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What it sounds like. An orchestra composed of youths. Of course, then the subtleties come in...

Having been "the violinist" since 3rd grade, and living on Long Island (an area which is filled with youth orchestras for reasons which will become apparent later), I've had the pleasure of knowing of, participating in, or seeing many youth orchestras. The first thing that sets a youth orchestra apart from a regular school orchestra is the fact that a youth orchestra is separate from a school. Students choose to become part of the orchestra, attend rehearsals on their own time, receive no credits for it, and no grade. That's the first thing.

Secondly, youth orchestras are usually not cheap. Although some of the more prestigious are free, for most, you're going to be paying a tuition of a few hundred dollars per year (or semester). This is where the youth orchestra gets linked to nice, affluent neighborhoods: Scholarships and free programs are available, but for someone short on cash, paying for private lessons is probably a higher priority than paying for some fancypants orchestra when the one at school is free. Thus, while you'll find one or two in less affluent or suburban - rural areas (population density matters too: little orchestras are, by parental definition, completely worthless, unless it's just that select), a student in the tri-state region, or the area surrounding any major city, will have the opportunity to really shop around for their youth orchestra.

So, you're a freshman in high school, you think you're hot stuff on the cello, and you're seeking your first ever youth orchestra. Starting your search after summer camp?

No. Way. Most orchestras will start scheduling auditions in April or May, then hold auditions in June. Some will also hold auditions in August, but you don't want to miss out, do you?

So rewind to April. You've probably just finished (or are on the verge of finishing) a state music competition (such as New York's NYSSMA), if one exists in your area, and are now considering your musical future. Your private teacher (you do have a private teacher, don't you?) has suggested you audition for a youth orchestra, and you think it might be cool, so you decide to look around for one. Where do you find one anyway?

To begin with, there's no Yellow Pages "Youth Orchestra" category, so you're out of luck there. Start with a school music teacher; if there's more than one (band, chorus, orchestra, etc) talk to them all. Ask them to recommend some. After that, talk to your private teacher. Most experienced private teachers will have some sort of strong opinion on youth orchestras, ranging from "Those idiots at Youth Orchestra XYZ wouldn't know Vivaldi if he jumped off the page and said 'I sound the same' in a mono tone voice," to "You must join Youth Orchestra XYZ because I conduct it."

So you've got your phone numbers, you know all about these orchestras, blah blah blah. You ring 'em up, you request either a brochure or a straight up audition for those that don't have brochures, and you're set to go.


What are you playing for that audition, mmm? You don't know. Most orchestras will send you a letter prior to auditions, others will tell you when your schedule your audition, others will assume you share the same borg mind and know what to play. Be prepared. Here are some different things I've been asked to do for youth orchestra auditions:

  • Play a solo piece. Often two solo pieces: one upbeat, one expressive. Sometimes, an entire concerto "would be nice" (i.e., don't plan on getting in without one).
  • Play x number of x octave major/minor/both scales. Sometimes, in thirds/fifths/sixths/octaves.
  • Play x number of x octave arpeggios for major/minor/both scales.
  • Sight reading. Almost always. Your medium to lower level (especially string orchestras) will usually give you a piece that the group will be playing, or has played in the past, to sight read a phrase from, but full orchestras or higher level orchestras are apt to give you orchestral excerpts. Be prepared.
  • A music theory test. Which means writing scales, key signatures, naming notes, naming musical symbols (dynamics, stylistic markings, etc), building/naming chords/triads, and all that other fun stuff which will induce a dry mindfuck in an unsuspecting individual.
  • A "prepared" sight reading. The most prestigious tristate youth orchestra, New York Youth, sends you an orchestral piece about a week or two before the audition, and then you prepare it (along with all the other stuff they ask for) and play it at the audition, presumably, perfectly. High. Pressure. Sure, you can play that solo you've been working on for four months perfectly, but how about this?
  • An interview. This can be as simple as asking about your experience (often just part of a form, instead of an interview) to asking you weird, roundabout questions to find out if you're mentally stable/sociable enough to become part of the Orchestra XYZ "club".
You go to your audition, you're dressed nicely (unless you're virtuoso, leave the b(r)and name t-shirts at home), you've remembered your instrument, all necessary music, and have spare strings/reeds for worst case scenarios. You show up 10 - 15 minutes early (always), unpack, warm up, you go in.

From then until the moment you receive your "We are happy to inform you..." or "We regret to inform you..." letter, there's not much I or anyone else can do. Answer questions stutter free, smile, and don't get nervous (if you're reading this as a parent of a musically inclined kid, get nervous all you want; its expected).

Flash forward to August. You're getting your acceptance or rejection letters (assume you only tried out for spring audition orchestras and that they all send out letters at the end of summer, as opposed to calling in June or sending a gift basket of oil free instrument polish in July), and have now to decide where to go, that is, if you were accepted to more than one orchestra. A few factors to consider:

  • Size - Some youth orchestras are huge, monstrous things, consisting of several levels of orchestras, plus special string orchestras, chamber orchestras, "full symphonic" orchestras, piano ensembles, jazz ensembles, chamber music programs, and more variations than you can shake a stick at. Others are little operations with one or two orchestras, maybe a string orchestra for the tykes and a full orchestra for the big kids. If you're really into this whole music thing, you have lots of time to kill, and you want mucho experience/experimentation, a bigger orchestra is good. If, on the other hand, you want more personalized attention, or want to know everyone's name in the program, a smaller orchestra would probably be better.
  • Orch Cred - Once again, ask around. Not only do all orchestras have a straight forward "good" or "bad" reputation, you'll probably also find other info too, like "All the girls in Orchestra XYZ are easy" (just kidding) or "The conductor of the top level in Orchestra XYZ is a real idiot." More so, since you've probably narrowed down your list since last you asked around, see if you can find people at your school who already participate in any of those youth orchestras and ask about them. That's a big help.
  • Past Repertoire - Most orchestras for higher level kids will have a big concert at the end of the year where they perform a big concerto or symphony in it's entirety, and its a big deal. In some cases, you can tell a bit about an orchestra from what they do for their last concert: world premiere pieces, old standards, and quality music are all good. Arrangements are usually a bad sign for the advanced musician.
  • Practicalities - Yes, this is when your mom can come in and read while you go watch some television. This is all about time constraints and money. How long do rehearsals go? Most kids can stand no more than an hour and a half before they start to go crazy and require a break, so if rehearsal is 6 - 10, ask about breaks. When are rehearsals? Weeknights are common, but so are Saturday mornings/afternoons or Sunday mornings/afternoons. How far away are rehearsals? You generally don't want to be travelling more than an hour or so to your rehearsals, even less if they're on school nights. Moreover, do the means justify the end? Do you really want to drive an hour each way for an hour long rehearsal? Can you provide transportation each week, or will you find yourself halfway through November begging for carpooling? Also, what about money? If the orchestra is cheap, great but... why? Find out. If the orchestra seems overpriced, don't be shy, ask politely about it (you don't want your kid's acceptance rescinded, do you?) Do you have this kind of money to spend, and do you even want to spend it on an orchestra that you don't think is so hot? These are the questions of the responsible, overachieving parent.
  • Don't Take Into Consideration - If the orchestra played at Carnegie Hall/Lincoln Center/Insert-prestigious-performance-hall-in-your-locale. Every youth orchestra I've ever played in or auditioned for has had a Lincoln Center concert, and I'm not bragging. Think that Lincoln Center invites everyone that plays there? Not at all. For $20,000 or so, Uncle Tim and his band of singing coyotes could book Lincoln Center for a concert. Don't get too impressed unless its an obvious concert by invitation. Ditto for "world tours." Lots of orchestras take their kids to Europe, Asia, or whereever over the summer or spring break to play concerts. What they don't tell you is that often the concerts are poorly attended, and yes, you pay for everything, including airfare, busses, food, and millions of other little tiny expenses. Any youth orchestra director who wants to go on vacation cheap can organize a "tour."
Made your decision? Good. Notify your orchestra of choice as they advise you to do so in their acceptance letter, and tell the other orchestras that you've decided not to attend, also. If you're still not sure after a lot of soul searching, and you've made sure that you will be refunded most your payment if you drop out of the orchestra after the first or second rehearsal, you can double up (at the most, believe me) then make your decision.

This is when orchestral life heads into the great infinity of variables. A few constants will be present in most orchestras: Seating auditions will come up in a few weeks, you'll get nervous, freak out, and do either much better or much worse than you expected. You'll find most of the kids either extremely competitive or slacker-like, and will decide which you are, or find a way in between. You'll eventually make friends in the orchestra, if you don't already know people in it, be it through hanging out at breaks, freaking out outside seating auditions together, or sharing a stand. The orchestra will stop being Youth Orchestra XYZ and start being "my orchestra" when you talk about it with friends (which you will either do often or not at all).

Enjoy your orchestra. It will, like all things, change your life.

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