By Thomas May | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine

“This was the program that allowed me to find my voice and my love of music,” says double bassist Skyler Lee. For cellist Zenaida Aparicio-Alejo, it has always offered “a place where we can rely on each other—on friends and teachers.” Both musicians have been involved with Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) since the age of ten, culminating in their recent participation in YOLA National at Home, a virtual version of YOLA’s intensive summer learning initiative.

YOLA has become a signature of the Gustavo Dudamel era. Its creation predates his first season at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 and shows the influence of the educational philosophy that shaped him—a philosophy that has since spread across the United States and internationally. The conductor had been nurtured in his native Venezuela by El Sistema, an all-encompassing approach to music as an agent for social change and the direct model for YOLA. Starting out playing violin, Dudamel emerged, while still a teenager, as music director of El Sistema’s top-level ensemble, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, in 1999.

Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the L.A. Phil from 2000–17, became inspired by her encounter with El Sistema as she learned more about the dynamic young conductor. She resolved to bring a similar program to Los Angeles. The presence of an initiative modeled on El Sistema, Borda and her colleagues hoped, would make their offer of directing the L.A. Phil even more attractive for Dudamel. 

But regardless of whether he accepted the post, Borda foresaw the benefits of such a program for Los Angeles and persuaded the L.A. Phil’s board to approve an El Sistema–like youth program. Thus, YOLA was launched in 2007. Not merely an orchestra, YOLA is a comprehensive education and support program that comprises multiple initiatives, among which are several orchestras. Its primary mission is to provide musical access to socioeconomically underprivileged young people. 

Serving a constituency that is close to 100-percent BIPOC, YOLA has engaged with music as an agent for social change from the start: nothing about its vision had to be updated to harmonize with the newly felt urgency for social justice. YOLA has weathered the Great Recession and, now, the coronavirus pandemic, concluding the digital “translation” in July of its acclaimed YOLA National programs, which are tailored for young musicians as well as major stakeholders in the nearly 100 youth programs inspired by El Sistema around the US. 

YOLA student Zenaida Aparicio-Alejo

Dudamel, himself only 27 at the time, expressed his amazement with the very first crop of young musicians after his initial meeting with them at a YOLA rehearsal in December 2008. “Already there was that spark in them, of loving to play music together,” he said, as Tricia Tunstall reports in Changing Lives, a study of El Sistema and its significance as a model for YOLA and similar programs across the world. 


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Dudamel remains the most prominent international symbol of the success of El Sistema, which was founded in 1975 by the late José Antonio Abreu, Dudamel’s principal mentor. YOLA has in turn become one of the signatures of the Dudamel era in Los Angeles. Borda initially sought advice from Abreu, who counseled her to “start small” but then to “grow without fear.” 

Beginning with just 80 students and one orchestral site (at the EXPO Center), YOLA has since grown exponentially. The community-based program currently serves 1,300 young musicians and has four different sites around Los Angeles (including South L.A., East L.A., the Rampart District, and Westlake/MacArthur Park). A fifth site nearing completion is intended to double the number of participants: YOLA Inglewood (a 25,000-square-foot facility immediately to the northeast of LAX Airport), which will become the program’s permanent home base. Designed by Frank Gehry, architect of the L.A. Phil’s home at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Beckmen YOLA Center at Inglewood promises to become a milestone for YOLA when it opens at the end of the year or early 2021. 

“The goal is not necessarily to create professional musicians,” explains Elsje Kibler-Vermaas, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s vice president of learning. Rather, YOLA is primarily envisioned to serve as “a creative youth-development program” for young people, ages 5 through 18, from underserved communities in the region. It provides students with free instruments and free instruction (totaling 12 to 18 hours per week during and after school) plus individual tutoring and college preparation. Also integral to the program are the opportunities it gives to perform in local communities and on tour.

“The musicians learn how to work on responsibility in listening to each other.”

Learning an instrument is based on a collaborative model, with ensemble playing understood to be a core value. Performing with peers combines the shared goals of a music-education initiative with a youth-development program. “The musicians learn how to work on responsibility in listening to each other,” says Kibler-Vermaas. YOLA is thus ensemble-based and, in Los Angeles, currently comprises ten ongoing orchestras at the individual sites, as well as two cross-site orchestras (Children’s Orchestra and Symphony Orchestra). These provide opportunities to perform in local communities and—for those in the top-level YOLA Symphony Orchestra—on international tours as well (which often mark the first occasion students have to travel outside Los Angeles).

But like the young people who have come through its ranks—the first class of seniors graduated in 2015—YOLA has grown from its experience and refined its programs to reflect the insights of alumni. YOLA offers support, for example, for college applications, training with L.A. Phil musicians, and travel to auditions. Kibler-Vermaas points out that “99 percent of YOLA alumni now go to college, which is high for students coming from the neighborhoods where they are growing up, and 29 percent of these major or minor in music.” 

YOLA National was designed to prepare the most motivated students—some 60 percent of whom are string players, like Skyler Lee and Zenaida Aparicio-Alejo. YOLA National Festival is the program’s version of summer music camp: an intensive orchestral training program for students ages 12 through 18 from El Sistema–inspired programs. A total of 180 young musicians from across the US (from 20 states) took part in 2020’s YOLA National at Home virtual edition, plus more than 50 from partner programs in Latin America joining in for the festival sessions online. “The ultimate aim is to create a civically minded community of young musicians. The students really learn from each other,” says Kibler-Vermaas. “We’ve been able to provide this unique festival experience to students who usually don’t have access to this level of music festival.”

Even in its digital incarnation via the technology of Zoom, the YOLA National Festival allowed students to communicate with peers and work with high-level faculty from around the country, with Dudamel leading a master class at the end. Even a virtual prom was held—a festival tradition—allowing the students to socialize as they normally would throughout the two summer weeks when the festival is usually held on a Los Angeles campus. Only their enthusiastic games of soccer could not be replicated online. 

Aparicio-Alejo, who switched at the age of ten from violin (an instrument familiar to her from mariachi bands) to cello, remarked that the experience of YOLA at Home as well as advice from her mentors would help her begin her next phase at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University, Long Beach. She noted that quarantine time had allowed her to focus even more on practicing her instrument. 

“I am so grateful for being a part of YOLA and the opportunities it has brought my way,” says Lee, “from giving me an instrument to training me and shaping the way I am today.” He plans to continue his career path in the fall at the Eastman School of Music. Both Lee and Aparicio-Alejo emphasized the benefits they gained from playing in YOLA’s top-level orchestra, which included a tour last November to Mexico City. Lee singles out these concerts as his most enjoyable experiences with YOLA. “There’s nothing like performing with friends.”

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