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Opinion: For the love of music

Fairfield, CT — Parents with kids in sports or arts programs typically spend their weekends shuttling around town to practice or lessons in between running errands and doing other weekend tasks. But for one East Lyme family, Saturdays include driving 110 miles so their sons can play music in the Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestras in Fairfield. Yoonju Um says she happily makes the 2-hour drive so her sons, Jun, 15, a cellist, and Jin, 13, a violinist, can attend GCTYO for two important reasons — one she expected, the other something unforeseen and wonderful.

“I genuinely believe that music helps my boys connect to the world around us and enriches our daily lives,” says Um, whose sons have been in the program for five years. “I have seen my boys grow not only musically, but also in deep appreciation and respect for people, culture and environments. My boys also have flourished in their responsibility, commitment, self-discipline and confidence through GCTYO’s program.”

Rehearsing on Saturdays from September through May in Fairfield, GCTYO is the largest of the state’s youth orchestra programs, with more than 330 students ranging in age from 9 to 18. The program sustains 15 different ensembles, including three full orchestras, two string orchestras, wind, brass, woodwind, saxophone and percussion ensembles, two jazz bands, three steelpan orchestras and a chamber music program.

Auditions are held in June and August to determine students’ placements. Young musicians should have a minimum level of competence on their instrument before auditioning and should be able to read music. There are no auditions, and no experience is necessary, to join the steel pan drum program.

GCTYO was founded in 1961 by musicians affiliated with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony. There have been a few name changes over the years, including a long run as Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras. The organization changed its name in 2019 to reflect the full range of over 40 statewide cities and towns it serves.

“Being a part of GCTYO is something that I cherished every moment of,” said Tyler Park, 19, a violinist from Trumbull, who joined the program when he was 10 and completed his final season in 2022. “I made so many friends who shared the same passion for music as I do … and gave me inspiration to become a musician who can keep on improving. Without GCTYO, I wouldn’t be the person and musician I am today.” Park now attends the University of Connecticut, majoring in aerospace engineering.

GCTYO musicians present their work three times a year at The Klein Auditorium in Bridgeport in November, March and May. There are so many students and so much music, the concerts have to be divided into three performances held over a Sunday afternoon and evening.

“My experience was nothing short of extraordinary,” says Tommy Valenti, a clarinetist from Weston who graduated in 2018. “The chance to play alongside professional musicians, the inspiration I felt at every concert when I heard all the groups, and the overwhelming sense of love and friendship that I felt from everyone that I met — all of these things culminated into one brilliant experience.”

The GCTYO program has evolved under the direction and baton of music director and principal orchestra conductor Christopher Hisey, 49, who has been involved with GCTYO for more than 35 years, beginning as a violist in the program at age 11 and continuing through high school. Hisey returned to GCTYO in 1998 as a string coach and became music director in 2008.

Looking back, he says his membership in the program during his formative years made an important difference at a challenging time.

“Music has gotten me through the hardest times in my life,” he said. “When I was in middle school, I was bullied quite a bit. But when it came time to get up Saturday morning and go to [GCTYO], that’s where my friends were. The fact that we were able to get together and play some incredible stuff and then put it on stage and perform it was an amazing experience.”

Hisey’s musical career has taken him around the world and back to the youth orchestra. He’s conducted concerts in Europe, Mexico, Russia and China. He’s taught conducting at Manhattanville College and Fairfield University. He is currently Chairman of the Performing Arts Department and Director of Orchestras and Chamber Music at Greens Farms Academy, a K-12 independent school in Westport, where he has taught for more than 20 years.

Hisey also founded and conducts Fairfield County’s American Chamber Orchestra and the Connecticut Philharmonic, a professional orchestra featuring Connecticut artists. He became music director of the Mendelssohn Choir of CT this year.

That’s a lot of music.

“It’s busy,” he jokes about his schedule. “But really, everything sort of fits into its own box. … There are some days when I feel like I need to have a chat with the person who manages my calendar (that’s me), but most days I’m just happy to be able to do what I love.”

Beyond providing music education and performance opportunities, a critical mission of the organization is to provide students space for personal growth, social-emotional awareness, and most important, a sense of belonging and safety in the GCTYO community.

“For them it’s a time to come together with people who share a love for music and the arts, but more than that, it’s a place where they can just be themselves,” Hisey says, adding, “We as a community have the responsibility to teach our young people that the creation of beauty in the world is so much more impactful than the creation of that which destroys. Being a part of something that is larger than yourself has real value in terms of the relationships our children can have and their mental health and well-being.”

Beth Ulman is GCTYO’s executive director. She says GCTYO also stands out from other orchestra programs in the technical musical level advanced students achieve under the direction of the organization’s 20-plus world-class teaching artists.

“The music they play is challenging,” says Ulman. “The Principal Orchestra plays full-length symphonies and often performs with professional artists. Beginning and intermediate students are challenged as well by music that fits their musical development.”

The teaching artists are also music educators, which makes them especially suited to help students at GCTYO excel, Ulman adds. “They understand child development, which informs their teaching practices at GCTYO. Many teach in schools or give lessons at their own music studios.”

No one is turned away from GCTYO because of inability to pay tuition, which runs about $800 per season. Financial support and scholarships are available to families in need. Students who qualify for free or reduced lunch based on the federal income standards are automatically granted free or half tuition. Other families may request extended payment plans and apply for any of several scholarships funded by private donors.

“There is a misperception that youth orchestras are only for well-to-do families. Our goal is to include as many children in our organization as want to participate and to make sure it is affordable for all families,” says Ulman. “Families hear that GCTYO has a reputation for inclusion, and they seek it out.”

GCTYO holds auditions for new students in June and August each year. Families are invited to attend Open Rehearsals in May or October and any of the organization’s concerts during the year to see what the program offers. For more information, to find out how your child can participate, or to make a donation to the organization, visit gctyo.org or contact Executive Director Beth Ulman at 203-293-8447 or email executivedirector@gctyo.org.

Beth McGuire is a Connecticut-based journalist who has written for national, state and local publications in both consumer and trade media publications for more than 28 years. 

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Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestras Receives $10,000 Challenge America Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts

Fairfield, CT — Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestras (GCTYO) is pleased to announce it has been approved by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to receive a Challenge America award of $10,000. This grant will provide funding to GCTYO to continue its work on breaking down barriers to entry into the youth orchestra organization and facilitating paths to success for children from communities that have been historically excluded from classical music and high quality music education. This grant is one of 262 competitive Challenge America awards totaling $2.62 million that were announced by the NEA as part of its first round of fiscal year 2023 grants.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support arts projects in communities nationwide,” said NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD. “Projects such as this one with Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestras strengthen arts and cultural ecosystems, provide equitable opportunities for arts participation and practice, and contribute to the health of our communities and our economy.”

“This is the first time in recent history that Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestras has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts with competitive grant funding,” said Beth Ulman, the organization’s Executive Director. “We are grateful to the NEA for recognizing the value of GCTYO to young musicians and their families in Connecticut and for helping us support our quest for accessibility, equity, and belonging for all our students, regardless of background or circumstance.” 

GCTYO seeks to close the achievement gap and create more equitable opportunities in music education for students from historically under-resourced communities by improving both their access and their experience and outcomes within the organization. By reducing barriers to entry and success, and offering programming that requires no previous musical experience with its Steel Pan program, GCTYO can guide its young musicians to full participation and engagement in the youth orchestra, which gives them all the academic and social benefits that accompany music education.

For more information about Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestras, including its mission statement, orchestra programs, conductors, events, and registration process, visit gctyo.org.

For more information on other projects included in the NEA’s grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news.

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Six-time Grammy nominated Jazz tour-de-force and New Haven native son Christian Sands and his trio will premiere a new symphonic jazz composition by local composer Rex Cadwallader, accompanied by Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestras under the baton of Christopher Hisey

“Six-time Grammy nominee Christian Sands is a jazz force. His piano playing is “a fresh look at the entire language of jazz.” His music has been described as “stunning” and he as a “singularly gifted musical soul.”

On Nov. 20, 2022, the Christian Sands Trio will join Greater Connecticut Youth Orchestras’ Principal Orchestra on stage at The Klein for the world premiere of Rex Cadwallader’s symphonic jazz composition, “There Will Be Dancing,” written especially for Christian on piano “to capture the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic essence of twenty-first century jazz. The opportunity to enrich those elements with the added richness and virtuosity of the GCTYO orchestra is an exciting prospect that offers performers and audience alike a window into the creative genius of Christian Sands. At the same time, because Christian is such a gifted improviser, the piece will allow for moments of pure, unscripted, in-the-moment musical artistry.” Christian is a native son of New Haven, CT.

“There Will Be Dancing” travels through a variety of musical styles. Jazz is not just one thing, but an amalgam of music from many different cultures. The piece touches on just a few of them: listeners will hear blues, Latin, fusion, contemporary jazz that is still nameless, a lovely ballad, and throughout, sections that allow Christian and his trio opportunities to put their unique stamps on the musical envelope.

GCTYO’s 80-piece Principal Orchestra is conducted by Christopher Hisey. Student musicians perform at a level equivalent to some professional orchestras. In addition to “There Will Be Dancing,” Principal Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” “Beyond the Sea” by American composer Jack Lawrence, and “Overture to Candide” by Leonard Bernstein. GCTYO’s big band Jazz Orchestra will open the program.

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