If you walk through the halls of Highland Park Middle School on a Saturday morning, you will hear orchestral melodies soar, then clash. Step into a cafeteria or auditorium, and you will see the student orchestras of the Minnesota Youth Symphonies (MYS) rehearse for their fall concert.
Here, expectations are high. The pace is quick. Feedback is shouted as students play. Notes are written as they are given. A few measures can be rehearsed for 10 minutes until the exact sound the conductor seeks is produced.
Conductor Claudette Laureano knows the program’s rigor, and how tough she is on her students. But, she said, “I try and make them understand that through commitment, you grow.”
Claudette and her husband, Manny, have expected great commitment from students since they became the artistic directors of MYS in 1988. At that time, the program had only 65 students and risked ending entirely.
As Manny put it, he was offered the directorship to “resurrect” the program. He accepted on the condition that his wife join him, as in 1982 she had created a successful string program at the Breck School in Golden Valley. Together, the couple changed policies, recruited students and soon saw exponential growth: from 120 to 300 students in only a few years.
Today, MYS is considered one of the country’s premier youth orchestras. In addition to Saturday morning rehearsals, students K-12 present three formal concerts a year along with community concerts and a winter fundraiser concert. An audition is required. If they are accepted, students are placed in one of five orchestras of varying skill levels. Program activities are hosted in the Twin Cities, but students from other cities and even Wisconsin have participated.
Fun that lasts
Part of MYS’ mission is to “thrill audiences with outstanding performances of orchestral repertoire.” To Claudette, the conductor of the Repertory Orchestra, this means more than playing pieces like “The Rite of Spring” or the “Firebird Suite” at a professionally aesthetic level.
It might mean wearing a Darth Vader costume while conducting the “Imperial March” from “Star Wars,” or the Duke of Wellington’s costume while leading Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory.” It might also mean writing a narrative to be performed by an actor in between songs from the opera “Carmen.”
Ultimately, Claudette’s goals are to engage the audience, tell a story and make the concertgoing memories last a lifetime. She said that students from 15 to 20 years ago still remember her schtick — and still keep in touch.
What it takes
A former student who now directs films in Los Angeles told Claudette that one of the greatest lessons he learned from MYS was commitment. Claudette believes commitment is one of the biggest takeaways students gain from MYS, and testimonies like this affirm this belief.
Manny said that even if students do not pursue music after MYS, they “will take away the discipline that it takes to become whatever it is (they) want to be.”
Yet for MYS alum Jacob Rose, the program played such an immense role in his passion for music that he now cannot imagine a career without it.
Rose was advised that music requires an undivided commitment. For the students who did not fully commit to MYS like he did, “I always felt bad for them,” he said, “because they didn’t get what I got out of it.”
What he did get from MYS was a career path he did not initially imagine, encouragement to grow and succeed musically and personally, and the realization of his full potential as a musician. The former Lino Lakes resident now studies trumpet performance at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Meanwhile, Rose also encountered the challenges that are inherent in the study of music, especially in an advanced program like MYS. So did Noah Loushin, who plays cello in the Repertory Orchestra. The Shoreview resident even considered quitting the program. But with his mom’s encouragement he remained, and learned he had greater musical capacity than he thought.
Said Noah’s sister Ella, who plays violin in the same orchestra: “I’ve learned to push myself even if something is hard (…) you’ll get there and feel proud and feel good about what you’ve accomplished.”
The ultimate impact
Ultimately, Manny invests in MYS to make an impact on as many people as possible — even people who simply attend concerts.
He believes MYS students have the “opportunity to touch people in a way that is unique” when they learn and perform music. When students perform, they present an art form that audiences cannot take with them but can still remember.
“The more you get people to listen, the more they will remember, and the more you will have in common,” he said.