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DC Youth Orchestra: Success On A Shoestring

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DC Youth Orchestra: Success On A Shoestring

DC Youth Orchestra: Success On A Shoestring

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

If you had the means to send your children to the best music classes, your first choice might not be at a run-down building with dirty bathrooms and broken windows. That's where students in Washington, D.C. go for the popular DC Youth Orchestra. It's an independent program that borrows space at a public high school.

There are hundreds of youth orchestras around the U.S., but as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, this one has found a way to be affordable, competitive and diverse in every sense of the word.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: For Ava Spece, it's the same story every Saturday morning: cockroaches, lights burned out.

Ms. AVA SPECE (Executive Director, DC Youth Orchestra): We had a recorder class that was all standing on the desks earlier this morning because there were two mice in the corner. One was dead, and the other one was alive, trapped in one of those little sticky traps.

BLAIR: Ava Spece is the executive director of the DC Youth Orchestra, or DCYO. She struggles to keep this chronically underfunded program alive. She can rattle off a litany of problems at Coolidge High School, where nearly 600 students come every Saturday to take classes and practice with one of 12 different performing ensembles. Walk the halls, and you can hear the range. At one end of the hall, a beginning orchestra sounds like it has a lot of room to grow.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: At the other end of the hall, there's the more advanced Youth Orchestra, the top dog of the program.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: And there's just about everything in between: a junior philharmonic, jazz ensembles, chamber groups, but what makes this program stand out is that it's both competitive and wildly diverse. Ages range from four and a half to 19. Racially, 65 percent are African-American. Overall, 85 percent are minority. And inner-city kids play right alongside their peers from the affluent suburbs.

Ms. SPECE: They come from public schools, and private schools, and home schools and charter schools.

BLAIR: Most of the kids are from D.C., and for them, tuition comes to about $15 a week - and that's 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. With his mother at his side, he says he plays with the DCYO because the music program at his regular school in Maryland is kind of a joke.

Mr. AVERY STECK: The music is very, well, cheesy and very easy. I'm not trying to rhyme, but it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: The competitive nature of the DC Youth Orchestra is pretty intense. Every so often, students take jury exams where they perform solos in front of three or four teachers. Avery Steck was first cello in the junior philharmonic. Earlier this year, he was challenged by another student and lost, but at a jury just recently…

Mr. STECK: I got first chair back, but we don't need to announce that.

BLAIR: Why?

Mr. STECK: Because that was not a very pleasant thing.

BLAIR: What do you mean?

Mr. STECK: For one thing, I barely made it, and the guy I beat kind of felt pretty bad.

Ms. TOYIN SPELLMAN-DIAZ (Oboist, Imani Winds): Everybody wanted to be good there.

BLAIR: Toyin Spellman-Diaz is the oboist for the Grammy-winning quintet Imani Winds. She's one of hundreds of professional musicians who once trained with the DC Youth Orchestra.

Ms. SPELLMAN-DIAZ: It was the first place where I was around my peers who really also wanted to be classical musicians.

BLAIR: Toyin Spellman-Diaz says the kids from the suburbs came there for the teachers.

Ms. ELISE CUFFY (Cello Teacher, DC Youth Orchestra): How are we doing with the arpeggios?

BLAIR: Elise Cuffy teaches cello and conducts one of the beginning or B orchestras. I asked her whether it's ever an issue, teaching both privileged and poor kids in the same classroom.

Ms. CUFFY: You might want a better answer for that, but when they come in, they're all just beginners, or they're all Bs, and so the economic status doesn't even come into the class.

BLAIR: Ava Spece likes to say that music is the great equalizer, and it seems that the kids are equally devoted to the DC Youth Orchestra. Toyin Spellman-Diaz.

Ms. SPELLMAN-DIAZ: I've been to hundreds of different schools around the country and seen their youth orchestras. A lot of times, these youth orchestras are based around people with money. These programs seldom faltered, but the DCYO has always been hanging on by a thread, and so everybody is always aware of how precious their orchestra is.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: And you can hear more of the DC Youth Orchestra in rehearsal at nprmusic.org.

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