DC Youth Orchestra Program

Music for All

DC Youth Orchestra Program | January 2017


The DC Youth Orchestra Program defies many of the stereotypes people may have of classical music. Be it stodgy, stagnant, boring or pretentious—the DCYOP is none of these things. It is a vibrant group of young people excited to learn and experiment with music, instructors inspired to make music come alive, and staff passionate about the orchestra's mission: music for young people, achievement for life.

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As soon as you walk through the door, you feel like you are in a melting pot of music.

...the simmering sounds of Mozart, Haydn and Telemann. Percussion, strings and winds blend together like the demographics of the DC Youth Orchestra Program—a melting pot of people.

When you enter a youth orchestra performance hall, you will find musicians from all walks of life—from varying backgrounds, ages and socio-economic statuses—unified by music. 

Participants as young as four-and-a-half are challenged and inspired to participate. Discipline, work habits and character are formed as these young musicians practice their chords and scales, sharing their development at juries, auditions and performances. 

Could there possibly be a more beautiful and tangible example of building harmony, collaboration, and mutual respect in our culture?

Achievement here is not fostered in a competitive spirit, but rather a collaborative one. Students learn quickly that an orchestra's success is not individual, but communal. A dynamic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, even while every part is a necessary piece of the whole. Every violin, every clarinet, every french horn is a vital contributor to the orchestra.

Music Matters

"The music we play is difficult music... I remember the first day I got the trumpet, I did not want to play it. But after a year of playing, I realized this is something I really want to do. So now I'm in the process of going to school for music education and hopefully then a master's in performance. It's changed my life," explains Vernon Holmes, a DCYO trumpet player.

Vernon's story is not an uncommon one. Kids often arrive with little exposure to music (even listening to it!), but eventually find themselves pursuing a career in musical performance or education.

DCYOP opens the door to a world of classical music for kids who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience it, let alone benefit from expert training. 

Since 1960, the DC Youth Orchestra Program has fostered the musical development of over 50,000 youth.

World-class instructors and conductors teach classes and provide musical direction, but more than that, they instill a love for music in the children who participate. 

In addition to the organization's traditional orchestra and lessons, DCYOP partners with schools to support orchestra programs during and after school, including the Children’s Orchestra and PreOrchestra Project. Through partnership, these programs are offered at no cost to participating students.

The benefits of DC Youth Orchestra's programs are not just musical, but social, emotional and academic as well. 

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“Learning a musical instrument develops focus and discipline. Playing in an ensemble teaches collaboration and creativity. And performance builds self-esteem and self-efficacy. All of these skills contribute to academic and life success.”

Elizabeth Schurgin​, Executive Director, DC Youth Orchestra Program

According to a report by The Royal Conservatory, "Over the past 20 years, several large-scale studies of school achievement have found a strong correlation between learning to play an instrument and academic success" (The Benefits of Music Education, 2). 

The report goes on to detail how musical training contributes to improved language skills, increased emotional resilience, development of empathy, enhanced attention span and focus, and increased self-confidence.

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And it is not hard to see why. Students learn that through discipline, rigor, and focus, they are able to achieve success and in time, transfer these skills to other areas of their school experience. Also, by working together in an ensemble, students learn valuable social skills such as confidence, compromise and mutual respect.

Shana Holmes, a Children’s Orchestra parent at Garrison Elementary, describes the impact of the program on her 11-year old son Immanuel: “DCYOP at Garrison has taught Immanuel how to listen and gotten him over his debilitating shyness. To learn to play violin and read music from master musicians, play among amazing peers with wonderful talents, and perform with organizations such as the LeDroit Chamber Players is an experience that will last a lifetime.” 

“DCYOP is succeeding in not only making amazing music, but opening a new world for individual students.”

DCYOP Parent

Universal Language

In addition to learning music, students build relationships with a diverse community of people, all brought together by a shared passion. Peers become friends, teachers transform into trusted guides and administrators emerge as mentors. 

“Music provides a common bond of the highest value, and DCYOP creates an opportunity for young people from all walks of life to develop a love for music and experience togetherness through the art form.”

Rodrigo Hurtado, Board Member, DC Youth Orchestra Program

Music unites in the simplest of ways on the deepest of levels. It gives voice to that which words cannot convey.

Erica Baker

Aiden Keys, a student violinist describes her experience: "It's a really nice place to meet friends. There is a really collaborative culture here. So even though we are rigorously playing music, there is a lot of time to meet each other... and so I've made a lot of really good friends that way."

Students quickly develop a bond with their fellow orchestra members as well as the instructors and staff. The reason? 

"Most of the administrators and certainly all of the teachers were students once themselves in youth orchestras, and that's what I get from my colleagues—that love, that passion for music and wanting to bring that to other students," explains Associate Artistic Director Ken Whitley.

For DCYO staff, instructors and volunteers, music is not a job—it's an investment.

Teachers and conductors get involved because they love music and they believe in its power to transform lives. The youth at DCYOP find a community of caring adults who see their future potential as musicians, artists and contributing members of society. 

And the result is a group of leaders who learn a love for music and also an understanding of the importance of community. Mr. Solomon, Program Director for DCYOP, describes the way one of its new summer programs stretched its impact beyond the four walls of its classrooms. "In addition to their 25+ rehearsal hours, each chamber group created a project to share their talents with the community. One group created a music video while others gave concerts at rehabilitation centers, senior living communities, and local schools." (Read more thoughts, insights and Notes from Mr. Solomon.)

"You have students from all different backgrounds, so much diversity, you have students from many different economic levels, but they're speaking one common language and that's the language of music, and it just speaks a testament to how important music is, especially for young people, building a sense of community and bringing students together for one common goal."

Dawn Johnson, Teacher, DC Youth Orchestra Program

Rhythm and Harmony

Much like in life, every orchestra must master rhythm and harmony. Week after week, students at DCYOP come together to practice. They repeat patterns, melodies and tempos, refine tone and pitch, perfect every sharp and flat. Through hard work and collaboration, they achieve rhythm and harmony. 

Hundreds of hours of practice become worth it when sharing the stage with peers and new talents with audiences.

Erica Baker

Everyone Can Play

DCYOP is one of the few programs providing high-quality musical training at a moderate cost. Multiple tuition and assistance programs ensure its youth orchestras remain affordable and school partnerships enable the organization to offer music education to students for free. This allows children from diverse backgrounds to experience the joy of learning and making music together.

It is the joy of music that stands out as you navigate the halls of DCYOP and meet its students, alumni, parents and faculty.

Executive Director Elizabeth Schurgin views the DCYO not as a singular or momentary experience, but rather a launching point: "When we start kids that are four and a half, I love walking into these classrooms and speculating where Ms. Hart's violin class is going to go ten years from now, how their going to see the world through music." 

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From its Children’s Orchestra to its Youth Orchestra, DCYOP harnesses the power of music to change lives. Through music, students gain confidence, creativity and a sense of community. They learn that through collaboration, they can achieve greatness. 

On December 14, 2016, they did just that. The Youth Orchestra program received the honor of saluting world-renowned conductor Maestro Dudamel with a performance of Sibelius' Finlandia. In a surprise moment, just before the performance was to begin, Dudamel took the podium to conduct. 

After the performance, he shared these words with the students, "We have to dream. We have to work very hard and we have to love what we do. We have to believe – that is the most important thing. And when you play, you do that. So keep playing!”

The DC Youth Orchestra Program dreams of a day when music is available to all children and youth. Want to help make this dream a reality? Consider supporting the DCYOP Children's Orchestra scholarship program to assist students at under-resourced schools in DC, making it possible for them to participate in the program. 

Give the gift of creativity, community and opportunity—Give the gift of music.

"I am sure that any kid that has the opportunity to be here on Saturday and really take full advantage of what's going on, their life is going to be transformed somehow."

Mariano Vales, Music Director, DC Youth Orchestra Program

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Editor's Note

“Where words fail, music speaks.” ― Hans Christian Andersen

Particular milestones in life are often marked by specific musical compositions. I recall learning to play "Ivan's Song" by Khachaturian on the piano in middle school, and it sparked a love for music. Two years later, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" became the soundtrack for a particularly difficult period of my life.

The power of music to speak to our souls, develop our minds and enrich our lives is undeniable. The DC Youth Orchestra Program harnesses that power to help equip youth for the future. By making classical music accessible to youth from all ages, stages and backgrounds, DCYOP brings students together through a shared experience―a love for music―and opens the door to new opportunities within the world of music. Inspiring? I think yes.

Thank you, DC Youth Orchestra Program for all that you are doing to invest in our kids. And special thanks to contributor Erica Baker, for her beautiful photography documenting this valuable and important work.

Amanda Sig

Amanda Lahr

Editor, BitterSweet Monthly

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