Each week at three sites around Los Angeles, almost 800 students gather to play music.
They’re all part of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), an initiative of the Los Angeles Philharmonic that’s been providing underserved youth with a robust music education program for a decade.
“YOLA is as much a social program as it is a music program,” said Gretchen Nielsen, Director of Educational Initiatives at the LA Phil. Begun in 2007 with a single site at the EXPO Center in South LA in partnership with the Harmony Project, it’s modeled after El Sistema, the world-renowned Venezuelan music education system from which the LA Phil’s dynamic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel hails. A second site at Heart of Los Angeles opened in 2010, and a third opened in 2014 at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.
It’s a very intensive program, with students in programming 15-18 hours a week. But all that work pays off. YOLA musicians have played on the biggest stages in the world—including the Super Bowl Halftime Show with Coldplay in February 2016.
“They’ve performed on the stages of Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl several times, sometimes accompanying the most amazing artists across genres,” said Nielsen. Indeed, they’ve backed stars like Juanes, Gloria Estefan, Journey, and Stevie Wonder. They’ve also worked with the biggest stars of the classical music world including conductors Sir Simon Rattle and Marin Alsop, violinist Hilary Hahn, pianist Emanuel Ax, and of course, Gustavo Dudamel himself.
Some YOLA students have even toured internationally with the LA Phil. “In 2013 we started bringing students on tour with the LA Phil, when they do special projects in conjunction with music education programs. They start seeing other students like them in other places, striving in the same way, and that really became apparent when we brought together students from other El-Sistema-inspired programs.”
To celebrate the program’s tenth anniversary, YOLA also had a tour of its own. 80 of the most advanced students from each of the three sites traveled up the West Coast to share their history and accomplishments.
Nana Ampofo, a 9th grader at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and a student at YOLA at Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), has played bass in multiple YOLA orchestras and ensembles for three years and joined them on tour. “YOLA hasn’t only taken me places, but it’s also given me a new mindset of what it means to be a community, and how music is bringing everyone together,” she said.
Through all this, YOLA musicians have had many opportunities to bond with LA Phil and other professional orchestra musicians. Through “side-by-side” rehearsals and performances, in which the students and professionals perform together, they’ve found motivation in each other.
“They love getting to know one another through music,” said Nielsen. “In particular for the LA Phil musicians, it’s being able to connect to something that they know is deeply important to their music director, and to the LA Phil. It has built relationships that have lasted over time.”
Nielsen has watched mentorships develop, with some LA Phil musicians even giving students ongoing private lessons. “At one side-by-side we did with the LA Phil one of our musicians, who is now studying at San Francisco Conservatory, was sitting beside our Concertmaster Martin Chalifour,” she said. “His advice was instrumental in her choosing to go to conservatory, and how she’s approached learning the violin and viola.” She appreciates the mutual benefit both parties receive. “I think those side-by-side moments are just as important for the students as they are for the musicians because it brings them closer to their younger selves. There’s a deep connection there.”
Students also bond with the teaching artists that work with them each week. “The teachers at YOLA bring a new perspective,” said Ampofo. “They make sure no matter how different you learn, everyone’s on the same page. They’re teaching us not only how to read the music, but also how to become a better person.”
In the coming years, Nielsen wants to grow even further. “There’s a lot of demand. We have waiting lists at every site.” She sees a lot of opportunity to create a more formalized program that develops students for collegiate music programs or conservatory training, giving them more mentorship opportunities, private lessons, and preparing them for applications and auditions.
This all is in service of Nielsen’s biggest goal. “We want to create a pipeline of YOLA students that will one day make it into the LA Phil. That’s the big dream.”
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