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Milwaukee Youth Symphony Reaches Thousands of Kids with Music

Aug. 15, 2017
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What arts program serves 1,000 elementary through high school students from 215 schools, 60 communities and 14 counties in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois? It’s Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, shortened to MYSO by all familiar with it. Among at least 140 youth orchestra organizations in the U.S., MYSO has the biggest budget, at approximately $3,000,000 for the 2017-18 season. The Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra claims to reach more young musicians, but a large percentage of its student numbers reflect instruction SYSO provides in the public schools. By the definition of after-school outreach, MYSO is the largest youth orchestra program in the country.

Founded in 1956, MYSO is headquartered in the Brewers Hill area at Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, which it shares with First Stage Milwaukee. There are 10 orchestras or string ensembles at various levels, a wind ensemble, two flute choirs, a brass choir and a percussion ensemble. Beyond classical, MYSO has two steel pan bands and five jazz combos. Progressions, an innovative strings program for third and fourth graders, is especially focused on deliberate diversity, recruiting from 50 MPS, charter and choice schools. MYSO Executive Director Linda Edelstein states, “After two years of intensive study, with 270 hours of instruction, 100% of Progressions graduates go on to successfully audition for one of the MYSO orchestras or string orchestras.”

MYSO is one of the few places in the city that brings together kids from every economic level and from every ethnic group. In a notoriously segregated city, it is a beacon of hope and progress. In 2015 MYSO won the highest honor for after-school and out-of-school arts and humanities programs, the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, presented by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Graduating to a Career

Average student tenure at MYSO is five years, but some stay as long as 10 years. Many MYSO alumni have gone on to become professional musicians, with most others continuing with music as a major avocation. Every student must pay something to participate, but many are on scholarship. Edelstein reports that “in 2003 financial aid support was $16,000; this year it’s $350,000 in scholarships to help with membership fees and lessons. One of our ideals is that no student is turned away because of inability to pay.”

MYSO kids are clearly inspired and transformed by the experience. Anna MacDougall, a 16-year-old violinist, said, “Because of MYSO I don’t think my life would have been the same had I lived in any other city.” When asked what she likes about MYSO, 17-year-old violinist Queila Griffin of Racine gives an excited reply. “What’s not to like!? It’s an absolutely awesome opportunity! And I get professional-level instruction there.” Emily McCabe, an 18-year-old violist from West Bend, called MYSO “really challenging…MYSO holds you to a higher standard, with high expectations. It makes you a better player. And I’ve made some of my best friends there.” Both Queila and Emily mentioned that a highlight was being coached by Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond, MYSO artist-in-residence for the past three seasons.

Almond states, “One of things that has been most satisfying about it is working with all the ages and levels of kids. It’s very meaningful to work with a child playing the most rudimentary music, and after giving some input you can tell you kindled some kind of spark.” Though some MSO musicians work with MYSO in various ways, including a rehearsal where students play side-by-side with professionals, there is no formal relationship between the two organizations.

MYSO offers a tour every other year to its advanced players. This July, 81 musicians went on a week long tour to Argentina and Uruguay with conductor Margery Deutsch. A memorable concert was played in Buenos Aires to a cheering audience. The American ambassador to Uruguay attended the Montevideo concert and commented that she was very proud to see her country so well represented. Carter Simmons, longtime MYSO artistic director, described a coming together of cultures in Rosario, Argentina. “The director of the local youth orchestra program brought his kids, and in between our rehearsal and concert, the Argentinians and Americans played together impromptu for about an hour … tangos, jazz standards, whatever. The language of music bound them almost instantly to one another.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Latin-flavored music, including a famous tango, created some of the biggest audience ovations. Simmons said, “In Argentina people were crying when they heard us play ‘Libertango’ by their own Astor Piazzolla.”

When asked about his work at MYSO, Simmons gave a heartfelt reply. “I can speak for everyone here in saying that we absolutely love the kids and their families. That we can give them an excellent musical experience here every day is the greatest of rewards.”

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