For any young musician who aspires to feel a part of the crashing crescendos of George Gershwin or Ludwig van Beethoven at a famous concert hall, the chances of doing so through the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra just got a lot better.
The Pasadena Symphony Association’s PYSO is doubling down on its efforts to reach Pasadena Unified School District music students this school year, with help from a grant from the California Arts Commission. The PSA has broadened its partnership with PUSD, extending the Pasadena Symphony Teaching Artists program to additional school sites by doubling its roster of teachers, providing musical instruction to more than 200 students across the district. The program, launched in 2015 with the goal of offsetting budget cuts and condensed music instruction, offers free, supplemental instruction for grades 4-6 that aims to enhance the district’s music program.
And the other great thing? Students who can hone that musical instruction to sharpen their performance and win a seat on the PYSO’s much-admired ensembles or orchestras now have the chance to play at an additional professional concert venue, the Huntington Library’s Rothenberg Hall.
PYSO’s latest efforts to expand programming come after more than 50 years of the organization’s comprehensive musical instruction, with the teaching artists program begun as an extension of the PYSO’s All City Orchestra, a no-cost assemblage for students in grades 4-6. The nonprofit’s aim is to further help foster a love for and dedication to music among young players.
“Our commitment to music education reaches far beyond the weekly instruction we offer; we’re very passionate about supporting each student’s overall curriculum, how we can bridge the gap and provide supplemental music instruction that will help enhance their skill set,” said Symphony Association CEO Lora Unger. “We now have a full school year where the students are able to perform all of their concerts at professional concert halls. That, along with the foundation of all the weekly in-school instruction, after-school orchestra rehearsals and chamber music opportunities — it’s a robust and attractive curriculum for any student to participate in.”
Sitting down recently to discuss the PSA’s hallmark education program, Unger noted that the PYSO now serves students from 45 schools and five school districts across the greater San Gabriel Valley, totaling about 450 students this school year. The PSA’s community outreach and no-cost public school music education is just for PUSD, however; this past year alone, it provided about $60,000 worth of services to the district.
Now, by bringing the Huntington Library into the fold of its concert venues, along with Pasadena City College’s Westerbeck Recital Hall and the historic Ambassador Auditorium, the PYSO’s program is even more enticing — offering even younger music students the chance to experience the culmination of a year’s work in a professional performance.
“The public performances serve as a critical part of their curriculum. They are special events and a big motivator of why students want to join PYSO,” Unger noted. “It helps to show the kids and families that a concert is the result of the hard work you’re doing in the practice room; it helps create a lifelong love of symphonic music when you have an appreciation of what it takes to put a concert on.”
This also underpins the PSA’s broader mission: to provide all people within the community an equal access point to the world of symphonic music. The PSA brings in more than 3,000 local students and families per year to attend its concerts for free through its Student Access Program. While free tickets are distributed to PYSO kids throughout the season, the tickets are also available to PUSD low-income families.
Unger reiterated the importance of hearing classical and symphonic music in person, seeing all the different musical pieces as they are and hearing how they unite as a whole.
“Kids don’t necessarily need to hear kid-themed music with orchestra — we underestimate the potential of the child’s listening ability and what they will respond to,” she added. “A child can be just as interested in Gershwin or Beethoven as they are in hearing ‘Peter and the Wolf’ or ‘Carnival of the Animals.’”
She likened the importance of going to concerts to that of watching a sports team play in an arena, or using a foreign language by visiting its country of origin.
“It helps students make the connection of what they learn in the classroom to the real world; the symphony orchestra becomes a valued option in their lifelong choices of how to participate in arts, entertainment and culture,” Unger said. “We can’t fall short by just leaving musical instruction in the classroom.”
PSA has expanded its youth symphony over the years to help form a strong pipeline of local musicians, and now there are six performing ensembles for 4th-12th grade students. Its Prelude Strings is an intermediate-level ensemble for string players to develop technical and foundational skills, while the String Orchestra and Wind ensembles are specialty groups to enhance playing skills and offer multiple performance opportunities. The Symphony comprises wind, brass, percussion and string players and performs original scores and arrangements appropriate for intermediate students. In 2013, the PYSO added another ensemble, the PYSO Philharmonic, which further extended the program for advanced students who perform major symphonic repertoire.
The sixth ensemble, the All City Orchestra, is specifically for PUSD and provides small group and full ensemble after-school instruction, in partnership with participating elementary school faculty members.
Karen Anderson, PUSD arts and enrichment coordinator, noted how important the partnership with PSA has been over the years, both through its in-class teaching artists instruction and its youth symphony orchestra. The in-class specialized music teaching has been essential to support PUSD’s regular music instruction, she said.
“Music classes can be very large, and you’ve got kids who are at all different levels — you have a lot of different layers to work with,” Anderson said. “The PYSO’s teaching artists help with technique and specific dynamics; they can help work with sections or give individualized instruction.”
With private music lessons costing $30-$50 per hour, extra help might be out of reach for many PUSD students, and the once-a-week class might be insufficient for any student hoping to garner a seat with the PYSO ensemble.
“Our goal of this collaboration is to provide equitable opportunity to all music students — otherwise, they really don’t have enough time to develop their craft and skill to try out for PYSO. There’s a big knowledge gap in our younger students, between even knowing what instrument they might like to play,” Anderson said. “What the PYSO in-class teaching is really offering are like small private lessons.”
She noted that PYSO’s long-term commitment to the district is already starting to show throughout the elementary music programs, not just through the in-class instruction but through mentoring and its after-school All City Orchestra.
At Jackson Elementary, Anderson said, PYSO services began nearly three years ago, at a time when a new music instructor had just begun with a total four kids in her advanced orchestra group. This year, she has 40 students enrolled.
“That is so exciting; that is showing that the love of music and the culture of music at that school has really shifted,” she said, adding that PYSO teacher support has allowed the PUSD music teacher to also offer individualized help and expand on other programs, adding a ukulele club and a mariachi group. “[PYSO] has opened access for a lot of kids, created a love of music for kids who maybe didn’t even know they had that in them before.”
The PYSO program helped Christian Palomares, a recent PUSD graduate who will attend Columbia University this fall, find success in high school. Palomares, by his own account, was “a late starter,” and didn’t begin playing the string base until middle school. Although he never took private lessons, he was able to win a seat with the PYSO and eventually its more advanced Philharmonic Symphony, even getting the chance to play at
Carnegie Hall, which stoked his desire to attend Columbia.
“It’s such a unique experience because you get to try so many different styles and really amp up your expertise and experience in the world of music,” he said, adding that learning to play in an orchestra was like learning how to be an effective member of a community. Each player brings an important piece to the whole, and he has also learned “when to speak,” as it were, and when to stay silent.
“PYSO was so impactful on me, in its ability to open the doors to me as a musician, and each year it asks more of you. I really don’t think I’d be where I am now without them,” he noted, adding that of his Spotify list, he has some 500 different symphonic pieces that he rotates. “My music peers and the conductors have impacted me in a deep and profound way.”
To learn more about the Pasadena Symphony Association’s programs, including the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra and its Pasadena Symphony Teaching Artists, visit pasadenasymphony-pops.org.