Reaching for the High Notes

by | Apr 1, 2016 | Features

The Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO) provides an outlet for a chosen few of the state’s best young performers under the guidance of Geoffrey Robson, associate conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and music director for the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra. Students ages 9 to 20 are eligible. If selected, they are invited to play in one of three youth orchestras and to perform alongside 200 peers from all over Arkansas as they pursue musical excellence.
ASYO is an exclusive group with demanding auditions. Members must prepare two pieces of music with contrasting style and tempo. Usually one piece is technical in nature, while the other is more musically expressive. After performing the pieces, students must demonstrate proficiency with major and minor scales before the sight-reading portion of the tryout. In this portion, judges provide music the students have never seen before. The students then have a short amount of time to examine the piece before they must perform it for the judges. Judges score the performances in terms of tone, accuracy, expression, and intonation.
Although tryouts are difficult, the rewards are great. If invited to play with the orchestra, students perform with one of the top symphonies in the state, youth or otherwise. This experience offers rewards beyond the priceless experience of playing with excellent musicians. Students make future contacts in the music world, and many top ASYO performers go on to become part of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra years later.
Youth orchestras have a long and distinguished history in America. In 1924, Arkansas native Mary V. Dodge founded the first US youth orchestra in Portland, Oregon. The Portland Youth Philharmonic paved the way for youth orchestras in America, and soon many major orchestras had youth programs designed to educate young musicians and build an interest in classical music. After World War II, youth orchestras became commonplace. Most major symphonies now have youth programs. These programs provide an opportunity for students to experience classical music firsthand and give the symphonies an opportunity to grow new members.
The Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra began in the late 1960s as a way to encourage music education in the state. By engaging children with classical music, the Youth Orchestra builds a future audience and inspires interest in fine arts.
I recently sat down with five local members of ASYO to talk about their experiences.
Alexis Harris is a percussionist and senior at Dover High School. “Timpani is definitely my favorite,” she says when asked about her preferred instrument.
Alexis has been a member of the orchestra for one year. Each Sunday she meets the four other local orchestra members in Russellville where they then carpool to Little Rock with a parent for weekly rehearsals. After speaking with the young percussionist, it is apparent that music is her driving passion. “I want to be an instrumental music major,” she says. She plans to attend Arkansas Tech for her undergraduate degree and, eventually, she hopes to achieve her master’s degree in music therapy.
She described her favorite performance in Little Rock with the Ballet Arkansas Preparatory Program. The event celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and included pieces adapted from his works such as Bernstein’s West Side Story. “The acoustics were fantastic,” she recalls. Percussion isn’t the only thing that keeps her busy. She also performs with the Dover choir and spends what little time she has left preparing for college.
Noah Smith, a freshman bassoon player at Russellville, is in his first year with the orchestra. For Noah, the orchestra is a way to advance his playing skills. Although he is in high school, Noah strives to reach a college level of performance. “That’s really what ASYO tries to foster, getting ahead and trying to be the best you can be at your instrument,” he says.
Bassoon is a somewhat uncommon instrument, although it is a key component of most orchestral repertoire. Since few people practice bassoon as their primary instrument, Noah believes he will have an advantage when snagging music scholarships three years from now. “It has solo parts in band literature that aren’t always covered,” he explains. “It’s rare to find someone who knows bassoon well.” Noah plans to make music a large part of his college experience, but doesn’t plan to major in it. “I want it to be a lifelong passion.”
Each of the ASYO members interviewed made mention of one piece in particular that stood out as a favorite: Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite. Every year the Youth Orchestra partners with the Ballet Arkansas Preparatory Program to jointly perform a ballet in Little Rock. Noah says, “That’s really fun, because it’s a new sound that I’m not used to hearing. It’s more modern than something like Beethoven or Mozart.” He adds that Overture to Orpheus by Offenbach was a real “lip-crusher.”
Noah plays because it allows him to elicit an emotional response from his listeners. “Music really embodies a lot of basic human emotions and desires,” he explains. “I want to make others feel human emotion that they may not feel in other things.” It’s this emotional connection that inspires him to put in the countless hours of practice required by a ASYO musician. Practice isn’t everything, though. “I always play much better in performances than I do practicing just because I’m inspired by that moment on stage,” he said.
Dover junior Grace Zimmerman is a second year member of ASYO. Taking inspiration from her aunt, she is a flutist. Grace loves music and plans to play for the University of Arkansas bands, but she isn’t planning to major in it. Instead, music gives her a leg up in her preferred field of study: history for international relations. “Music can convey a lot about a culture,” she explains. “Almost every culture has its own folk music.” The ASYO exposes her to a large variety of international genres that she normally wouldn’t encounter. In a way, it helps her open doorways into other cultures.
Grace enjoys the musical challenge. She explains that even during state competitions, the band doesn’t play music as complex as the pieces performed in the orchestra. In addition, her time in orchestra helps make friends from across the state. “You meet people from all different backgrounds,” she explains. “We have some amazing musicians here.”
Hannah Pace is a Russellville senior oboe player. She has performed in the orchestra for three years and hopes to continue playing the oboe as a lifelong hobby. “You know the feeling you get when you listen to a really, really good song? It’s like that every day,” she says.
One reason she loves playing with the Youth Orchestra is that she’s able to meet other musicians with similar dedication. “I love the experience of playing with people that have the same amount of passion for music that I do,” she says. School bands are wonderful for teaching the fundamentals of playing, but not everyone has the same dedication.
Anna Bloodworth is a Russellville sophomore and new to the Orchestra. She has only played with them for a month and a half, but she has already fallen in love with the program. “I like the challenging aspect,” she says. “It’s not like you just sit down, sight read a piece of music, and play it for four months on end. You really have to work at it.” In the end, the extra work and stress is worth it, she says, “It’s a really satisfying feeling to make beautiful music when you work so hard for it.” All five students share the common desire for a challenge.
Although new to AYSO, Anna has been playing the bassoon since the fifth grade. “I love music and I’m always going to love music,” she says. “It’s always going to be part of my life.” For Anna, music is a release of emotion, and she loves its raw beauty. “Even though you have a score, you get to form your own ways of interpreting your own feelings and expression,” she says. This creative process and musical expression is what keeps her interested.
As of now, Anna has no plans to pursue music as a career, but she still desires to push her limits and achieve musical excellence. “I’m not sure exactly what aspect it’s going to play in my life, but it’s always going to be there,” she says.
The Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra has an upcoming concert at the Woodlands Auditorium in Hot Springs Village on Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m.  To learn more about the ASYO, visit their website at

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