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The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles National Festival Carries on at Home

July 21, 2020

Summer has always been a great time to enjoy music: Whether attending festivals or performing in them; going to music camps, either for teaching or learning; and attending outdoor concerts with picnic baskets and bottles of wine. This summer, however, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic would have been in residence at the iconic Hollywood Bowl as well as presenting its annual YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles) National Festival, because of COVID-19, the Bowl season was canceled and the celebration, now dubbed YOLA National at Home, is instead taking place live online via Zoom and YouTube.

Running from July 10–31, the festival has been offering a series of open-source courses, master classes with LA Phil musicians, project-based learning, and keynote addresses from Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and Thomas Wilkins, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra as well as music director of the Omaha Symphony. YOLA National at Home is an outgrowth of YOLA, Maestro Dudamel’s signature initiative that began in 2007 with a handful of students modeled after El Sistema, the publicly financed music education program founded in Venezuela in 1975 by Venezuelan educator, musician and activist José Antonio Abreu, who died in 2018.

Through its YOLA and YOLA National initiatives, the LA Phil has been empowering young people from populations that have been historically excluded from intensive music training, while at the same time building a community of musicians and educators committed to social justice. Elsje Kibler-Vermaas is vice president of learning for the LA Phil and oversees all learning initiatives, including YOLA and YOLA National, where she has been at the forefront of this movement.

“What’s been interesting about YOLA National,” said Kibler-Vermaas, “is that we’ve been using it as a laboratory. Things we learned through YOLA we’ve been able to apply in our gatherings through YOLA National. It doesn’t mean that we’ve started programs around the country, but it brings together people who believe that music education has a powerful role to play in youth and community development. Gustavo is our leader, our inspiration, the artistic voice and we foster a dialogue among administrators and teachers that will help shape the future of the fields of intensive music education or creative youth development, like El Sistema.”

Needless to say, Kibler-Vermaas is disappointed that this year’s festival was canceled but explained that YOLA National at Home gave the organization an opportunity to connect with even more young people, teachers, and others. “Since we’re all getting used to this digital space, we’ve been opening it up to a much larger group of people, including international learners and teachers who are joining us, so we’re seeing a little light there.

“YOLA National has both a symposium and a festival, with the symposium mainly for adults and that also has a youth track,” added Kibler-Vermaas. “The festival is for young musicians, and they put so much of themselves in it already by auditioning and winning, that with all the cancellations in their lives, we knew we had to continue and disrupt as little as possible.”

Indeed, the number of students participating this year is approximately 320, with non-student participants an additional 1142, with Kibler-Vermaas noting that statistics from YOLA programs have shown that 99 percent of students go to college, with 29 percent majoring or minoring in music.

“We knew that YOLA was a social program — social change through music,” explained Kibler-Vermaas, “and what we’ve seen over the years with such an intensive program, from 12–18 hours each week for so many, it’s such a big part of who they are and they get great instruction [and] what’s really important in our symposium, is the student voice.

“They’re both working on music technique with their instruments and at the same time they’re in conversations about important topics, focused on identity and career paths. How they can bring who they are and everything they do into this. Most of these young people identify as people of color and we want students to have them leave and feel that they matter — that they can create futures for themselves.”

YOLA National at Home is offering 25 live public sessions that have been organized into five series: Keynote talks; Community Voices — candid conversations with a panel of invited guests discussing topics drawn from YOLA National content areas: Teaching Insights; Pathway Explorations, which are facilitated conversations with artists and professionals about their origin stories, education, career development and how they approach their work; and the Young Artist Series.

One of this year’s attendees is 16-year-old Gerdlie Jean Louis, who first attended YOLA National in 2016, then again in 2018. She was also a YOLA National Institute Fellow last year on violin. The Institute is an in-depth training program for young musicians interested in pursuing a career in music.

From Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Jean Louis, who will be a high school senior this fall, is also a member of the Elayne P. Bernstein Octet and String Orchestra in Kids 4 Harmony, an El Sistema-inspired music program. She said that her experience with YOLA last year was enlightening. “We got to meet and talk to successful LA Phil musicians. We spoke with [LA Phil trumpeter] Chris Still and he talked to us about his journey and how he had to reframe his views on failure and opportunity.”

Jean Louis noted that having the festival online hasn’t diminished its effectiveness. “Even after one session, my mentality towards my instrument and my music has changed. It’s become more focused. The staff for the festival genuinely cares for students and works well with them. I haven’t met a teacher who hasn’t made an impact on any student.”

As for the shift to online, the teen explained it didn’t hamper friendships she’d previously made in person. “I was afraid that might happen, but they’ve done a good job in keeping those connections intact [and] we can talk through chat rooms,” adding that the online festival keeps her as busy as ever. “When we were [there] in person there was so much to practice, and they’re expecting the same amount of work and focus from us now.”

Jean Louis, whose family is from Haiti, also participated in the Zoom welcome address, along with Wilkins and 2019 YOLA graduate, cellist Jackelinne Rodríguez. One of the festival’s themes this year is the concept of identity, and Jean Louis enthused, “I really like that. It’s adding more to the conversation rather than just focusing on practicing, honing your skills. It’s making me think about where you want to go with those skills and what you would do with them. I did think about it, but the way they’re doing it [now] is helping me put it into perspective.”

Trombonist Burt Mason, who performs regularly with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and also teaches at Juilliard School’s Music Advancement Program, has been on faculty at YOLA National for the last four years, leading, among other courses, master classes for low brass — trombones and tubas. The Manhattan-based musician acknowledged the challenges with an online festival, such as the lack of in-person relationships, but added, “What is the same is the passion and energy that’s still there for the students. It’s uplifting on my end, too, even though it’s interactions with the screen and talking heads.”

Mason has also been privy to watching YOLA National develop. “In terms of the [students’] level, I’ve noticed musical ability increase, and with the festival in general, it was still new to quite a few people, but now, in terms of being evolved, the notoriety, the reputation is starting to get out there and many of the leading music students — I have students at Juilliard — more and more are coming in from those schools. It’s getting out there in its reach.”

Mason is also pleased that two of his students from last year have returned, along with “a bunch of new ones. The size of the program,” he added, “has this year almost doubled. It used to be one symphony orchestra and last year they added a chamber orchestra, but it was just strings. Now winds and brass have been added for 12–14-year-olds. The program has become robust in all its offerings because the students are all so hungry for the music and to learn. It’s really, really inspiring to see.”

What Mason would like the students to take away from YOLA National at Home is “good musicianship, the obvious things we work on, rhythm, and the whole thing that YOLA stands for — helping to promote social change through music. I think it’s important for all the participants to realize that this discipline is inclusive, and they have a place as long as they’re willing to work hard, and there’s a viable future they can be part of.”

Double bassist Dalanie Harris, 21, is a YOLA alumna who has one more semester at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music before graduating. In addition, she works in the Learning Department of the LA Phil, as well as co-hosting the popular podcast Classically Black, with Katie Brown. With 90 episodes in the can, the podcast, which drops every Monday, “addresses all things classical music and being Black in the profession.” Harris said they have about 30,000 listeners.

“Katie and I are hoping to expand Classically Black in a way that will allow us to connect with more people, reach more people in person, and curate more content like for YOLA National, and working on changing structures in classical music to get to the root of the issue of why we’re not seeing so many Black people working in that arena.”

The musician, who grew up in Los Angeles, participated in YOLA from 2011–2016 and said that the organization “has changed a lot over time and it’s been great to see. It’s constantly improving and that’s one of the most beneficial parts of staying involved as an alumna. It’s having grown the most in that they’ve had more support systems put in place, especially for students going to college for music.

“It was,” added Harris, “enriching students’ lives by starting to turn their focus to providing that support system. So many students in YOLA have gotten help in applying to colleges. My teacher helped prepare me for college really well. He was instrumental in choosing a school and weighing my options. I don’t know what I expected in terms of life and you’re faced with a lot of experiences and trying out so many things. It can solidify your path or it can change it, and any changes I worked through were for the better.”

Moderating sessions with Brown as part of YOLA National at Home’s Pathway Explorations is also on Harris’s busy schedule. On July 21, the duo will be in conversation with bassoonist Clifton Joey Guidry III and Am’re Ford, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, performer, and teacher; on July 28 they’ll come together with Alex Laing, YOLA National Institute faculty member and principal clarinet of the Phoenix Symphony. During that conversation, they’ll reflect on and recap the three-week festival.

Summing up her thoughts on YOLA National at Home, Kibler-Vermaas noted, “The truth is, we’re able to reach further and deeper this way. They’re very meaningful topics we’re offering and we are excited to be able to share it with a much larger group of people than [those who] would have had to travel here in person.

“There are a lot of struggles now and it will be interesting to see how much will stay in place, what comes out of this,” added Kibler-Vermaas. “We’re learning a lot by offering resources digitally and we’ll never part with doing things in person [since] a lot of it is about connecting in person, but most of all, we want the students to have a beautiful summer musical experience together. That’s really important because we want them to connect musically and focus on that and then want them to leave feeling that who they are matters and they can create futures for themselves.”

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.

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