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Youth orchestra looks to the future through the eyes of students

Youth orchestra looks to the future through the eyes of students


With more than 90 young musicians, Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra is alive and well in Orange County. And its secret to success may be simpler than expected.

When youth symphony music director and conductor Daniel Wachs is looking to spice things up and pinpoint best practices, he goes straight to the source: the kids.

With the orchestra’s 45th-anniversary 2014-15 season just around the corner, Wachs went back to the drawing board during the orchestra’s bi-annual staff retreat in June. The retreat serves as an after-auditions check-in focusing on programming, goals, summer mailings, music and planning for the annual student retreat at Palomar Observatory. And for the first time, there was an extra seat at the table for – you guessed it – a student.

“At first, when they called me and asked if I could be a part of it, I felt kind of weird thinking it’s all of these adults and just one student, just me,” said cellist William Tsai, 17, who joined the orchestra in 2012.

“But when I got there, they talked to me like they would an adult. It didn’t feel like I was a student at all. It felt like I was there involved with them. It was surprisingly very comfortable.”

For a 21/2 hours, Tsai, an incoming Irvine High School senior, was on hand to offer the perspective of a student in the orchestra, offering feedback on new ideas, overall operations, and how the conductors and sections could better work together.

“Just because you do something a certain way doesn’t mean you always have to do it,” Wachs said. “Certain organizations can get stuck in a rut. We’re always striving at OCYSO to improve and always make the experience for the kids better.

“I told William right off the bat, ‘Don’t be shy. I’m not maestro Wachs here. I’m just Daniel. I want to know what works and what doesn’t work.’ And some of the answers were actually surprising.”

According to Wachs, Tsai offered up a plethora of advice pulled from his student orchestra experience. He suggested the orchestra, which is currently the orchestra in residence at Chapman University’s Memorial Hall, change up performance venues occasionally and go back to Walt Disney Concert Hall for a show.

The staff also used the retreat as a testing ground for new ideas, pulling from Tsai’s reactions.

Next season, OCYSO plans to roll out an all-new pilot program that will include a free summer workshop with an Ivy League university.

“Will nearly fell off his chair when he heard about that,” Wachs said. “He said, ‘You are going to have applicants around the block.’”

The program – a first for youth orchestras – is designed to give participating members of OCYSO a leg up in the university application process, Wachs said.

“We’re quite certain that (the program) will take off,” Wachs said. “These kids actually want to go off to Ivy League institutions. They have the grade point averages to do it, and we want to facilitate that for them. It’s us believing in the kids. It’s us believing in what they can gain from the exposure of the experience and what they can then bring back even in their senior year to Orange County.”

According to Wachs, participant selection in the workshop will be based on grades and observation throughout the entire season. Students will be identified during the current season for participation in summer 2015.


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