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Arts & Culture
These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

New Charlotte youth ensemble aims to make performing more accessible for young musicians

CSO youth 1-min(1).jpg
Genesis Group Photography
Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra bass players perform during the summer concert at Symphony Park. A new ensemble, separate from the youth orchestra, aims to introduce more young people to performing music in groups.

There’s something special about learning music. For people who start playing at a young age, music can turn into a lifetime passion — or even a career.

But like so many things, it’s not that simple, even for those with natural talent. There are barriers to entry, like cost, access and support. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra is starting an initiative to lower those barriers with a youth ensemble that opens early in 2022.

“This ensemble is designed to give kids that first experience of playing with others and getting a feel for what it’s like to be part of a great musical team,” said Charlotte Symphony CEO and President David Fisk.

The Symphony already has youth programs, an orchestra and a philharmonic. But they require auditions; the new ensemble doesn’t.

“We want to make sure that there are opportunities right along the path of learning for everybody,” Fisk said. “And the gap that we identified was the kids who've been learning the instrument for a year or so but aren't yet ready to join an ensemble which requires auditions, which is a more advanced stage.”

CSO youth 2-min.jpg
Photo courtesy Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
Eric Thompson, a Charlotte Symphony veteran and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher, will lead the new youth ensemble.

Just eliminating the audition is a huge weight lifted for new musicians. In addition to the pressure, Fisk says, auditions can create a flawed system in which some talent just gets missed. Sometimes people have bad days — even the pros.

“It's certainly still an experience that nobody looks forward to when they're a professional musician,” Fisk said. “Doing an audition is one of the toughest parts of just getting a foot in the door, so we don't want to start kids off by being stressed about playing music.”

The program starts in February and will serve musicians ranging from 8 to 16 years old.

Participants will get used to performing, and every rehearsal will include personal training from Charlotte Symphony Orchestra conductors and musicians. Fisk says the program will likely start with around 30 participants but that it could grow to as many as 70. And the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra plans for the youth ensemble to stick around, too — this is just the first run.

The youth ensemble will be held at First Baptist Church-West in Charlotte’s McCrorey Heights neighborhood.

“It’s a very welcoming environment,” Fisk said. “They’re already in this space, and they have a very strong educational music mission. They have a track record of decades of working with young people in a very supportive environment. That’s a critical part of it, too.”

CSO youth 3-min.jpg
Genesis Group Photography
The audience watches the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra summer concert at Symphony Park. A new ensemble, separate from the youth orchestra, aims to introduce more young people to performing music in groups.

Composer Eric Thompson will lead the ensemble. He used to perform with the Symphony as a double bass player before taking a teaching job with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

And Fisk says that connection to CMS is important, too. After all, the ensemble is designed to be the first step toward group performances for young musicians. Kids can use the skills they learn to take second steps, like getting into the school district’s orchestra or band programs.

The ensemble also builds off the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Project Harmony, a free after-school program that helps introduce children in financially struggling families to music. And as another way to lower barriers to entry, the ensemble offers a sliding scale for tuition.

The weekly program will wrap in June with a performance for the public. Not all details of the performance are worked out yet, but Fisk says it’s something families can look forward to watching — and knowing that it wasn’t all just about the music.

“Building toward something, having that goal, having that special occasion at the end where it all comes together — it's a culmination of the work you've been doing, but it's also good practice for what comes next because, in so much of our lives, we're always heading towards something and heading toward a final performance after a series of rehearsals,” Fisk said. “It's just like preparing kids for life in different ways as well for the kinds of things they're going to encounter in the workplace. We have to build toward a final presentation or final result.”

Parents and young musicians who are interested in learning more can visit the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s website.

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