From the beginning, mentoring has been central to the mission of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA), a summer program where professional musicians can share their expertise with the next generation. But beyond the superstar conductors and section leaders from the country’s great orchestras, some of the most important interactions have been peer-to-peer, playing and learning side-by-side with other up-and-coming musicians.
“Peer interaction is totally different than professional interaction,” says Anna Black, a returning NYO-USA violinist from Idaho. “It has more of a casual feel—not casual in a lazy way, but in a comfortable way.” Her fellow violinist Daniel Guevara agrees. “When young musicians interact with their peers, the environment is much different, since they can relate to each other and have similar experiences,” says the 19-year-old Floridian. “It’s easier to learn from each other, since we are more comfortable playing for people whom we relate to.”
NYO-USA is steadily ramping up its focus on peer-to-peer interaction and cultural exchanges. Last year a sister orchestra, NYO2 was created to serve musicians ages 14 to 17, particularly from communities that are underrepresented in the classical-music world. And this year sees the debut of the National Youth Orchestra of China, an independent organization inspired by NYO-USA. NYO-China has an explicitly global mission. In the words of Gary Locke, former US ambassador to China, “Just as ping-pong diplomacy helped bring [China and the United States] together, so will NYO-China.”
One way or another, the growing NYO family will experience plenty of togetherness this summer. While NYO-USA and NYO2 take up residence at the State University of New York in Purchase, their Chinese counterparts will travel to Pennsylvania for two weeks of intensive training on the campus of East Stroudsburg University. NYO-China joins NYO-USA in Purchase for a day of playing and socializing before all three orchestras give back-to-back concerts at Carnegie Hall: NYO2 (with members of The Philadelphia Orchestra) on July 20, NYO-USA on July 21, and NYO-China on July 22.
Doug Beck, director of artist training programs in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, sees such side-by-side activities and peer-to-peer mentoring as dovetailing with NYO-USA’s broader mission. “One of the goals of NYO-USA is to celebrate and encourage youth orchestra music-making in general and recognize the breadth of such activity across the country. Big side-by-sides tend to be a source of joy and inspiration for all participants, but for those who haven’t been often immersed in a full symphonic experience—and one in which the quality of the sound is beyond what they are used to—I think they can be particularly energizing.
“Another of our aims,” Beck continues, “is to help young musicians develop skills to engage with and serve their communities in multiple ways. Teaching and mentoring younger players is something many are interested in and doing already. The peer-to-peer element reinforces the idea that growth as a musician involves a continual exchange of learning and ideas with colleagues, mentors, or students, and that from either side the exchange should be mutually beneficial and rewarding. In the international context, peer exchanges and joint music-making are two of the best means of bridging cultures, which is another important element of the NYO-USA mission.”
For NYO-USA Orchestra Director James Ross, the bridge-building metaphor operates on multiple levels: “A big part of NYO-USA’s success comes from the group’s building of its own internal connectivity—both musical and human. What seems to pop off the stage most singularly to audiences is not just what the musicians have been led to achieve in their music making, but their bondedness to each other—the sense of forged community. The moments when multiple orchestras join together for a side-by-side event are actually just an expansion of the kind of responsive bridge-building that NYO-USA has been doing since Day 1. The bridges start internally, locally, and then expand out to include partner groups and international audiences.”
Among the less visible highlights of this summer’s busy schedule are a series of what Ross calls “orchestral mashups.” On July 15, NYO-USA and NYO2 will join forces with young musicians from throughout the New York City area in a hundreds-strong side-by-side event in a converted church at 583 Park Avenue, inspired by last summer’s play-in at the 23rd Street Armory in Philadelphia that attracted more than 100 area musicians who joined NYO-USA and NYO2. After its Carnegie Hall concert, the senior orchestra will embark on a two-week tour to Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia. In addition to interacting with local youth orchestras, the players will work with students enrolled in Batuta, the national youth music program in Colombia modeled on Venezuela’s highly touted El Sistema.
Black, an 18-year-old violinist, is especially excited about the Latin American tour. “The cross-cultural aspect of music is something that’s so important to me as ›
I learn more about music and what a professional career in the field could be like,” she says. “I love watching how other countries choose to present the same music, because it can become something completely different based on what they value. The thing that is most important to me in working with different cultures, though, is how music is one common language between us all. Music is almost supernatural in its catalytic ability to help people feel love and appreciation for one another. It’s something that doesn’t diminish across states, countries, or cultures.”
As music director of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo in Brazil, Marin Alsop is a veteran at reaching across cultural and geographical boundaries. In Baltimore, she has helped develop a much-admired community program that includes side-by-sides, mentoring, and school-based music instruction. Last year, she played a leading role in Carnegie Hall’s The Somewhere Project, a citywide exploration of West Side Story that culminated in a memorable performance by a combined cast of professional singers and high school students at the Knockdown Center in Queens. This year, she returns as NYO-USA’s conductor. In Alsop’s view, such projects foster both individual growth and the formation of communities.
“I’m a great champion of trying to create as much access and inclusion as possible, especially for young people,” she says. “Being involved in a community production—where you’re working with other kids, with adults, with professionals to create something meaningful that can be experienced by a larger community—gives you a sense of what it means to at once feel valued as part of a community and to make a ›
contribution to that larger community. This is about being a citizen of the world. It’s about how we want our children to interact with society. The arts can be a window to that, a summation of what kind of citizens we want our children to be. And experiencing this through music that may be new to you, with children who are different from you—all that opens your eyes and gives you a sense of possibilities.”
Alsop’s comments echo Guevara’s experience growing up in Cali, Colombia, before immigrating to the United States in 2012. The local Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil del Valle del Cauca attracted student musicians from a number of other youth orchestras who represented a cross-section of Colombian society. “It was a huge side-by-side experience, to play alongside young musicians with different backgrounds, and to make music on such a high level. I not only learned about music and the professional world, but about other people and how music changed their lives.”
What do higher-level students have to offer their less-experienced peers that the latter may not get from the pros? Beck believes that “the element of inspiration is a powerful part of the side-by-side experience. I think with peers or near peers, what the more experienced players can offer is their ability to be role models whom the younger or less advanced students are able to more readily identify with. They can also bring a perspective of having been on the same path and perhaps faced the same challenges just a few years earlier. An additional plus with both NYO-USA and NYO2 is that we have a broadly diverse group of musicians, so a given younger player is potentially more apt to see themselves in one of our other students.” Ross adds: “By definition, any orchestra is made up of a mix of talents and challenges, of greater and lesser experience. It’s a question of mutual influence.”
Thanks to the friendships formed over the past four summers, NYO-USA has an extensive alumni network that Ross considers one of its most valuable assets. He notes that “the oldest of those who were with us in the inaugural year  are just graduating from their undergraduate programs now, at which point their life paths will likely skew in all sorts of interesting directions. We are anxious to feed the developed talents of our alumni back into the program as coaches, which I imagine will begin to happen over the next five years.” Beck adds, “As one example of an alumni-driven initiative to support young musicians, Akshay Dinakar and Minku Lee—both now students at Stanford—have launched NYO-U, an original series of mini–master class videos written and produced by a group of NYO-USA musicians and alumni. We are really just beginning to explore ways to enhance and expand the already quite robust networking, peer-mentoring, and general support that goes on within the NYO alumni community.”