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Washington Voices

Spokane Youth symphony offers growth opportunities

Thu., Feb. 25, 2010

On Monday evenings, the Masonic Center in downtown Spokane echoes with the sweet sound of strings, as members of Spokane Youth Symphony gather to rehearse.

Since 1949, this organization has fostered the budding talent of young musicians. In honor of this contribution to the community, Mayor Mary Verner has proclaimed February as Spokane Youth Symphony Month.

The symphony is actually four distinct orchestras: Intermediate String Orchestra (students ages 10 to 13), Junior Orchestra (11 to 15), Junior Symphonic Orchestra (13 to 16) and Spokane Youth Orchestra (high school/college).

Executive director David Hollingshead said when he joined the organization during the 2006-’07 season, “We had three different churches for our four orchestras’ rehearsals.” In addition, their concerts took place on different nights at scattered locations. Hollingshead set about securing one permanent location for their performances. As such, he said, “We were the first organization to request a concert series at the Fox.” It’s been a successful partnership.

They began holding all rehearsals at the Masonic Center in 2007. “This made it much easier on parents with siblings in different orchestras,” he said.

The organization is funded by tuition, grants and donations. It relies on community support to fulfill its mission to provide orchestral education and performance opportunities for young people from across the region.

During a recent rehearsal, strains of Beethoven and Weber poured from marble-floored ballrooms and small meeting rooms throughout the center. The catchy melody of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” emanated from the room where the 25-member Intermediate String Orchestra practiced. Kids in sweatshirts tapped sneaker-shod toes and frowned in concentration as they followed the direction of conductor Faye Atwood.

Eleven-year-old Kaleb Taylor bowed the bass with the assurance of a longtime musician. Kaleb, a student at Grant Elementary, is actually new to the instrument. “It’s pretty fun,” he said with a grin. “I like being able to play the harmony.”

Kaleb said he practices daily 30 minutes after school and 30 minutes after dinner. That diligence doesn’t surprise Hollingshead. “These are success-oriented kids,” he said.

Kaleb, like most symphony students, is also involved with his school’s music program. But, he said, “I play more challenging music here.”

Meanwhile, in another room, middle school kids from the Junior Orchestra worked under the direction of Heather Montgomery. The students in this group must be able to sight-read. In every youth symphony group, students must audition to be accepted.

“They have to vie for chairs, just like in the real world,” Hollingshead said.

The resonance of strings gave way to the rich timbre of a full symphony in the room where the 60-member Junior Symphonic Orchestra rehearsed. Woodwind, brass and percussion instruments melded with a large string section as conductor Carol Pederson rapped her baton.

For these conductors, nothing beats the joy of watching young people fall in love with music. In fact, that’s what has kept Verne Windham, the Spokane Youth Orchestra conductor, involved since 1996. He said when his predecessor left suddenly, he was asked to fill in for a week. “I never left,” he said.

At the rehearsal, the soaring strains of “Overture to Der Freischutz” by Weber filled the ballroom where the students rehearsed from a crowded stage. “That’s lovely,” Windham said. “You can never play too loud in this piece.”

More than 20 members of this elite group have been preparing for the upcoming concerto competition. Contestants must memorize a concerto solo to be played with a piano accompanist. About half of them will be selected to perform before a panel of judges at Saturday’s event. By the end of the evening, three students will be chosen to perform as soloists in the final concert of the season.

One of those hopefuls is 18-year-old violinist Brianna Woodruff. She plans to play “Introduction et tarantella” by Sarasate. “It’s like a circus,” she said of the complicated piece.

Steven Munson, 18, a student at Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, will also take part. “I play the French horn,” he said. “I like playing it, but sometimes the notes don’t sound too pretty.” In addition to Spokane Youth Orchestra, Munson plays in his school band and with the North Idaho College Wind Symphony.

As the musicians milled around during a brief break, the easy camaraderie of those who share this passion was evident. Windham believes this is one of the best benefits of this organization. “It gives them a great tribe,” he said. “Every kid needs a safe group of people to be involved with in a somewhat alienated world.”

Cellist Nathan Barber, 17, would agree. He’s in his third year with Spokane Youth Symphony. As he looked around at his fellow musicians, he said, “I like how good they are. I feel like I’m part of something huge.”

Editor’s note: The performance date has been corrected.

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