By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Music is a powerful tool to develop a child’s cognitive skills, and help with memory for the elderly, according to scientific studies.
So, when someone invited me to visit the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra (SYSO) rehearsal, I said yes. SYSO is the largest and oldest youth orchestra in America since 1942.
There are three things I noticed about the youth orchestra. First, the majority of its members are Asians. The members come from all over the state. And the youth’s punctuality is amazing. On a Saturday morning when I was there, only one out of 117 students was a few minutes late.
While thousands of people packed the University of Washington quad enjoying cherry blossoms in bloom on Mar. 29, SYSO teenagers ignored the flowers’ charm and the bustling crowd, and headed towards the first building, the Music Hall. Down three levels, on the basement level, with their musical instruments, they prepared for an important milestone.
SYSO will have its big performance at the Benaroya Hall on May 5. Traditionally, it is a sold-out performance.
I was in awe to see SYSO members so dedicated. Don’t kids like to sleep in on a Saturday morning? Or go to sports practice? Or do something else for fun?
Shintaro Taneda said the rehearsal is “truly a highlight” of her week.
“I’m able to learn a variety of different orchestral repertoire to prepare me for the future, and able to talk to my friends and make new connections. It’s fun to talk to others with similar interests, since that is not always possible at public schools.” Music is a universal language, bonding human relationships. It exceeds the capability of languages.
“A huge part of SYSO is about community,” said Alice Ikeda, SYSO board president and former alum. “Once you are in the most advanced orchestra, the kids are coming from all over the region — as far away as Vancouver .B.C to Vancouver, Wash. to participate. These are kids wanting to perform at the highest level possible with other kids who love music the way they do.”
Can you imagine some parents having to drive as many as 100 miles to Seattle for their children’s rehearsals?
Recalling her SYSO days, Ikeda, a former Roosevelt High School student, said one of her bandmates was from Bellingham.
“I met amazing kids that I would never had the opportunity to meet otherwise. And we were all different. We represented many cultures, many personalities, different socio-economic circumstances, and different regions… but we all bonded over playing music and we learned that a diverse community coming together could create beautiful things together.”
Yoshi Minegishi, one of the SYSO board members, said these students are “very disciplined. They started on time, and [it’s] fast paced (in the rehearsal).”
Once the students were inside the room, they immediately settled down, tuned their instruments, and were ready to play. There was little talking in the room. The only noise was the instruments and the sheet music being placed on the music stand.
The group of 14- to 19-year-olds might be young, but their passion and commitment are as strong as adult members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. If you don’t look at them and just listen to their performance, you can’t really tell they are kids.
Some of the students might be in both the school orchestra, as well as SYSO. Ikeda said the difference between the two is that SYSO is much tougher.
“People pay tickets to watch SYSO and are considered to be professional artists,” said Ikeda.
Minegishi said some SYSO alumni are now musicians of major orchestras across the country.
When asked about SYSO’s track record, SYSO instantly emailed me an impressive list of people who are now playing for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony, Pacific Ballet, and other prominent music festivals. Paul Chihara, one of the prominent graduates, who now resides in New York, will perform on May 5 with SYSO. He is a composer for films, television, and ballets.
Paul Kim, who plays the first violin, is now with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.
“SYSO carries the weight in developing (the team),” said Minegishi. “They learn to respect everyone, especially other ethnic groups, Asians or Caucasians or any others. They know what it takes to play in the orchestra, and I am very sure that old stereotypes disappear. To me, respect is fundamental to creating a better world.”
Currently, there are 518 students in the SYSO academic year. Some students learned to play as young as 3 years old. About 65-70 percent of the musicians are Asian Americans, according to Anna Edwards, SYSO interim music adviser. I didn’t see any Black students in the orchestra. Minegishi is aware of the lack of diversity in the SYSO.
To get in the SYSO, students are required to go through auditions. It is “an ambitious” program, said Ikeda. SYSO performs three to four times a year. Minegishi said students who have financial needs can apply for scholarship. The tuition fee could be a hurdle. It costs $880 to $1,980 a year, depending on the orchestra. SYSO provides over $200,000 in scholarships annually. If we want to recruit Black students, we can’t just have one because s/he might be lonely and might quit. To recruit Black students, Minegishi said SYSO would need to provide at least two scholarships.
SYSO has organized a fundraising gala on May 4 at the Hyatt on Olive 8, and the following day, the orchestra will perform at the Benaroya Hall. For tickets, go to seattlesymphony.org/concerttickets/calendar/2018-2019/benaroyahall/syso3.
Credit to parents
I am proud to say that my younger son played the violin for his high school orchestra. I confess that it wasn’t pleasant to listen to him practice in the beginning. Yet, I never complained.
Despite my busy work schedule, I never missed his performances. There were moving occasions, including his orchestra’s performance for his and his brother’s graduation ceremonies. I understand what the parents go through when they have young musicians at home. Parents often are the chauffeurs for their kids’ rehearsals. Their support and patience play a huge part in these young musicians’ success. My request to the young musicians: give your parents a hug before and after your performance and thank them for supporting you.
Remember to thank your music teachers, conductor, and SYSO board members for raising money for scholarships. Have fun on May 5.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.