As Executive Director of a music education organization, I am often asked to explain why classical music is important for children today. Our young musicians play music viewed by many as not having a place in contemporary society. And the assumed career path it puts them on, being a professional musician in an orchestra, just leads to a job in a declining industry with very few job prospects.
At Youth Orchestras of San Antonio (YOSA) we provide extracurricular opportunities for young musicians from all parts of San Antonio, giving them the opportunity to learn what is often perceived as an outdated, old-fashioned, out-of-touch art form.
So why is it that the number of YOSA students has swelled in recent years and that the passion and enthusiasm I hear from our musicians is almost deafening? Why do those involved in our programs care so deeply about the musical experiences they have, taking to Facebook to exclaim their excitement after every performance?
Music, I believe, has a unique place to play in the make-up of every one of us. My former boss, Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St. Clair, summed it up succinctly: “Music is a birthright.”
In this short statement, he tugged at the core of what each of us knows to be true. A world where music has been removed is simply unimaginable. It is all around us, playing critical roles in every movie and TV commercial we watch, having a place in every ceremony from the church service on Sunday morning to the inauguration of the President. Music provides us with that moment of reflection when we listen to a song that carries special meaning to us. Music is a central part of how humans connect to one another, communicate their passion and feelings, and express their beliefs.
It's this connection that pervades through the experiences of those students in YOSA. Being part of an orchestra playing a definitive work of art puts you in a very special place.
You have spent years learning to play your instrument. It is a never-ending pursuit towards an unachievable goal—but you continue to strive. You challenge every part of yourself both mentally and physically. There is the fact that you must perform mathematical arithmetic as you analyze chord structure, count intervals, and figure out complex rhythms. Your knowledge of history is expanded as you learn about the context of when the music was written, the motivations of the composer, the political environment in which they lived and worked.
Appreciation for other art forms are developed as you delve into the inspiration the composer found in contemporary literature, visual art, and philosophy of that time. All around you are 100 young musicians, who have taken the same journey of learning you have, but right now in the performance you must coordinate, to the smallest millisecond, your physical actions.
Bow strokes must match; breath and articulation through your instrument must align perfectly; the strike on the timpani is the final sonic explosion to a crescendo that has built through the entire orchestra—and everyone is relying on you to time your entrance perfectly. And lest we forget, all these pieces must come together to produce a “passionate” performance. We must somehow hear what you really feel about the music. Your creativity must shine through.
An example of one of those Facebook posts after the YOSA Philharmonic performance, Brahms Reimagined (part of the city-wide Brahms Festival of concert) reads:
“I love everyone. I was able to play an amazing YOSA concert with my best friends and it was one of the most fun concerts I’ve ever played. And the Brahms was so awesome, oh my gosh we are amazing you guys.
“On a side note, I’ve been accepted to the UNT school of music and UT Austin Butler School of Music. I’m gonna be a performance major.”
This reaction was typical of the obvious enthusiasm among the YOSA Philharmonic students that night.
The other myth to debunk, along with the fact that young people don’t enjoy classical music, is who these students are. This group consists of 114 students who hail from all parts of the city, residing in 47 different zip codes and representing 53 different schools. The majority are high school students, but their full age range stretches from 11 to 21. One third of them are Hispanic. One third of them need some level of tuition assistance to be able to participate. And all of them go to college after graduating from high school. They truly represent their city in everyway and are the kids you are craving to be proud of.
When you hear this description, the alignment between the experiences a quality music education provides for a child and the attributes we desire of young people graduating from high school and college, seem obvious.
The education and skills of playing in an orchestra translate to the desire of businesses leaders who are looking for well-rounded individuals who display the ability to work within a team environment but have developed a unique skill-set with an understanding of how they can contribute to a larger goal. Or to employers seeking motivated individuals who possess drive and determination alongside critical-thinking skills that can further the vision of company X or organization Y. I see the social skills, camaraderie, and commitment needed for these young musicians to grow to be a valued and contributing member of society.
YOSA provides this environment for hundreds of young people in San Antonio every week. Our five orchestras, the Summer Symphony Camp, the innovative Music After School program (YOSA MÁS), and our numerous School Partnerships, seek to provide a place for each student to combine their passion with a new level of learning.
These students understand that they are not only furthering their own development and education, but they are already contributing to the make-up of the city in which we live.
The YOSA Philharmonic (which consists of the most advanced high school music students from Bexar County and beyond) performs at the Majestic Theatre, with nationally recognized soloists. They have performed premieres by important composers, have been invited to play at Mayor Castro’s State of the City address, taken part in Fiesta events, and in recent years have represented San Antonio oversees, traveling to China, Russia, Estonia, Finland, and England. The fun more casual spin-off group, the YOSA Pop-Up Orchestra, has appeared on stage at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, and has made a number of viral YouTube hits giving classical parodies of pop hits.
And if all this just sounds like a lot of fun—it is! These kids are having a blast while at the same time putting time and effort into something that has serious long-term pay-offs. That is why music matters. And why, after 63 years, YOSA continues to serve our community’s young musicians.
Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group performs communications consulting services for the San Antonio Symphony, but does not publish any sponsored stories on the Rivard Report site.
Steven Payne is Executive Director of YOSA (Youth Orchestras of San Antonio), which provides more then 1,500 young musicians with premier orchestral experiences. It’s mission is to enhance education, enrich the community, and transform lives by pursuing excellence in classical music in a stimulating, nurturing, and fun environment that is equally accessible to all youth. He also serves as Chair of the Youth Orchestra Division Board of the League of American Orchestras and was recently awarded the San Antonio Business Journal 40 under 40 Award.