How do you get to Bing Concert Hall? Practice, practice, practice – starting with the Stanford Youth Orchestra

Seventy high school students spent three weeks in a new intensive summer orchestral and academic program that included performing at Bing Concert Hall and the opportunity to build relationships with fellow musicians and mentors.

Video by Kurt Hickman and Aaron Kehoe

Seventy high school students spent three weeks in a new intensive summer orchestral and academic program that included performing at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall.

It's a cross between conservatory and summer camp. The Stanford Youth Orchestra (SYO) is a collection of remarkably talented young musicians brought together for three weeks in July to master works by the likes of Dvořak and Tchaikovsky, make friends with musicians from around the country and perfect their Frisbee toss.

In addition to daily practice with professional musicians and three public performances in Bing Concert Hall, the 14- to 18-year-old musicians study music theory, composition, musicology and psychoacoustics with instructors from Stanford's Department of Music and the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA).

So, what did you do on your summer vacation?

SYO is a new program offered this year by Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies (SPCS), an administrative unit formed in 2012 to coordinate and promote pre-collegiate programs and encourage faculty to propose new educational initiatives for the younger set. Like other SPCS programs, such as the Summer Humanities Institute and the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, the youth orchestra enriches and enhances the educational experience of secondary students. "Tomorrow's students today" is the SPCS motto.

Christine Parker, the associate director of academic programs for SPCS, points out that with the opening of Bing Concert Hall earlier this year, there was an ideal opportunity to highlight the richness of Stanford's performing arts resources to a world perhaps more accustomed to thinking of Stanford as a place to study engineering or entrepreneurship.

"Maestro Jindong Cai came to SPCS with the idea to start a youth orchestra that not only focuses on the arts at Stanford, but also serves as an example to high school students of how they can keep music in their lives once they get to college," Parker said. "Stanford is a place where students can not only experience rigorous academics but also engage in the performing arts at a high level. Why just choose to do one or the other? We say, choose both."

Plans for SYO 2014 include expanding the size of the orchestra, adding a non-residential option for local students and arranging for the orchestra to play in additional venues outside of the Bay Area to increase the program's exposure as well as to provide more opportunities for the students to perform.

This first SYO orchestra was made up of 70 musicians from 20 states and a handful of countries outside the United States, including a quartet from Mongolia.

An experience worth writing home about

From the residential counselors to the artistic director, the SYO staff and faculty are rock stars, er, rather… maestros.

The orchestra rehearsed with Associate Professor Jindong Cai, the SYO artistic director and director of Stanford Orchestral Studies, for three hours each morning, six days a week. It was Cai's job to prepare the musicians for their public performances. Other rehearsals, sectional coaching and private lessons were led by professional musicians from the San Francisco Symphony and other ensembles from the Bay Area.

L.A. CiceroStanford Youth Orchestra rehearsal with conductor Jindong Cai

Students rehearse with music Associate Professor Jindong Cai, Stanford Youth Orchestra artistic director and director of Stanford Orchestral Studies.

Counselors, who function as residential and teaching assistants as well as role models, were selected from a stellar pool of Stanford undergraduates and graduates and top music students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Anna Wittstruck is in charge of SYO academics. In addition to being a PhD candidate in musicology, she is the assistant conductor for the Stanford Orchestral Studies Program, where she helps direct the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, the Stanford Philharmonia Orchestra and the Stanford New Ensemble.

Wittstruck defines SYO as a unique learning environment for young musicians that combines the professional training of an orchestra festival – including mentorship from San Francisco Symphony musicians and an intensive performance schedule in a brand new, state-of-the-art concert hall – with interdisciplinary, academic immersion.

"My goal is to deepen and enliven the musicians' engagement with and understanding of music while preparing them for the intellectual demands of university life," said Wittstruck, who set up a curriculum through which the musicians' connection to the music they play is contextualized and challenged.

"In the afternoons, participants learned about music theory, analysis and how their orchestral repertoire fits in a broader cultural history. They also learned about possible interfaces between music and technology through an introduction to psychoacoustics, music and programming, and guest lectures and performances by CCRMA professors," said Wittstruck.

In addition, each musician learned how to write his or her own music, culminating in a presentation of group projects where students orchestrated and performed their own compositions. Wittstruck says these academic activities served to expand the participants' horizons as musicians and invigorated their musical inquiries as performers, and also exposed them to the possibilities of intersecting methodologies and disciplines.

Over three public performances the orchestra performed works by Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake Suite, Sleeping Beauty Suite, Violin Concerto in D Major, op. 35), Dvořak (Cello Concerto in B Minor, op. 104), Beethoven (Symphony No. 7 in A Major) and Grieg (Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16, First Movement). The final concert also included solo performances by the student winners of the SYO Concerto Competition. These three young performers (Albert Cao, violin; Robert Shi, clarinet; and Hannah Thompson, viola) each had their moment to shine in the Bing Concert Hall, a privilege that few have yet had in the new facility.

"Music can be part of students' lives whether they become performers, humanists, entrepreneurs or engineers. They don't have to choose," said Wittstruck. "This, to me, is the mantra of Stanford's artistic community, and it is what makes SYO a natural extension of Stanford's intellectual mission."

Christine Parker, Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies: (650) 721-9377, [email protected]

Carmen Suen, Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies: (650) 724-8040, [email protected]