Giving Thought: Introducing youth to orchestral music

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Classical music is often perceived as a select art form that’s hard to understand and out of reach to all but the most studious listeners and players.

But Sarah Graf and the Roaring Fork Youth Orchestra (RFYO) are busting this myth by bringing orchestral music to kids ages 6 to 18 from Aspen to Rifle and beyond. The orchestra is the main program of the Roaring Fork Music Society, which is building a broad community of classical music players and students through education and performances.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please explain the origins of the RFYO.

Sarah Graf: The program began in 2011, under the Roaring Fork Chamber Players. We had eight students who met weekly after school at Aspen High School. The public school strings program had been canceled, so parents and music teachers came together to provide a place for students to continue playing together. A lot of the students were still taking private lessons, but without that group aspect there’s no community and no way to develop the skills of listening to and working with other players.

In 2014 we created the Roaring Fork Music Society, which now runs the Youth Orchestra. We have three rehearsal locations: Aspen Middle School, Ross Montessori in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs Elementary. We also have woodwinds, brass and percussion in the advanced orchestra, but the general emphasis is still to ensure that string players have a place to play.

ACF: Who are your students and where do they come from?

SG: We currently have 50 to 60 students during the school year. They come mostly from Aspen to Rifle. We really see a lot of growth potential in Glenwood.

As a group, these kids are dedicated in whatever they do. They’re high achievers and they’re able to use their skills — practicing individually and playing within a group — in everything else they do. Music is a challenge and I think that’s one reason they’re drawn to it.

We have students from kindergarten through 12th grade. There are three ensemble levels that enable that wide range of ages and abilities: the Prep, the intermediate-level Sinfonia and the Orchestra. This advanced level comprises a full orchestra that is able to play a wide range of music.

Before they join us, students must have played their instrument with a group or a private instructor for some period of time. They need basic playing skills and some note reading ability.

ACF: Explain how you make the program accessible to as many students as possible.

SG: The main barriers are location, cost and instruments. We find that meeting in public school locations helps a lot. Eventually it would be great to have a location in Rifle or Silt but, for now, meeting in Glenwood is a step in the right direction for those students.

We tell any applicant they’re welcome to participate regardless of their ability to pay. Full tuition is $400/year, and we do both full and partial scholarships. Thirty percent of our students receive some kind of scholarship for tuition and/or lessons.

We also need to ensure that instrument rental or purchase costs don’t prevent students from taking part. We have a library of about 25 instruments that are available to students.

ACF: Describe the commitment your students make to participate in the program.

SG: They attend one rehearsal per week, and if they don’t already have once-per-week private lessons, then we help arrange for those, too.

Their biggest commitment is to practice. Some might practice for an hour a day, others just 20 minutes, but they have to make it part of their routine.

All students come together for performances in November and in March — one in Aspen and one in Carbondale. The kids from our three locations might not have met each other before but suddenly their group triples in size. That’s fun because they’ve all practiced the same music and it’s a much bigger sound.

We also do a lot of community outreach, led by Music Director Bill Capps, helping students get out and share their music. Recently a group of students went to both the Rifle Library and the Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home to play holiday music. We performed some songs on our own and brought lyric sheets so people could sing along.

ACF: What’s on your drawing board for the next three to five years?

SG: We’re hoping to do more collaborations. We’ve been in touch with the youth orchestra program in Delta and El Sistema in Denver, an orchestral program dedicated completely to low-income areas. It’s always good to show the students that there’s a bigger community out there.

This summer we had Jam Camp, a one-week program that focused on bluegrass and improvisation for string players. We also want to include a classical chamber music camp — anything to keep students involved during summer.

We’d like to expand to around 70 students, while keeping our student–teacher ratio low, because individual attention is an important part of the format.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.