By Cristina Schreil
They’re called the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra—but don’t expect an army of electric instruments. “For the first two years, people had no idea what Maine Youth Rock Orchestra really was. They were really confused,” says Kevin Oates, the executive director, conductor, and founder. He had to explain. The Maine Youth Rock Orchestra was inspired by a trend: when major pop, rock, or folk artists share a stage with a professional symphony—such as when Metallica played alongside the San Francisco Symphony in 1999.
For people who, like Oates, have noticed in recent years that more mainstream artists have incorporated string orchestras into their concerts and recordings, this format may sound like an exciting new frontier. However, Oates—who has years of experience teaching music in public schools and at music camps—realized that only about half of his students understood that this kind of music-making is a viable career option. Oates himself is also a cellist; he’s played in a rock band, done studio work, and gigged at festivals like South by Southwest (SXSW). He noticed a gulf between what his students were learning in the classroom and the reality of many professionals.
To his students, it was a foreign concept that a working string musician could be in a rock band or on a folk recording. It was time to expand horizons.
“I realized that there was never that connection for student string players: real world application, learning how to use their classical skillset in other areas aside from classical music, but still reinforcing it through that technique and skillset you learn through being that classical musician first,” Oates says. “Teaching at a public school, we focus so much on the concert. We focus so much on building technique and skill for the concert—not building skill and technique and those skillsets for life.”
He also noticed that students often don’t discover these other career options until college. But, by then, many students have already quit music. A central pillar to Oates’ vision is that students are motivated to continue music—in whatever form, whether as a hobby or degree—into adulthood. “You spend all these hours and time grinding, learning the skillset, for this instrument that you love, and then I’d say probably 90 percent of them quit the second they graduate high school,” he says. Oates claims that the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra’s entire alumni still play music.
In 2014 he founded the nonprofit program—affectionately nicknamed “MYRO.” Thirty-five students, ages 12 to 18 and from 14 schools across central and southern Maine, rehearse once a week during the season. It’s not a complete departure from classical; students must audition with classical repertoire, such as a concerto or an unaccompanied Bach work. Since MYRO’s inception, the students have performed with more than 40 artists and bands from around the country. Collaborating artists include Guster and folk groups the Ballroom Thieves and the Ghost of Paul Revere. Most of the time, the charts are arranged in-house, by Oates and an assistant. Oates insists that the arrangements aren’t watered down for students; in some cases, it’s the same music that professional musicians played with the visiting band.
“Teaching at a public school, we focus so much on the concert. We focus so much on building technique and skill for the concert—not building skill and technique and those skillsets for life.”—Kevin Oates, MYRO executive director, founder, and conductor
Oates also sees MYRO as a vital avenue for expanding and deepening existing string- music curriculum, and acknowledges it will be an uphill battle for resource-strapped educators—there are only ten K–12 string programs in the entire state of Maine.
Francesca Houran, 17, MYRO’s concertmaster, says this is apparent. She performs in her high school orchestra along with an area youth orchestra. “There are more and more kids who don’t have access to private lessons and who still play strings maybe in their school programs, but they’re just not as advanced,” Houran attests. “It’s faltering a lot.”
Houran is also part of one of MYRO’s two sub-groups: “Rocktet,” an octet comprising the orchestra’s principal players who take on extra concerts and gigs, such as weddings, over the course of the year. (The other, “MYROCK,” is a beginner ensemble for younger kids.) At these gigs, the students are in charge of tasks like setting up and sound check.
Houran, who’s played the violin since she was six, says that joining MYRO has directly impacted her classical performance. For one thing, she now dances in her chair, even in a classical concert. “I think that musical versatility is super important in being a musician and I think a lot of classical musicians don’t understand that,” she says. Houran hints that the MYRO kids form their own niche within existing youth orchestras. “What makes MYRO so amazing is that the kids are not technically classically the best at all, but they’re so good at performing and so good at understanding how to perform and how to complement the bands that we’re playing with that we’re able to do it better than a technically amazing classical group I think.”
There are other advantages to steeping in rock, folk, and other alternative genres. “What’s actually great about rock-pop music, compared to classical, is that it is super rhythmic,” says Oates. He adds that kids hone their skills in ear training, sight reading, and listening to and understanding other sections of the orchestra. The junior division, MYROCK, offers a more fundamental training through the lens of alternative genres. Oates plans to expand the programs to other states soon.
Cellist Annie Dodson, 17, has been in MYRO for three years. She aspires to be a professional musician and eats up the eclectic experience at MYRO. Like Houran, she is also in the Rocktet. “As a child I was always like, ‘I love rock music, it’s more fun,’” she says. “But also, being trained classically, I wasn’t sure how I’d do that without playing guitar or bass—which I also do—but on my main instrument. So then it was really, really cool to come to the first rehearsal and see, ‘Oh, this is what I’m doing. I’m playing cello with a band. And it’s weird, but it’s awesome!’” She describes MYRO as her door into playing contemporary music. “I don’t think I would be as involved in the music world as I am now without MYRO.”
One experience before a recent concert with the Ballroom Thieves, however, was what opened her eyes to the bridge—not divide—between these genre worlds. To warm up, Dodson started playing some classical repertoire onstage. Callie Peters, the Thieves’ cellist, took note of what Dodson was playing. To Dodson’s surprise, Peters joined in. “I was like, ‘Oh! We have the same roots!’” Dodson recalls. “That was just really, really mind blowing to me.”
Perhaps the greater impact, however, has been on Dodson’s confidence. Before joining MYRO, she describes herself as an anxious middle schooler who wasn’t part of a distinct group. MYRO, where the students often already have shared affinities for alternative genres, offered a special community. “Being part of a group like that is extremely powerful for your confidence,” Dodson declares. “You feel seen.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Strings magazine.