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Teaching young musicians: Youth Symphony changes futures — for 65 years and counting

2, Houston Youth Symphony 65th anniversary concert, January 2013
The Houston Youth Symphony has blossomed since artistic director and conductor Michael Webster joined the nonprofit 15 years ago. Photo by Joel Luks
3, Houston Youth Symphony 65th anniversary concert, January 2013
Assistant concertmaster Laura Casarez, 17, a senior at the High School for Visual and Performing Arts, has been involved for a decade. Photo by Joel Luks
4, Houston Youth Symphony 65th anniversary concert, January 2013
Bassoonist Jordan Brokken, 15, a senior at Westfield High School, has been a member of the HYS for 5 years. Photo by Joel Luks
6, Houston Youth Symphony 65th anniversary concert, January 2013
The balance between recreation, dedication and discipline is the reason why the orchestra's members are fond of the weekly sessions. Photo by Joel Luks
5, Houston Youth Symphony 65th anniversary concert, January 2013
The HYS has grown in size and scope since its humble beginning in 1946. Photo by Joel Luks
1, Houston Youth Symphony 65th anniversary concert, January 2013
Three hundred elementary, middle and high school students participate in the program. Photo by Joel Luks

"Again, one more time," requests Michael Webster.

While coaching the trumpet section to nail a fanfare call in Mars from Gustav Holst's The PlanetsWebster, the artistic director and conductor of Houston Youth Symphony's top orchestra, is aiming for the accurate, synchronized execution of a triplet riff.

And he will not accept anything but professional perfection.

But not at the risk of being pedantic. Rather, Webster understands that rehearsals should balance fun with hard work, because part of the charm of teaching emerging musicians is nurturing the raw energy that comes from the excitement of learning something new. Mastering skills necessary to participate in a large ensemble reaches beyond becoming proficient in the notes on the page.

"Make sure that when I signal the second beat that you are with me," he adds after a few tries. "The rhythm has to be exact. There's no room for error here."

And the young musicians got it down, in preparation of the "65th Anniversary Concert," set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. On the program are Jupiter and Uranus from the above mentioned suite, Shostakovich's Festive Overture and Beethoven's Choral Fantasy with the Houston Masterworks Chorus and pianist Timothy Hester.

 "We are different, we are special. We don't shine in any other way, but here, this is our special place — and we can bring people happiness with music."

The balance between recreation, dedication and discipline is the reason why the orchestra's members are fond of the weekly sessions, something the Houston Youth Symphony has been doing for 65 years, even before the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet were founded in 1955.

The HYS has grown in size and scope since its humble beginning in 1946, today comprising an entry-level String Orchestra, an intermediate Sinfonia, an advanced Philharmonia and the most challenging group, the Symphony. Together, alongside a team of more than 30 coaches and conductors Michael Isadore, Hector Aguero, Carolyn Vandiver and Ann Victor, they serve roughly 300 elementary, middle and high school students, who are required to participate in their schools' music programs and take private lessons to be eligible for membership.

Assistant concertmaster Laura Casarez, 17, a senior at the High School for Visual and Performing Arts, has been involved for a decade, at first as a leisure, weekend activity. She's now in the process of auditioning at prestigious institutions, including the Eastman School of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music and Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. She credits HYS for helping her find her path in life.

"I love being able to participate from a strong position in the front," Casarez says. "I am where all the action is, so I feel like I am leading and helping my section."

Those who have trouble in school, or who don't really fit in, the arts is where they can find friends just like themselves, she says.

"We are different, we are special," she adds. "We don't shine in any other way, but here, this is our special place — and we can bring people happiness with music."

Casarez wishes that more students and adults understood the joy of collaborating to play in a symphony orchestra. It's fun and rewarding, she says, and it's similar to a job interview.

"You prepare something, you work hard and you bring it into play," she explains. "That's already getting you started for the future. You learn time management, work ethics, and having something like this, whether you do music or not, helps you learn important lessons."

She's become role model for younger students just embarking on their musical journey.

"When I was little, I would look up at the older players thinking they were so good, and that I could never be like that," she says. "Now I hope that I am a good example for the younger ones. I've changed a lot."

 "In addition to world class coaches and conductors, I've met some of my closest friends here."

Bassoonist Jordan Brokken, 15, a senior at Westfield High School, has been a member of the HYS for five years. He plans to continue on with his music studies, and awaits to audition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the Curtis Institute of Music, the University of Texas at Austin and The Colburn School. 

"Dr. Webster is very particular with what he wants, and he won't stop until it's exactly how he wants it," Brokken says. "The end product is solid. In addition to world class coaches and conductors, I've met some of my closest friends here."

When Brokken started to take the bassoon seriously, he noticed that his commitment had other beneficial side effects.

"There was a dramatic difference in my grades," he says. "An As and Bs kid was getting 95s and above. Music leaked into other sides of my life." 

The orchestra has blossomed since Webster joined 15 years ago. The HYS was invited to Carnegie Hall in New York and to the National Youth Orchestra Festival in Sarasota, Fla. It appeared in NPR's From the Top, hosted by pianist Christopher Reilly. It launched a chamber music initiative, expanded to support the activities of a fourth ensemble and performed jointly with the Houston Symphony.

"The students are far better in terms of preparation and skill level than they were 15 years ago," Webster says. "Houston and environs are very strong in music education in the schools, and we support those efforts."

Webster enjoys watching his students' rapid progress.

"Not only from our first concert in November to our last concert in May, but over the summer," he says "A student may go away and come back a different player.

"That doesn't happen in a professional orchestra. I love witnessing that."

___

The Houston Youth Symphony presents its "65th Anniversary Concert" on Thursday at 7 p.m., and its "Winter Concert" on Jan. 27, 4 p.m., both at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online. A free community concert at Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center is set for 10:30 a.m. Feb. 9.

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