DC Youth Orchestra: Success On A Shoestring

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Cellist Cameron Coachman

Cameron Coachman is a cellist in the DC Youth Orchestra program. Neill Archer Roan hide caption

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Hear the Orchestra

The DC Youth Orchestra rehearses Mozart and Prokofiev with conductor Jesus Manuel Berard.

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DC Youth Orchestra string players

Harper Randolph (left) and Lina Montopoli are members of the DC Youth Orchestra string section. DC Youth Orchestra hide caption

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Members of the DC Youth Orchestra

Musicians in the DC Youth Orchestra range from age 4 to age 19. (Jaidah Appiah, left, and Wynton Frazer) Clara Simone hide caption

itoggle caption Clara Simone

If you had the means to send your children to the best music classes, would you send them to a run-down building with dirty bathrooms and broken windows?

That's exactly what happens for students in the popular DC Youth Orchestra, an independent program in Washington, D.C., which borrows space at a local public high school. There are hundreds of youth orchestras around the U.S., but this one has found a way to be affordable, competitive and diverse — in every sense of the word.

For Ava Spece, it's the same story every Saturday morning: cockroaches and burned-out lights. Spece is executive director of the DC Youth Orchestra, or DCYO. She can rattle off a litany of problems she faces at Coolidge High School, where nearly 600 students gather every Saturday to take classes and practice with one of 12 different performing ensembles.

The halls ring with a wide range of music. At one end of the school, a beginning orchestra sounds like it has a lot of room for growth. At the other end of the hall, there's the more advanced Youth Orchestra, the top dog of the program. And there's just about everything in between: a junior philharmonic, jazz ensembles and chamber groups.

Music: The Great Equalizer

What makes the DC Youth Orchestra program a rarity is that it's both competitive and wildly diverse. Ages range from 4 to 19. Racially, 65 percent are African-American, and overall, 85 percent are minorities. Children receiving financial aid practice right alongside kids from affluent suburbs.

"They come from public schools, private schools, home schools, charter schools," Spece says.

Most of the kids are from D.C., and for them, tuition comes to about $15 a week — for up to about seven hours of instruction.

The DC Youth Orchestra attracts kids who want to be pushed. Take 11-year-old Avery Steck. He says he plays with the DCYO because the music program at his regular school in Maryland is kind of a joke.

"The music is cheesy and very easy," Steck says.

The competitive nature of the DC Youth Orchestra is intense. Every so often, students take jury exams in which they perform solos in front of three or four teachers. Steck was first cello in the junior philharmonic. Earlier this year, he was challenged by another student and lost. At a recent jury, he got his first chair back, but he says he doesn't want to brag about it.

"That was not a pleasant thing," Steck says. "For one thing, I barely made it, and the guy I beat felt pretty bad."

Among the DCYO's alums is Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboist for the Grammy-winning quintet Imani Winds.

"It was the first place where I was around my peers who really also wanted to be classical musicians," Spellman-Diaz says.

For Spece, music is "the great equalizer." In the past four years, 100 percent of the seniors in the DCYO graduated from high school. How do they do it? Spellman-Diaz says it's because the students don't take the program for granted.

"I've been to hundreds of schools around the country and seen their youth orchestras. A lot of times, these youth orchestras are based around people with money, and they seldom falter. But the DCYO has always been hanging by a thread, so everybody's always aware of how precious their orchestra is."

This weekend, the musicians in the DC Youth Orchestra perform their final concerts of the season, in theaters where the lights are working.

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