stereotypical “scary” conductor with big hair and “a little red friend” (his tempo block that he brought to each rehearsal and banged on loud enough for the whole venue to hear.) Although terrified of him, my mom convinced me to switch teachers and start private lessons with him. At the time, I was in the middle of the second violins section, but I had distant dreams of becoming a concertmaster. After a few mere months of lessons with him and hours and hours of painstaking practice at home, I became a first violin, then a front-stand first violin, and then- a concertmaster. Thus, the shy student (with encouragement and others believing in her) learned how to believe in herself and become a leader.
Of course, playing in a youth symphony offers a plethora of technical improvements. The number of hours playing your instrument greatly increases. The number of hours you practice increases. The peers around you offer positive pressure to play your best and know your part, so you don’t become “that person” that the conductor needs to stop rehearsal and teach their part to. You learn proper ensemble etiquette and how to follow section leaders and conductors. Your repertoire and music literature education greatly increase. You gain valuable audition and performance experience. Finally, colleges love young musicians who have put in the sheer amount of hard work needed to be successful in a prestigious youth symphony.
However, what makes the youth symphony experience so special may be the personal aspects of it. Just about every old friend I have was made through being in a band, marching band, or orchestra together. Many of these friends took time out of their schedules to come to watch me perform. I’ll always owe immense love and gratitude to my grandma and grandpa and mom, who have attended every single concert I’ve ever performed in. Their loving presence made the exhibit of my hard work far more gratifying.
In addition, my immediate family always drove out to Sac State with me for the annual audition to place students in the appropriate orchestra (Sacramento Youth Symphony has numerous ensembles of different experience levels and instrumentation.) The whole car ride there, I would sit in complete silence from the sheer force of nervousness inside me. My family would talk cheerfully and try to distract me. They would walk into the building with me and sit with me in the dreaded “next in line to audition” seats. After I auditioned, we would all get a smoothie or insanely sugary espresso drink to celebrate. I felt the love. I’ll never forget the feeling of getting my acceptance letter in the mail and reading, “Congratulations, you have been accepted into…”
Participating in an ensemble is a huge commitment. It requires hours of practice, miles in the car, and a fee for tuition. You may feel suffocating nervousness before auditions, disappointment after not being accepted in your ideal ensemble, or just plain weariness. However, you will also feel some of the greatest joys that come with being a constantly improving musician- ecstasy and love after performing for your family in a big hall, pride when you read that congratulatory letter, intrinsic motivation to work hard, and the pure joy of sharing your gift. Big events, technical progress, and personal development and joys illustrate the importance of playing in a youth ensemble. There are ensembles out there for every age, experience level, and instrument, so take the leap and sign up to audition for one now. It may be one of the best decisions you ever make.