Maybe I'll Become an Orchestra Musician...

by Rebecca Winzenried

The Dallas Symphony's Young Strings Program allows minority students to imagine the possibility.

Some fifteen students from the Dallas area are now studying music performance or music education at the university level, one at the graduate level. The numbers wouldn't be particularly impressive if it weren't for the fact that the fifteen are among a mere 24 who have graduated thus far from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's Young Strings program--students who otherwise might not have thought of music as a possible career.

Young Strings has been part of the Dallas scene since 1992, when DSO musicians Dwight Shambley and Marion Davies started a program to offer lessons, free of charge, to gifted young African-American and Hispanic students. Shambley, a DSO bassist, had been inspired by a music conference he'd attended, where he'd learned that African Americans represent less than two percent of orchestral musicians. He returned to Dallas, determined to find a way to give minority students in his city classical music training, and thus access to a career in music. Young Strings was born.

The initial promise of Young Strings led it to become a full-fledged program of the DSO in 1994. Additional funding from corporations such as 7-Eleven, the program's major sponsor, and from the community gave Young Strings license to grow. It expanded quickly from serving fewer than 20 students to the approximately 150 who now enroll each year. The program draws students from the minority-majority Dallas Independent School District, which is 57 percent Hispanic and 34 percent African-American. (The city of Dallas, with a population of just over 1 million, is 36 percent Hispanic and 26 percent African-American.)

Young Strings is a three-tiered program, designed to recognize potential talent at a young age and then offer students the opportunity for instrument lessons at more advanced levels. In the first tier, the Prelude Division, kindergarten students participate in classes that introduce musical concepts such as pitch, rhythm, notation, and instruments. Interested students can continue at the second level, the Overture Division, with twice-weekly semi-private lessons. Students can then audition for weekly private lessons in the Finale Division. A Young Strings Instrument Loan Bank insures that all have access to quality instruments.

About ten DSO musicians are among the teachers who offer private lessons and a bit of mentoring to Finale Division students. "We almost spend more time with life issues--telling them that they can do this--as we do teaching," says Shambley. "Sometimes it's about overcoming the attitudes and barriers that can hold them back." The co-founder has remained with Young Strings over the years, choosing to focus on the teaching and nurturing aspects that he knew would be critical to keeping young musicians motivated.

Young Strings encourages musical education beyond weekly lessons by providing free tickets to concerts and offering students opportunities to participate in master classes and to meet DSO guest artists. Academic endeavor is a built-in part of the program, as students and their parents must sign an annual agreement for continued participation. Students agree to make measurable improvement in music lessons, participate in concerts and activities, and maintain a minimum grade-point average.

DSO violist Kay Gardner got involved with the program early on and is now its artistic coordinator. She remembers being a little concerned at first that students who received free lessons wouldn't necessarily be very serious about them. "But that hasn't been the case at all," she says. Quite the opposite, students in the program "have become more serious about their studies, about going on to college. They have more pride in themselves."

In operation for a decade now, Young Strings is beginning to fulfill its promise of preparing students for serious music study that could lead to a possible career. Cellist Derrick James, now a music performance major at Texas Tech University, is a contracted musician with the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra. Violinist Ashley Hunter played with the Shreveport Symphony while working on her degree in music composition from Centenary College. One student violist, Catalina Aguirre, who is now a music performance/education major at Texas Christian University, auditioned in 2002 for the Sphinx Competition for young black and Latino string players. Several others, including violist Richmond Punch, now a music performance student at Juilliard, are considering doing so this year.

Hunter, now a graduate student in business and music theory at Texas A&M, joined Young Strings in eighth grade. She credits the program with giving her a solid grounding in music theory, history, technique, and performance that served her well as she prepared for college. "It was the best experience. I was really prepared as far as ear training, the basics, far more than a lot of the students who were entering with me," she says. Hunter says the relationship she formed with other students and with her private teacher proved equally valuable in helping her get ready for auditions and make decisions about how best to direct her interests and abilities.

About 400 students have passed through the Young Strings program since it began. They've become visible in the community through annual concerts, playing to about 18,000 people during the 2001-02 season. The program has also garnered national recognition, winning a Coming Up Taller Award in 2001. The award, which recognizes exemplary community arts programs, is presented by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

And it seems Young Strings musicians plan to keep on giving back to the community. Gardner points out that a number of students have gone on to study music education in college, declaring their intentions to return to their community as teachers so a new generation of students can have the same opportunities they have had. Some of the students have even done so during their high school years, returning to their elementary schools to help out younger students.

Musicians now in the Young Strings Finale Division are the first to have gone through the program since kindergarten, and the benefit of their years of consistent music instruction shows, according to Binford. She notes that students now entering ninth grade are playing the same repertoire that those before them were using for college auditions. "These younger students will have the freedom to audition for Sphinx and other competitions because they aren't trying to 'catch up.'"

Rebecca Winzenried is managing editor of SYMPHONY.