As prodigies go, much of the time we think of individual child prodigies, like maybe the young opera singer Jackie Evancho, who at only 10 years old gained popularity with her appearance on “America’s Got Talent.” Or maybe you think of Leann Rimes, who had a hit record at the age of 13. Whatever your thoughts on prodigies, you may be surprised to know that there are groups of powerful prodigies right here in Nashville.
As a case in point, take the Music City Youth Orchestra (MCYO).
Now in their seventh season, the MCYO was founded by Walter Bitner, who is also the conductor emeritus. Bitner is a music teacher at the Nashville School of the Arts. World-renowned electric violinist Tracy Silverman is the artist-in-residence, famous for his ability to mesmerize audiences with his innovative instrument and unique playing style.
Silverman conducts an annual musician’s retreat in the fall and teaches a master class about his unique style-called strum-bowing, which sounds a bit like chopping. Silverman humbly states, “Music City Youth Orchestra embodies the ideal of a well-rounded musician. Classical, jazz, rock and world music of every kind is exactly the musical diet most kids prefer, and the MCYO ethic gives the kids ownership as well by letting them be involved in every step of the process, from choosing the music they will perform to appointing various administrative tasks to the kids themselves. It’s really a musical cooperative, and it’s an honor for me to be involved in the musical lives of these talented kids.”
How does a student go about becoming part of the MCYO? Do they have to audition? Are there only certain times of year?
According to Executive Director Leann Austin, “They just have to love music and play a stringed instrument. We can audition them any time of year, and if it’s mid-season, they can just come and sit as an observer, and then we’ll audition them during the break or the like. They can also join the Chamber ensemble program, if they’re not quite advanced enough to make the concert orchestra. But some do both.”
The Mission of the Music City Youth Orchestra is to attract and educate the youth of our community about the lifelong importance of music.
The experience the students get in studying music can be carried with them throughout their entire lives. According to the League of American Orchestras, research has proven that arts education uniquely provides academic and social benefits, preparing students for success in school, work and life. These findings are further supported by a 2010 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Research (Helmrich, B.H., faculty at the College of Notre Dame) that determined formal instrumental instruction is positively correlated with algebra achievement – and findings are consistent across racial stratification.
Many of the MCYO students go on to pursue music degrees or a career in the arts, so they understand how important a great music education is to their future. Most do not mind the disciplined training, because they still get to have fun, play music and make new friends.
“We have been part of other orchestras, but never one that brought so much diversity, surprise, fun, challenge and excellence,” relates David Hutchens, parent and chair of the Orchestra’s Advisory Board. His daughter Emory is the concertmaster for the Orchestra.
Austin informs, “We have the classical foundation, but we build from that. We let them play rock and jazz, and they love jazz! It helps attract kids, too, to the orchestra, because they realize they can play music that they’ll really enjoy playing in the orchestra.”
Austin proudly continues to relate how they work to arrange free concerts. The purpose is to give the students the opportunity to perform in a public arena while also giving the public a chance to see these talented students at their best.
Some of the free concerts of late have been the joining of MCYO with Ballet in the Park, the Youth Orchestra Festival at the Nashville Symphony’s Free Day of Music, and the concert held in Sept. 2013 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s (TPAC) Polk Theatre. The students performed with the Phoenix-based rock band CTS to benefit the American Fallen Warrior Memorial Foundation.
Though all the members of the orchestra are self-contained prodigies in and of themselves, one or two play more than one instrument, and some even have plans to pursue higher music education.
Young Jack Maxwell started out in the MYCO’s Chamber Orchestra. He later auditioned for the Concert Orchestra and made it! Now 14 years old, when MCYO performed with CTS, Jack put his violin down, plugged in his electric guitar and rocked the house. Austin says, “It was amazing!”
A second musician of note is 18-year-old high school senior Nate Currie. Nate is planning to pursue audio production or broadcasting after graduation. He already produces electronic music in addition to being part of MCYO. “I appreciate the broad music experience I’m getting through MCYO. It’s been great,” says Currie.
Can you support the MCYO – or even encourage your own prodigy to join?
Of course! All your child needs is a love for music and the ability to play a stringed instrument. The MCYO is a non-profit organization, but they do find it necessary to charge a tuition that covers each student for the entire year. An occasional fundraiser garners sponsorships from corporations and individuals. They are also supported by awarded grants, and the proceeds from each ticket-based concert also go to support the organization.
With a mission “to attract and educate the youth of our community about the life importance of music” and seeing that mission at work, it’s no wonder that Leann Austin proudly proclaims, “It’s just inspiring! I don’t have to attend the rehearsals, but I go to almost every single one because they’re just great kids. They really inspire me!”
For more information on Nashville’s Music City Youth Orchestra, please visit musiccityyo.org, LeAnn Austin, Executive Director, 615-200-6296.