What do young musicians have to say about the challenges and rewards of the music that they play?
Ahead of the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra (YPSO) 87th-season winter concert on Jan. 27 at the Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, SF Classical Voice spoke to a handful of students in the orchestra who have ideas and energy to spare.
Conducted by Music Director David Ramadanoff, and in collaboration with the Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra, the concert includes Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, with soprano Vuyiswa Sigadi; Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum; and the first movement of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Violin Concerto No. 3, with YPSO Concerto Competition winner Henry Stroud as soloist.
Stroud offers the first look “backstage.” He’s 15 years old, in the 10th grade at Berkeley High School, and one of YPSO’s concertmasters. His studying and playing may be on dry land, but he’s also busy sitting in a boat:
“Last year, I joined the Berkeley High crew team as a freshman, and every Monday after school, I would go to crew land practice. Halfway through practice at 5 p.m., I would leave crew practice, have my mom pick me up, and go to YPSO rehearsal. [Now,] since Monday practice has been moved to water practice at the Jack London boathouse, I have to miss crew practice on Mondays.”
Doesn’t rowing negatively impact the hands of a violinist?
“No, I get blisters sometimes from rowing, but it’s in a different location on my hand from where I hold my violin and bow, so it does not affect me very much.”
Stroud has more to say about how he’s balanced school and other extracurricular activities with music:
“After AP Chemistry Lab in the seventh period, I would go straight to YPSO, and that gives our quartet group a time to rehearse before YPSO rehearsal. After YPSO rehearsal, I would get home at 10 p.m., then I do my homework, and if there is a test on Tuesday, then I have to study as well. Practicing violin and doing homework every day after crew practice is also a challenge.
“Ever since I joined YPSO five years ago, Monday has been my favorite day of the week, and it’s the one day of the week I’ll never give up. I play in YPSO because it allows me to play with others.
“During COVID, I was one of the few people able to play music with someone, my mom, and seeing all the musicians around me feeling very sad because they could not play with others made me learn the value of playing music with others, as well as the value of music [itself] and how much joy it brings to others and to myself.
“Right now, I am in two quartet groups and have really found a passion for playing chamber music. As one of the student representatives for the YPSO chamber program this season, I am encouraging musicians to play more chamber music, helping with grouping and finding music.”
French horn player Grace Ha, 15, is a 10th grader at Albany High School:
“This is my third year playing the French horn with YPSO, and throughout these years, I have learned many lessons about the work-life balance that comes with school and extracurriculars.
“Besides being in the orchestra and being a high school student, I volunteer at my Korean school on Saturdays, volunteer monthly for meal service for the unhoused, and I am co-president of a volunteer tutoring club at my school. Usually, Mondays are quite chaotic for me. Immediately after school on Mondays, I rush home to get ready for my tutoring sessions on Zoom with elementary school students in Oakland.
“After about an hour of tutoring, I quickly do some homework and use the rest of the time to prepare for orchestra rehearsal. Although a lot is happening during my Mondays, YPSO rehearsals are still my highlight of the day. I love the YPSO community and enjoy playing together as a whole orchestra. I am amazed by all the talented people in YPSO, and I feel privileged to play among these musicians.
“Through YPSO, I have experienced new things, such as playing in concerts and visiting Europe. It has enriched my love and appreciation for classical music in a way that I couldn’t experience alone.”
Violinist Ansel Klucsor, 17, is a 12th grader at the College Preparatory School in Oakland:
“As both a musician and a dancer, my week is packed. I’ve been playing violin for 12 years and dancing ballet for nine, and I regularly need to play ‘calendar Tetris’ to fit everything in. I practice every day, or thereabouts, and attend YPSO on Mondays, but in addition to this, I also dance ballet five days a week.
“Many of my ballet friends ask when I have time to practice violin — I’ve gotten the chance to play for them from time to time over the years, and they know what an important part of my life music is. The answer to that, of course, is the morning! I get up between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. on school days so that I can practice in the morning. This allows me to dance ballet in the afternoon, when the rest of my orchestral peers would be practicing.”
“When do I do all my homework? College Prep is known for its academic rigor, but so far I’ve found it completely manageable. My one big secret is this: use your free periods. I get two free periods in my schedule, and I need to use them to their fullest extent. Because of this, I am able to get about 90 percent of my homework done at school, leaving my nonschool hours available for my artistic pursuits.
“When people hear how packed my schedule is, many of them are shocked, wondering why I do so much. I do these extracurriculars because I love both of them so much. I love participating in our yearly production of The Nutcracker, working my way up from the corps in [my] first year to a solo role this past December.
“I love working with first-violin coach Julie Kim and Maestro Ramadanoff to prepare such complex repertoire at such a high level, and I love performing that repertoire for the community throughout the year. I find that being a violinist helps me become a better dancer, and being a dancer helps me become a better musician. The two art forms are more similar than you might think, and both violin and ballet bring so much joy to my life.”
Violinist Nicole Guo, 17, is a 12th grader at Miramonte High School:
“I am a first violinist in YPSO, and this is my fifth year participating. In my free time, I play tennis for my school team and produce films featuring Asian-owned businesses in the Bay Area.
“Our tennis season falls from early August until late November. We have practices every day of the school week, except when we have matches, [which] usually fall on Tuesdays or Thursdays, with additional tournaments on the weekends.
“A typical day [for me] would involve going to school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:35 p.m., then having practice immediately after school until 5:15 p.m. or 5:50 p.m., depending on when school ends. On Mondays, I will go to YPSO after tennis practice until 9:30 p.m. and get home at 10 p.m., when I can start my homework.
“On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when we typically have matches, I usually get home at around 7 p.m., after which I practice violin and finish homework. On the weekends, I spend my spare time outside of homework filming and editing the films I co-produce with another senior at Miramonte — our first film, ‘Lotus Roots,’ won second place at the Student World Impact Film Festival.
“This fall has been particularly challenging due to college applications and my rigorous course load, as I am taking six AP classes, in biology, Latin, comparative government, Spanish, literature, and statistics.”
Violinist Grace Liao, 16, is an 11th grader at Campolindo High School:
“YPSO significantly enriches my journey as a musician because it continually brings me great joy and inspires me to continue creating music and composing. This is my third year playing violin with YPSO.
“A typical week for me starts off with a highlight: YPSO Monday rehearsal, where I’m inspired by the musical melodies we explore, by the depth of experience from Maestro Ramadanoff and my coaches, and by my fellow musicians. Then, I get to build on that inspiration during my piano and violin lessons.
“To top off the week, I get to rehearse with my YPSO quartet on Sundays, which is always super fun because of our close-knit group — I’m super grateful to have gotten to know them over the years.
“Then on most nights, after a long day of school or homework, I enjoy dinner with my family. My grandparents are staying with us right now, so while I’m at it, I get to practice my Mandarin and my very limited Cantonese and Shanghainese with them while sharing delicious homemade food like steamed buns or spring-onion pancakes. After dinner, you can catch me finishing up my homework or practicing violin and piano.”
Berkeley Community Chorus & Orchestra Music Director Ming Luke, who participates in the Jan. 27 concert, says:
“Talented musicians like the high school students of the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra are simply a joy to work and collaborate with. They have much technical ability but might be playing Poulenc for the very first time. I remember formative musical moments from my time in school — it’s always exciting to potentially take part in impactful and influential moments in their lives.
“Music is all about connection. Singers collaborate with instrumentalists all the time, and there’s a special energy when choirs and orchestras come together. David Ramadanoff is a very special musician — we had the same teacher, [choral conductor] Robert Page. Bob always used to tell me about the best [performance of] Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that he ever heard, and it was David’s. It’s great to have an opportunity to work together.”
“There are numerous challenges in teenagers investing in music. The first is that we ask them to rehearse and perform for the first time very challenging music which is played by excellent professional orchestras.
“To accomplish this, we provide support and training which will help them master the technical and musical difficulties of these pieces while also having a wonderful communal experience preparing and performing great musical masterpieces.
“The rewards are numerous. First, their enthusiasm and energy are wonderful. Second, they always give their very best, especially in our performances. Third, they quickly become a wonderful community of young people who enjoy coming together and are proud of sounding as good as they do.”