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COVER STORY : Kids Keep Music Alive : Sound of Music Stirs Civic Youth Orchestra

December 05, 1991|TRIVENI SHESHADRI

Children eager and ready to learn, committed music educators and supportive parents throughout North County have brought to life two regional youth choirs and a youth orchestra.

A number of area schools have bands, but few have orchestras or choirs. Some never developed music programs; others have dropped or trimmed them to save money. Students have increasingly turned to private lessons and community ensembles.

In a little more than a year's time, the Children's Choir and the Palomar College Youth Chorale have been born and the North County Civic Youth Orchestra has seen dramatic growth. The three groups are now among key musical outlets for students in North County.

It is a Saturday morning and, while most North County residents are waking up and smelling the coffee, a group of more than 100 youngsters, all members of the North County Civic Youth Orchestra, are making their weekly trip to the music building at Palomar College. As rehearsals begin, the building is awash in the sights and sounds of the orchestra.

In one room, conductor Marcy Mansour leads her ensemble of mostly elementary school students in a spirited rendition of "Frosty the Snowman."

Around the corner, in another room, Robert Gilson guides a full symphony orchestra of teen-age musicians through the intricacies of Mozart.

And, in the hallway, there is excitement and anticipation in the air as conductor Ulli Reiner calls out names to audition for a new chamber orchestra.

Now in its sixth year, the orchestra has become a training ground in ensemble music for young music students from all over North County. An offshoot of the San Diego Civic Youth Orchestra, the program was established in the fall of 1986 with Palomar College as the co-sponsor.

The goal of the orchestra is to provide training to students to play in ensembles, explained Gilson, who is also the music director of the program and an associate professor of music at Palomar College. "We want them to learn not just about the notes, but the music and the composer, who Beethoven was, who Bach was and why they are considered great musicians."

The musical staff of the orchestra has accomplished just that, without too much fanfare or publicity. Since its inception five years ago with only 24 students, the growth of the program mirrors the growth of North County itself. Enrollment is at an all-time high of 120 students. Members are drawn from across North County and range in age from 6 to 18.

"The growth curve of the orchestra was amazing," says Gilson. "We knew it would grow. But we had no idea that it would take off."

The orchestra has three levels--beginning, intermediate and advanced. The beginning and intermediate groups are string ensembles, and the advanced group is a full symphonic orchestra with strings, woodwinds and percussion instruments.

All three groups play in at least three major performances a year. The advanced orchestra, which performed at the Kidz-Artz festival in Balboa Park in October, has been invited to performat the annual California Music Teacher's conference in Pasadena next April.

Open auditions for the orchestra are held in September. Mid-year auditions are held in February. To be a member of the orchestra, students have to satisfy two requirements, Gilson said. First, they should be taking private music lessons and second, they should participate in their school's music program if it has one.

In fact, the close interaction and mutual sharing of information between the orchestra and the music teachers in the schools is a cornerstone of the program. "We work very hard in building rapport with the music teachers in the schools," explained Reiner, conductor of the intermediate orchestra and a teacher in Poway. "We want to support each other. We want the students to get the extra exposure of the orchestra and also maintain the music programs in the schools."

The orchestra rehearses every Saturday morning, September through June. "It is not a casual involvement," said Gilson. Working from the theory that the student should only compete with him or herself, the conductors stress teamwork. "We try to articulate the policy that everyone is a winner," he added.

According to Mansour, conductor of the beginner's group, the orchestra experience also develops the students' ability to focus attention and schedule time.

Emily Balderrama, a budding 10-year old violinist in the beginner's group, has learned to balance her school work, music and other extra curricular activities. "I play softball, and I have homework and the orchestra. I fit it all in, and it is real nice. I make time for everything," she said.

Students pay a $75 per semester tuition fee to participate in the orchestra. Additional funding comes from COMBO, and other private foundations, businesses and individual contributions.

Advanced orchestra students receive one unit of college credit per semester from Palomar College.

Parent volunteers have formed a strong support system for the orchestra, contributing in almost all areas of its operations including registrations, mailings, arranging receptions, preparing newsletters and spreadsheets.

"We feel the program is so valuable and costs so little, we almost feel guilty if we don't give something back," said Edith Ratliff, a parent volunteer. "The education that they get from this musical staff is amazing. And it keeps them off the streets on Saturday mornings."

The orchestra is looking ahead to expanding its horizons in music education. One of the goals is to award scholarships to at least two or three students to continue their education at advanced programs, Gilson said. Another long-term goal is to help area school districts that don't have music programs to establish them.

For additional information about the North County Civic Youth Orchestra, contact Robert Gilson at Palomar College, 744-1150, Ext. 2319.

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