A Bit of Music Happening
In the nation’s capital, a bit of magic is happening, sometimes to the tune of Rachmaninoff or Mozart or Haydn. Those tunes might be coming from the open windows of living rooms and bedrooms in row houses and apartment buildings scattered across the greater Washington, D.C. area.
Like that of Zadie Williams.
Zadie is a “9-almost-10-year-old” cello player in the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program. At its core, the program offers hundreds of music lessons and ten ensemble programs for children ages 4 to 18. Perhaps more significantly, it harnesses and fosters the creative energy of young people through a supportive, inclusive community. The only requisite is a desire to learn.
Zadie is in her fourth year at DCYOP. From her Zoom screen, you can see café lights hanging in her room, casting a cheery aura across her virtual learning space. She smiles wide as she talks about playing the cello.
“The cello is always bigger than me when I wear it on my back. Well…”
She pauses and gives a small giggle.
“Well, that was when used to leave the house to go to cello.”
Now the cello stays set up in her room in front of a metal music stand. Since March of 2020, she’s been practicing in her room. From this room, on Saturdays, she logs in to Zoom to meet with her teacher, Ms. Élise Sharp. During the week, Zadie practices every day. She runs through scales. She performs syncopated rhythms. She plays Minuet No. 2 by J.S. Bach on her cello. Zadie is good. Really good.
She explains that playing cello is an escape from everything else. It’s fun. She misses being able to hear her classmates playing together, like she can when they’re in person, but she has used this year to focus on getting better. Ms. Sharp pushes her and gives good advice, she says.
Zadie rehearsing in her room
When the global pandemic took hold, closures left a wake that devastated the arts, culture, and creative economy. Since the outbreak, program cancellations have taken place at performing arts organizations across the country. Broadway went dark. The Kennedy Center shuttered shows. Dance companies cancelled their seasons. Orchestra performances went quiet. Local community theaters closed their doors.
The losses are catastrophic – not just in terms of lost dollars, but in terms of program attendance and participation. Many have struggled to stay open. Brookings estimated that fine and performing arts industries lost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales.1
Some programs have failed to keep students engaged, due to exhaustion from virtual learning. There simply was no playbook for how to move forward and many organizations were caught in the crosswinds.
But, it was different for the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program. Students like Zadie stuck around. They clung to the program. So what made this youth orchestra not only survive, but thrive? And why might we need it now more than ever?
Since 1960, the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program has promoted musical development in young people. Its mission is to use musical experience to give students tools to achieve in life. Over 50,000 young people have sat behind the stands and under the baton of DCYOP maestros and instructors.
DCYOP’s magic comes from several places, but its sweet spot is the intersection of musical excellence and community representation. In musicology, euphonic is a word used to describe the pleasing sound created through the harmonious combination of notes and rhythms. It’s the combination of such different sounds that make the beauty.
DCYOP is a euphonic mash up of youth in the nation’s capital. Its students represent 250 public, private, and charter schools from 100 zip codes and a wide range of socioeconomic situations. Some students want to be professional musicians. Others are there because music is a fun hobby. Their common thread is an interest in music. Behind the music stand, everyone is in harmony.
“The mission, in my words, is to provide music instruction and community to any child who wants to be a part of it, so that they can be empowered to guide their own path and make a difference in changing world,” said Elizabeth Schurgin, Executive Director of DCYOP.
Children come to DCYOP as young as four years old. At 18, they leave as professional musicians, as community leaders, and as team players.
Along the way, they’ll get top-notch musical education – the kind that lands you an opportunity to rehearse with National Symphony Orchestra music director Gianandrea Noseda, one of the world’s most sought-after conductors. Or the opportunity to be the first youth orchestra to ever play at the Kennedy Center. Or the chance to work with esteemed musicians, like Yo-Yo Ma or Marvin Hamlisch, and the opportunity to play abroad (DCYOP has toured over 20 countries). Or the honor to play for U.S. presidents.
DCYOP’s students have gone on to become professional musicians. For example, DCYOP alumna and now cello instructor, Élise Sharp, is a cellist in a trio called the String Queens. They’ve played at Carnegie Hall and, most recently, at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
It takes a certain standard of musical excellence to reach that upper strata of the music world. DCYOP Artistic Director Evan Solomon sets the standard of excellence high intentionally. “I try to show our students the way through the great music in the repertoire we play, and to teach them how to do it in away that they can be inspired and derive the most joy out of the experience.” DCYOP’s mission has never wavered from excellence and representation. A sense of belonging has existed in the community that has spanned the life of the program.
A DCYOP rehearsal from 2017, back "when we used to leave the house to go to cello" as Zadie Williams says
When Kenneth Whitley began playing cello as a boy growing up in Montgomery County in the 1970s, he was one of three children of color in his school orchestra. Then he came to DCYOP. It was different.
“You notice it as soon as you walk in the door,” said Mr. Whitley, “Everybody is represented. There are of African-American players, Caucasian players. There are Spanish speaking folks from all over South America. Asian students. It was amazing to walk in, at that time, and see such a mixture of people. That was impression number one.”
Today Mr. Whitley is Principal Conductor at DCYOP, working with the Youth Orchestra, the program’s most advanced ensemble. He selects the repertoire of music, prepares the ensemble, and communicates with faculty to articulate vision. Above all, he continues the mission he was impressed by as a boy.
“[At its inception] DCYOP was an organization of mostly Black students. It traveled the world, and it won international competitions in a very white space. It is constantly challenging the biases and the systemic inequities that are out there applied to the classical music world,” said Ms. Schurgin.
DCYOP has changed over the years, but the program still reflects the larger dedication to representation and musical excellence.
Mr. Whitley said DCYOP reflects the greater sense of who we are as a nation and as a community. This is true not only in the people who show up, but in the kinds of opportunities DCYOP’s artistic directors pursue for the students and the program.
The Transcendent Force of Music
Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.2 starts slow and dark, with an uncertainty to the movement. It feels a bit ominous and lonely. As the music builds through the second movement, the melody soars into a sort of peaceful stillness. When you get to the Adagio third movement, a clear melody carries through like a long exhale. The whole symphony ends with a lively rejoicing – as if all the movements have been leading up to this one moment.
In other words, it’s symphony fit for a pandemic – the uncertainty, moments of stillness, and bright hope for return to normal.
The selection is what 18-year-old Isaac Newman has been listening to throughout the pandemic. He’s an advanced cellist at DCYOP. He speaks with a warm affinity for the classical musical selections he listens to and plays. He describes playing with DCYOP the same way, like when they played Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.
“It’s almost like you’re flying, but it feels…” His voice trails off. “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like a moment when you get to soar above it all and it just feels like you’re part of this unit that’s all together. I don’t know what to compare it to.”
He looks to the ceiling, searching for words. He just shakes his head. He doesn’t know how to put it into words.
Isaac and William rehearsing outside their homes. There are 10 years of age between them, but they are still part of one musical community
Another cello player describes it differently.
“Music helped me talk,” eight-year-old William says bluntly. His mother says that before he took up music, William didn’t feel comfortable talking. Maybe it was the language barrier (his family immigrated from Guatemala). They weren’t really sure. Whatever it was, DCYOP brought confidence out of him.
Isaac and William represent the mystery of the transcendent force of music: it has the power to both take the words away and provide language where there were no words before.
“I believe that music – the language of music – transcends because music touches us in our core at an emotional point. It goes right to the place that language often stumbles over. It unifies, but it moves beyond. It goes to the heart,” said Mr. Whitley. “Beethoven believed music can change the world. And I’m in his corner with that.”
Music takes teamwork. It takes compromise. It takes flexibility to play with others. It forces you to be a part of something bigger than yourself. A message appropriate for the place we find ourselves in as an American society.
“Making music is not a panacea, but it is not something that can be done as an individual,” said Mr. Solomon. “If you play a solo, you’re still with the composer. Music has the power to bring people together, and that’s before you get to the idea of playing music for an audience.”
Where language breaks down, music pulls people together.
Over Zoom, William describes one of this favorite parts of playing cello is taking care of his instrument. He pulls out the rosin and demonstrates how to bring it over the bow.
“You grab the bow. You hold it still. And then you move the rosin, not the bow.”
He chatters on about the challenging songs he’s learning – one in particular called Thresholds. “It’s challenging to me because of the plucking.”
He holds his fingers up to mimic the plucking over invisible strings.
“And the glitching.” This time he’s talking about Zoom. “The glitching makes it harder to communicate.”
“I also like the snacks at fundraisers. I like hearing the older students play.”
William, full of words.
Building Resilient Communities
While arts programs and youth camps were closing all over the nation, DCYOP found itself to be resilient. The program never got to the point where they felt the mission was at risk because of all the disruption. Frankly, they never stopped. With the support and urging of the Board of Directors, the program shifted everything virtually almost immediately. After that, the nation went into shut down. There were never disruptions in rehearsals – only major pivots.
For many families across the country, coping with the pandemic and virtual school meant letting go of extracurricular activities in an effort to streamline. Children disengaged with virtual programs after tiring of slogging through. DCYOP didn’t see that same level of drop off. In fact, they felt their community rally around the new format.
8-year-old William’s grandma lives at home with him. She’s 86 years old, blind and in a wheelchair. William’s parents have explained to William and his sister Ellie, also in DCYOP, that the sacrifices they are making with virtual learning are for her. Every time William and Ellie play, their grandma comes in on her wheelchair and listens. She applauds them as if they’ve just performed a concert before an audience of hundreds. Music is bringing them joy.
“The more connected a community is, the more they’re able to withstand and bounce back from adverse events….and this only works if you’ve got a prior relationship that you’re building in this kind of emergency,” said Mr. Levi. Aside from his role on the Board, he is a professor in Public Health at George Washington University, and a critical voice in the successful process of moving DCYOP to a virtual format. “A lot of my work is around social determinants of health and creating resilience. In other words, how do you build a more resilient community?”
Music programs like DCYOP offer opportunity for resilient community. “The main goal is creating a sense of community, creating a group experience. This wasn’t what I understood when I was playing violin in high school, but it is clear that these kinds of programs do build more resilient communities.” In other words, the infrastructure had been established, both in the history of strong community that has existed at DCYOP since its inception, and in the intentional movements the program has made over the past seven years under Ms. Schurgin’s leadership to bring the program into the 21st century.
Since these 2017 photographs, Liz Schurgin, DCYOP's director, has kept the organization moving from strength to strength
DCYOP had invested in a CRM, so the staff could easily communicate with program participants. They had improved financial reporting and accounting systems and built a major gift program (DCYOP used to be fully funded through D.C. city dollars). Under Ms. Schurgin’s leadership, DCYOP has doubled their budget, tripled their reserves, and doubled their staff.
All of this has allowed them to withstand a crisis environment.
Ms. Schurgin attributes the continued engagement to the growth-oriented mindset of the entire community – teachers and families.
“We have the best faculty around. As a result, we just have an amazing curriculum. And we have this community of devoted families. It always defies expectations.”
Commitment to musical excellence hasn’t stopped – and the artistic directors and conductors have even used the environment to bring the musical repertoire to greater heights. Mr. Solomon has been composing and arranging music specifically for the virtual medium. Mr. Whitley has been using the opportunity to teach about music history and provide layers of context the students might not otherwise get.
DCYOP's students have continued making music throughout the pandemic
The students notice.
When Isaac had an idea to compose a song specifically for the virtual environment, Mr. Solomon coached him through it. “It’s nice to have a community of cellists during this time when, even though we can’t really play together, we can talk about cello. That’s definitely a highlight of my week – seeing everyone and staying connected that way,” said Isaac.
DCYOP has not only maintained a sense of community, but they’ve used the reality they find themselves in to become even stronger.
Back to Roots
For all the success DCYOP has had over the past year, there is widespread agreement within the program that there is just no substitute for in-person rehearsals and performances. Music is meant to be played together. DCYOP is meant to be in community with one another.
Zadie Williams, from her twinkle-light lined room, speaks honestly. “It’s just…I miss hearing all of us play together. It’s not the same. I just miss being able to play together, as an orchestra. Like ‘three, two, one….everybody play until measure 14.’ I miss that a lot.”
Zadie’s sinfonia conductor, Ms. Sharp, agrees. “As great as it is that I still get to see them, we can’t do anything together at once. I miss seeing my students – all of them. I want to be with them and say ‘I need the viola section to do this.’ I am overjoyed at the possibility of that being a reality again.”
In other words, it’s time. The one-year mark has everyone feeling urgency about returning to some musical normalcy.
As the weather gets warmer and vaccinations increase, DCYOP hopes to take advantage of outdoor rehearsals and performances. It would be a full circle moment for the group, who, early on in its history, used outdoor performances to unite the community around the ensemble.
“There’s this feeling that I got used to having every week and then when I didn’t have it, that was really sad. I feel everyone feels the same way. We’re all just dying to get back, even if it’s a small chamber orchestra outside,” said Isaac.
In many ways, the ups and the downs of the past year have been like the process of learning music.
“It’s a challenge to play music well. It’s not easy. On that path, there is a lot of bumps, but there’s also the moment when you see that beautiful vista. So playing music is like going to the top of the mountain. But at the top of the mountain, it’s very sunny, but it also can be windy,” said Mr. Solomon.
Such has been the last year. And yet, the resolute mission of DCYOP remains: dedication to music and sense of community held in very equal balance.
Mr. Solomon smiles. “For me in terms of being the conductor, the best is yet to happen. I truly think that’s the case. The best is yet to happen.”
1Lost Art: Measuring COVID-19's devastating impact on America's creative economy. Richard Florida & Michael Seman. Brookings Institute. August 11, 2020.