The youth orchestra experience: a letter to, and about, WYSO

I thought some readers might be interested in a little essay I contributed to the current edition of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ newsletter. A text version follows the scan.

Youth orchestras are incredibly important- they make a huge difference in all kinds of young people’s lives. Support the one in your community!

WYSO Newsletter



When I was still in preschool, my teacher took a few of us to hear Marvin Rabin rehearsing WYSO for an upcoming performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. My parents had an LP of the piece at home, but hearing that music live, and seeing young musicians play it so well was a transformational moment for me. It set me on the path to a lifelong engagement with orchestras, with Shostakovich, and with conducting. From that moment, I was determined to be a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Once I joined the orchestras, my years in WYSO were full of important firsts. Tom Buchhauser made every Philhramonia rehearsal exciting and enjoyable. Working with David Nelson, I remember playing the music of Mahler and Dvorák for the first time.  As a senior, I was doubly lucky to be there for the arrival of James Smith as music director, and to be promoted to principal cellist. I had never felt anything was missing from my WYSO experiences up to that point, but Jim’s wisdom, musicianship, leadership and humor totally transformed the orchestra that year. Every rehearsal with Jim was productive, inspiring and challenging. We only studied about half as much repertoire as we had in previous seasons, but under Jim, we learned it in real depth.  For a young musician who had already developed more than a passing interest in conducting, Jim was a perfect example of what a conductor should be, and what a great conductor can contribute to an organization. When that incarnation of WYSO finished its run after an East Coast tour, there were a lot of teary goodbye’s, but, happily, many of us have stayed in touch ever since. People I worked with in WYSO continue to be friends and colleagues to this day.

Jim set the bar very high in WYSO. Just how high I learned after graduation when I began my undergraduate studies in cello at Indiana University’s School of Music. On my first concert in the freshman orchestra, we played the very piece that we’d worked on with Jim for all of the previous year- Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony. I was so excited to do the piece with all these amazing music majors from all over the country, but in spite of a wealth of talent in the group, without the right kind of leadership, and an institutional commitment to excellence,  the performance fell far short of what we’d managed in WYSO just a few months before.  From WYSO I learned that the true measure of an orchestra is not how many hotshot players you can cram on stage, but getting them to work together, and making every rehearsal the best it can be.

I’ve conducted just about every kind of orchestra there is now, from the Royal Philharmonic right down to the most modest gathering of amateurs, but working with young musicians has remained a constant source of inspiration. During my years in Oregon, I founded a new youth orchestra, which has produced a number of wonderful young musicians in its first ten years, and WYSO was very much the model for that organization. Likewise, whenever I guest conduct youth orchestras, I try to remember it’s about more than putting on a concert. The lessons learned and discoveries made in WYSO shaped me as a musician, and serve as a reminder that youth orchestra is a place to open doors that can change lives forever.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

1 comment on “The youth orchestra experience: a letter to, and about, WYSO”

  1. Martin Headley

    Mr. Woods:
    A profound YES to the sentiments in your blog. It is my sincere belief that Youth Orchestra participation is one of the most significant factors to continued interest in this profound art form of “classical music” that will enable it continue. My own experience was with the Northern Area Schools Symphony in the West Riding or Yorkshire – that became a North Riding Sponsored endeavour on local government reorganization in 1974. We had the opportunity to work with excellent conductors (a number of our bretheren “made it” to the pros.) as well as performing works such as an Arthur Butterworth world premiere For me it made participating in the Manchester University Chamber Orchestra alongside colleagues enrolled at the Royal Schools of Music a breeze (I was an accounting major). I have also seen the impact on my son who was a member of the Athens Youth Symphony in Georgia (USA) which has tackled such significant projects as a Kevin Puts symphony.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *