Nick Dobreff
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Pandemic Strengthens Partnership Between Colorado Symphony and DYAO

Colorado Symphony musicians provide virtual and in-person mentorship for DYAO students during COVID-19 pandemic

By Nick Dobreff

“Music enhances the education of our children by helping them to make connections and broadening the depth with which they think and feel. If we are to hope for a society of culturally literate people, music must be a vital part of our children’s education.”  – Yo-Yo Ma 

The Denver Young Artists Orchestra (DYAO) — formed in 1977 with the support of what was then known as the Denver Symphony Orchestra, the predecessor to the now Colorado Symphony — officially became an artistic affiliate of the Colorado Symphony Association (CSA) on July 1, 2018, in a collaboration that has furthered the CSA’s dedication to music education in the community and brought enhanced resources to DYAO. 

For 43 years, DYAO has nurtured the talents of the Rocky Mountain region’s finest young musicians, helping them to achieve their dreams as an integral part of their musical education. The reputation of the organization has grown to the point where students from over 100 Colorado schools, universities, and home schools across the Front Range and beyond travel to weekly rehearsal and performances. 

“There are so many strong players here, but something that makes DYAO especially stand out is how kind and understanding everyone is,” said Rhianna Lingle, a violinist in her first year as a student with DYAO. “I truly feel that everyone is just here to make and share music with each other, and all of the competition is very healthy and good-natured. I have felt very supported and challenged by the other musicians and mentors, and it has been a great experience.” 

As part of the DYAO experience, students have the opportunity to learn and interact with musicians from the Colorado Symphony, who provide instruction and mentorship for the ensemble each season. 

“I’ve been involved with DYAO since I first joined the Colorado Symphony 8 years ago – teaching lessons and masterclasses, conducting sectional rehearsals, and performing with the students in our yearly Side-by-Side performances,” said Jason Shafer, Principal Clarinet for the Colorado Symphony. “DYAO is vital to the Denver music community, as it provides high-level musical and educational experiences for the hard-working young musicians in our area; perhaps most importantly, it gives these students deep inspiration. I’ve seen DYAO students go on to stellar professional music careers, but even for the students that choose not to make music their primary collegiate study, DYAO helps them keep their love of music as an integral part of their lives.” 

The connection between the two organizations has been enhanced over the years through annual Side-by-Side concerts, mentorship programs, instruction, and performance evaluations. In addition, DYAO alumni can be found throughout the Colorado Symphony including current CSA musicians Larisa Fesmire, Marsha Holmes, and John Hilton.  

“Both organizations have a long-standing history of dedication to music education in this community and our alliance has enhanced the reach of that mission through shared resource utilization,” said Anthony Pierce, Chief Artistic Officer for the Colorado Symphony Association.


 

The artistic alliance between the two organizations has fostered greater exploration into opportunities for further partnership including DYAO students and their families becoming more involved with the Colorado Symphony as audience members, volunteers, and symphony ambassadors; DYAO and CSA musicians making a larger impact collectively in outreach projects such as the DaVita Day of Music; CSA musicians becoming more active in working with DYAO students as coaches, judges, workshop leaders, and more; and, in conjunction with the CSA Education Department, the DYAO has found opportunities to integrate and share programming, reduce costs and maximize impact.  

Like many organizations and performing arts ensembles around the world, the onset of COVID-19 turned the DYAO’s world upside down, throwing concert plans and rehearsal schedules into a state of uncertainty. 

In those early weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown, DYAO paused rehearsals, canceled spring concerts, and moved all activity to a virtual format. In order to keep some semblance of normality, the organization quickly implemented weekly zoom rehearsals that focused on areas of student interest including how to practice, how to choose the right music school, music theory and history, performance anxiety, and optimal performance techniques, among others. 

By the Fall of 2020, DYAO, despite continuing COVID-19 restrictions, had made a commitment to provide a safe in-person ensemble experience for students. To do that, they had to break the larger ensembles into smaller cohorts, implement social distancing and mask wearing, and find new venues that were open to renters. They were able to accomplish this by September, however not before the wind, brass, and percussion students started outdoors rehearsals in a park pavilion while the search for an indoor option was underway. These outdoor park rehearsals routinely drew crowds of spectators each Saturday, all of whom were starved for this type of live music experience. 

The fall also saw DYAO add new virtual elective classes, offering engagement opportunities for students who were not yet comfortable coming to in-person rehearsals. These classes were expanded from content piloted in the spring to meet the needs of students in music theory while further preparing students for music in college. 

Throughout the first year of the pandemic, Colorado Symphony musicians provided invaluable mentorship and instruction wherever and whenever possible, engaging with DYAO students virtually and in person when it was safe to do so in an effort to provide continued education during a time of great uncertainty. This included Colorado Symphony Concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams and Associate Concertmaster Claude Sim judging concerto competitions virtually and in-person. Hwang-Williams also volunteered to give each of the finalists free zoom lessons.  

“I was thrilled to be invited to judge the DYAO’s annual Concerto Competition,” said Hwang-Williams. “The semi-finals were conducted over Zoom and the finals were held in person while adhering to strict health and safety guidelines. I was quite impressed with the level of preparation from each of the candidates and it was heartening to see these students come together with the common goal of applying and pushing themselves amidst a global pandemic.” 

Violinist Karen Kinzie and cellist Allison Drenkow held virtual and in-person sectionals while Principal Percussionist John Kinzie coached the combined Conservatory Orchestra and DYAO percussion ensemble in the fall. 

“I think the partnership with DYAO is extremely important,” said Karen Kinzie. “The students learn so much from the Colorado Symphony musicians as mentors, whether in sectionals or in the Side-by-Side program. I was amazed at their resilience in the face of difficulty, their ability to adapt to playing one person per stand, separated 6 feet apart, and wearing masks all the time, and was happy so many chose to stick with DYAO throughout the pandemic. For me, it was interesting to ask the kids what grade they were in, where they normally attended school, and if they were doing school in person, online, or hybrid. It felt to me like the kids were just happy to be together playing their instruments, and happy to improve a little each week.”  

CSA Musicians like Principal Horn Michael Thornton, Principal Clarinet Jason Shafer, Assistant Principal Oboe Nicholas Tisherman, and Karen Kinzie presented Zoom sessions in the spring on a variety of topics including performance anxiety and tips on how to practice. 

“It has been a joy for me to continue working with the DYAO musicians during the time of the pandemic,” added Shafer. “Since the onset of COVID-19, DYAO has thoughtfully and creatively kept their students engaged, with online masterclasses, sessions, and safely-distanced in-person activities. When I led some of the online sessions and also judged some of the seating auditions, I was so impressed with the students’ enthusiastic engagement; it was clear to me that DYAO has been continuing to inspire their students, even through the difficult times that all of us have faced this past year.” 

Starting in January 2021, the DYAO was able to resume in-person rehearsals. The cohort groups remained largely the same but in some cases the winds and brass could re-join with their fellow string cohorts. New virtual electives on improvisation and theory were also added.

The spring was highlighted by a virtual gala that featured both current ensembles and alumni, some of whom are in the Colorado Symphony. The augmented season will culminate in two spring concerts that will be recorded in early May and broadcast later in the month. One of the concerts will feature a collaboration with the youth ensemble of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and the World Premiere from the new Hear the Future Commissioning Initiative for BIPOC composers. 

“One of the biggest heartbreaks for our students during 20-21 was not being able to have the side-by-side concert with the Colorado Symphony because of COVID-19,” said Kelly Waltrip, Executive Director for DYAO. “But being able to work with symphony musicians both virtually and in-person has allowed the important mentorship to continue. We appreciate the generosity of CSA musicians with their time and expertise to work with our students, especially during this unique time.”  

As DYAO emerges from the current COVID-19 restrictions, it continues to transform young musicians by giving them the inspiration, support, and skills to be tomorrow’s great musicians. 

“Like most people this year, I have had to make a lot of adjustments in my life, especially musically," added Lingle. "However, something that did not change during the pandemic was my ability to find hope and peace in music. Even though there may seem to be no end to conflict in the world, something that I've realized over the past year is that people will always find ways to gather and make art together, which has been really comforting to me."  

Over the years, DYAO students have gone on to new pursuits in life, with some continuing to pursue musical avenues through college and beyond, while others chase dreams in other fields. But the skills and discipline they learn through music carry on no matter what career path they choose. 

“In my humble opinion, music is an extremely important part of life for well balanced, happy people,” added Kinzie. “Even if the DYAO students choose not to major in music in college, they will have learned invaluable tools that can be applied to anything in life.  From discipline, dedication and focus, to leading and following, they will have learned to persevere and adapt amidst adversity.” 

For the musicians of the Colorado Symphony, mentoring DYAO students has always been a meaningful experience, but perhaps never more so than during this past year, lacking the joy and comfort so often experienced during live performances at Boettcher Concert Hall.   

“As a performing musician deprived of that very thing we do, I had been struggling to keep my musical spirits up and these students could not know how much working with them in turn inspired me,” added Hwang-Williams. “Mentorship is really at the heart of our training and essential for young musicians. We learn by close, personal contact with all the musicians we encounter and learn by experiencing and doing, along with all the sacrifices of personal practice. My own experiences in local youth orchestras helped shape my future. Those experiences were an essential part of my development and you wouldn’t find a member of our orchestra who didn’t participate in similar programs during their formative years. My ears still ring with the wonderful words of musical wisdom I heard during those times and sharing them with a new generation of musicians is a joyful experience.” 

As COVID-19 restrictions are gradually relaxed over the coming weeks and months, both DYAO and the Colorado Symphony look forward to brighter days ahead and the return of live performances with audiences. 

"Before the pandemic, I definitely took the opportunity to perform with and for others for granted," added Lingle. "I have always loved performing, and the dynamic between a performer and an audience during a concert is just unparalleled. For me, the musical experience is about making sense of life and finding a purpose through music, and to be able to share that with a live audience is invaluable. Performances are a shared experience, and while not all audiences may comprehend a piece in the way that musicians do, a listener and a performer temporarily exist in the same frame of mind during a performance. I am definitely looking forward to being able to experience music with an audience again, whenever that may be."   

The strategic partnership between Denver Young Artists Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony has already yielded incredible benefits for students, professional musicians, and audiences alike. As the organizations look ahead to more exciting collaborations in the coming years, the  future of symphonic music has never looked brighter. 

For more information on upcoming DYAO events and auditions, please visit dyao.org

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