Maine Youth Rock Orchestra gives classical musicians real-world experience.
For young violin and cello players, performance opportunities have long been limited to a certain type of concert: the kind your parents and grandparents are happy to attend, but probably not your friends. No matter how beautifully they are played, the melodic notes of a Bach concerto or a Mozart symphony are more likely to elicit polite applause than a raucous standing ovation.
If you’re a student musician lucky enough to play with the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra, exuberant enthusiasm is exactly the response you can expect, especially when you’re backing up a popular band like the Ballroom Thieves or Darlingside—just two of the national acts MYRO has performed with since it was launched in 2014. After watching a number of videos on YouTube, I can’t wait to be in the audience when MYRO plays its first concert of this season in November.
“It makes them excited to play live when we have a screaming audience and light shows,” says MYRO founder Kevin Oates. An educator and cellist, Oates hatched the idea for a youth rock orchestra out of his own experience playing with bands on tour and in the recording studio. “There weren’t those opportunities for orchestral strings students in schools; they just didn’t exist,” he explains. “We focus so much on classical technique, which is important, but so is just getting kids to play music, to love what they’re doing and be passionate about it.”
What started with 12 kids is now a 27-piece orchestra, open to classical musicians ages 12 to 18. MYRO draws students from 14 Maine schools, including Baxter Academy in Portland, and middle and high schools in Portland, Falmouth, Saco, and York, plus a few from New Hampshire. A second program, called MYROCK, is for less advanced string players ages 10 to 15. The groups each rehearse once a week in MYRO’s light-filled office and studio on the corner of Congress and High Streets in Portland, overlooking Congress Square Park.
There are high standards for those who participate. “People hear ‘rock orchestra’ and it’s like ‘OK, that’s fun,’” Oates says. “But we make the students audition with the same requirements used for All-State, the top youth orchestra in Maine. I don’t settle.”
To find performance opportunities for the fledgling group, Oates first turned to Maine musicians he knew well: Lyle Divinsky, now a member of the Colorado progressive funk band, the Motet, and Sara Hallie Richardson, who recently moved to Los Angeles to further her career. MYRO has also played with the Maine-based band Ghost of Paul Revere, and the rapper Spose, but increasingly, the orchestra performs with groups from out of state.
The Ballroom Thieves, a trio from Massachusetts, have shared the stage with MYRO more than any other band. The video for their song “Bury Me Smiling,” backed by MYRO, was recorded for NPR’s website, and the orchestra accompanied the band on a nine-day, eight-state tour over the school break in April. The grueling schedule included eight performances and a “day off” for a master class. “They got it so quickly and were so on point,” says Thomas Scola, one of the parent chaperones on the tour whose 15-year- old daughter, Olivia, plays the viola. “By the end of the second day, we couldn’t call them kids; we had to call them young adults.”
Olivia, a student at Baxter Academy in Portland, has played viola since the third grade and has performed with the Augusta Symphony Orchestra. “But there wasn’t that engagement,” her father says. “It wasn’t until she started playing with MYRO that I saw this look on her face when she’s on stage—it’s her true happy place.”
Baxter Academy senior and violinist Theo Dean is MYRO’s concertmaster, meaning she is responsible for tuning the orchestra and is one of its soloists. A veteran performer with classical music groups, she “wanted to follow up on that sense of community with a little more fire,” she says. “It’s a really cool experience to be on stage and to be with the people in the orchestra, but also to be acknowledged by the band and the audience.”
I didn’t have the good fortune to be in the sold-out crowd at the Strand Theatre in Rockland when MYRO played “Blow the House Down” with Darlingside at Hollerfest II in November of 2014. But I’ve watched the video and it gives me goose bumps; I can only imagine what the experience was like live.
“They started to play and the entire Strand Theatre just sat up,” says Rockland resident Valerie Landsburg, who made a last- minute decision to attend the show with her boyfriend. “People were crying. I was just completely blown away.” An actress and singer-songwriter who played Doris Schwartz on the 1980s TV show Fame, Landsburg became MYRO’s benefactor that same night. “I walked backstage and put out my arms to Kevin and said ‘I’m Valerie; what do you need?’”
Landsburg’s financial support initially helped pay Oates a stipend so he could afford to run MYRO full-time. She now serves on the board of directors and looks for ways to bolster the nonprofit orchestra and its director, who calls her his “emotional guru.” Her passion for MYRO comes through clearly even over the phone. “I’m in this for the long haul. Kevin started this like many unbelievable teachers do, out of their own pockets. The work we do on the business today for MYRO becomes the platform for other teachers to do what Kevin is doing for the upcoming generations of classical musicians. ”
Oates’s dream is to develop youth rock orchestras in other states. “After seeing what it’s done for the students, not only for their musicianship, but their self-confidence, their creativity—and what it does for the community—I think this is something special that should be done across the country.” His next YRO will launch in September of 2017 in New York City, followed by Miami and Colorado. Later this year, he will hold auditions via YouTube for the American Youth Rock Orchestra, made up of the top 100 orchestral students nationwide, which will perform a single concert in a different city every year, starting with Chicago next August.
“It’s such a cool idea to give kids a shot to be put in a live situation that’s not a recital or school concert, but very real-world,” says bassist Sean McCarthy, one of the members of the band Ghost of Paul Revere, which has played with MYRO live and in the studio. “The first time we heard those arrangements played on those instruments—which aren’t easy—we got shivers.”