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Youth Orchestra teaches much more than music

Steven Jarvi St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra
St. Louis Symphony

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Yo-Yo Ma sat in with the St. Louis Symphony’s Youth Orchestra during a recent visit.

Ostensibly, the famed cellist was to share his expertise with his instrument and the deciphering of the language that is classical music with some of St. Louis’ most accomplished young musicians. Here was the opportunity for these young performers to glean insight into pitch or orchestration, concepts of dexterity or tidbits of timing, thoughts of theme.

Instead, Steven Jarvi, Youth Orchestra music director, said that Ma challenged them with a single yet daunting question:

“‘What can you do with your talent to make your community better? Your country, your world?’” Jarvi related. “He said, ‘What can you do with your instrument to change the world?’”

The question is at once unanswerable and eye opening, the sort that Jarvi and youth orchestra manager Jessica Ingraham see as a subtext to the music lessons they impart to their students.

Of course, the students learn technique: How to make the right note at the right time sound pure or haunting; how to channel their feelings, their passions into the sounds they create with their instruments; how to convey the joy and sorrow of the piece of music they are playing.

Life lessons

But Ingraham acknowledges that method, precision and even music theory are not the only lessons here.

“We do have a hidden curriculum imbedded in the program,” she said.

In truth, membership in the St. Louis Youth Orchestra teaches various concepts all at once, harmonizing epiphanies of pitch and tempo with life lessons that will assist these students to communicate, collaborate and contribute to society.

Clearly, this is not your ordinary group of young people. For one thing, they range in age from 12 to 22. (How many 22 year olds relish hanging out with 12 year olds, consider them peers and friends?)

In some ways, the age difference provides its own message.

“It is competitive to get into the orchestra and it is important to have that competitive nature,” Ingraham said. “But we also strive to make it not overly competitive. If I have four clarinet players and one is struggling, it is so important that they work together and help each other, so that everyone succeeds.”

Success in an orchestra can be elusive at times, especially because of the nature of many musical performances, Ingraham said.

“We have all personality types, and some kids take themselves very seriously,” she said. “They can be so hard on themselves because they are striving for perfection.

Learn to trust

With 110 students, the experience also teaches students about themselves and their responsibilities to others.

Jarvi creates specific lessons to help students learn to trust their own abilities and at the same time work together with their fellow musicians, both in their section and outside of it.

In one exercise, he plays his own version of musical chairs in which the students “scramble” and do not sit with anyone in their own section. Mixing the violins with the piccolos forces each artist to learn how to play her part in a larger group but also how she fits into that larger group.

It is a lesson in context that reveals self-discovery as well as place and time, not unlike a lesson in the succession of composers and the perspective and attitudes that influenced their compositions and generations after them.

Much like politicians or writers, music composers, as well as musicians, developed a taste and aesthetic based on their personal experiences, belief systems and attitudes regarding the works of their predecessors and their peers.

Learn to listen

Though orchestration and conducting are his passions, Jarvi acknowledges that sometimes the best lessons he teaches through abstention.

“Sometimes, I just don’t conduct, and they have to learn to listen and hear their colleagues,” he said. “If they are not listening, focusing, it is obvious.”

Choosing to sit by and take in the sights and sounds that surround him, Jarvi said he sees his students actually learn how to become “one giant instrument.”

Yes, these are valuable, and at times, indelible, lessons in cooperation, communication and commitment, the likes of which far exceed anything these students may have learned in their early lives from Elmo or Big Bird.

Another lesson involved pen and paper, or at least computer, as their instrument of expression. In that exercise, Ingraham said, the students wrote their own press releases about their performance at Powell.

Learn to take risks

Ingraham said many of these students have not performed before more than 200 people before coming to the youth orchestra.

Their emotions and attitudes run the full range as they realize they will be on stage at Powell before 2,000 people, many of whom are well-versed symphony audience members as well as their own family members.

Susan Hampton, now assistant orchestra director at Parkway Central High School, said performances like this offer their own lessons.

“Take the risks in life,” she said.

Ingraham said while there are intentional take-aways in such lessons, there are also little personal messages these young artists absorb.

And the lessons are as varied as the students. “Some are so tired because they just had four finals and six papers due and three other performances,” Ingraham said. “And then you see others who wake up so excited just to make music.”

In its own way, each rehearsal, each performance offers its own lesson, Jarvi said, “and each can at times become singularly daunting.

But overall, the students take away life lessons in cooperation, team work and vulnerability, and sometimes a single performance or rehearsal can bring insights of all of these all at once,” Ingraham said.

Learn to create

Just as with everything else these students learn, the life lessons prove to be meaningful and inspire them to do something with their talent, Jarvi said.

It is a matter of channeling those lessons and their love of music, Ingraham agreed.

“One kid came up to me at the end of the second rehearsal,” she said, “and told me that rehearsal was always something he enjoyed, but that this was the first time he ever felt like crying just because rehearsal was over.”

Jarvi has high expectations of his students. He does not hesitate to tell them that they are the face of the next generation of musicians.

“We all know that future means make up new rules,” he said. “Helping them understand that so that they realize that the most fulfilling thing that we do is create.”

And that is the real challenge — the one Yo-Yo Ma alluded to: What will they create?