Reflections on a Stellar Performance

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now that the flurry of the fall season has calmed down, I want to reflect on the incredible experience of watching and listening to our first concert of the year, “Prelude” that took place a month ago today, November 6th, at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox.

I have seen many SYS concerts over the years but this one was particularly exciting to me as all four orchestras were in prime form. It was hard to believe the students had only eight rehearsal nights with their conductors before pulling off this stellar performance.  For a first-of-the-season concert, it was outstanding. Their fine conductors should take much of the credit for this success.

All of our concerts take place in the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox, a gorgeous hall that was renovated nearly ten years ago. The Spokane Youth Symphony was one of the first “artistic constituents” to perform after the renovations were completed in 2007 and we have had the opportunity to provide this, the performing venue jewel of the Inland Northwest, as the place where our students get to shine.

Our concerts always begin with the youngest, entry level orchestra, the Spokane Youth Strings directed by Dr. Marshall. They performed arrangements of the Entrance of the Queen of Sheba by G. F. Handel and The Flop-Eared Mule by Andrew Dabczynski. Even as these students were still getting accustomed to the performance venue setting with an attentive audience, we were delighted to the entertainment value produced by Dr. Marshall in both the Dabcqynski and the combined piece with Sinfonietta, Shut Up and Dance, arranged by Michael Story. From holding out long notes in the fiddle tune while he took a moment for “selfie” pictures with a student or encouraging the orchestra members and audience to dance, this was a rousing beginning to the concert.

The Spokane Youth Sinfonietta, conducted by Ms. Heather Montgomery performed just prior to combining with Strings. The pieces performed were the beautiful and harmonically full arrangement of The River is Wide by Robert Sieving and the Prelude and Courante by Henri Eccles, arranged by Merle J. Isaac — an elegant and moving first movement followed by a faster movement reminiscent of courtly Baroque era music.

Next, the Spokane Youth Philharmonic led by Dr. Roberta Bottelli came on the stage and performed three selections, Waltz, from Sleeping Beauty Ballet Suite by P.I. Tchaikovsky,
The Abduction from the Seraglio, Overture by W. A. Mozart (arranged by Merle J. Isaac) and Hungarian Dance, No. 5 by Johannes Brahms. It was a joy to hear the strong and excellent sound this orchestra was able to produce particularly with large violin and bass sections. Dr. Bottelli did a phenomenal job with Philharmonic.

Finally, after intermission, the Spokane Youth Symphony Orchestra performed under the direction of Dr. Philip Baldwin.  The pieces on this concert were not well-known but wonderful concert selections; Overture to “Zampa” by Ferdinand Herold (1791-1833) and
The Seasons, 3. Autumn 4. Winter, “Christmastide” by Edward German (1862-1936). The German piece, in particular, was such a full and enjoyable performance which made full use of the strings, woodwinds and brass.  The orchestra’s performance was fantastic!

I would like to share here a link to the video recording of the German fourth movement. Enjoy!

Best wishes to you all,

Jennifer O’Bannan
Executive Director, Spokane Youth Symphony

For more information about the Spokane Youth Symphony, visit


“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” Our Holiday Wreath Sale!



Now that our new season is in full swing, with nearly 200 students enrolled and practicing together each Monday night under the direction of our four incredible conductors, it is time to think about holiday wreaths!  I know it may seem a bit premature, considering we have had 80 degree weather this week. But, now is the time that our students start selling the fresh evergreen wreaths made in Montana at the family-owned, Calvert Ranch.

The SYS organization has sold these wreaths for the last 13 years as our primary yearly fundraiser. The wreaths (they come both in the traditional round type as well as the candy-cane shaped variety) are sold to many enthusiastic customers in the region who appreciate these large (boughs spanning 26″-30″ in width), fresh wreaths and anticipate buying them every year. Many purchasers claim that they stay fresh well into January and even February. Some say they wait to take them down on Valentine’s Day! The price for these beautiful wreaths is only $22 each or 5 for $100.

The sale is something of a contest for our students and their orchestras as they try to see who can sell the most. There are prizes for the highest winners. But, for me, the funnest part of the sale is “wreath pick-up day.” This is the Saturday before Thanksgiving when our wreaths are delivered and our SYS families pick them up to distribute them to their customers. In past years, we did this in church parking lots where board members toasted hot dogs and marshmallows. I always came home the night of the wreath pick-up day smelling like I had been camping. But, the down-side to that arrangement was that we braved the cold and the elements, including snow and rain.  So in the last few years, we have been blessed to be hosted at Custom Strings on E. Trent Ave. where we can actually hand out the wreaths indoors. With the great help of parent volunteers and some students (like the ones you see the photo above from last year’s pick-up day) who help load wreaths into cars, trucks and vans, the day is great for connecting  and having fun.

Thanks to the great work of our business manager, Rachel Dorfman who motivates and encourages the students to sell, our families who talk to their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and teachers, our board who often buys wreaths to give as gifts, and the Spokane community who buys the wreaths to support SYS, our  holiday wreath sale continues to be a real highlight to our season and helps us to continue to provide superior orchestral education and performance opportunities to the youth of the Inland Northwest.

If you would like to buy a wreath, talk to one of our current students to order with check or cash. You can also choose to order with credit card online:  Holiday Wreath Sale (local delivery only)

The sale ends on October 24th.

Thank you for supporting the Spokane Youth Symphony!

All the best,

Jennifer O’Bannan
Executive Director
Spokane Youth Symphony

For more information, visit


Why We have Auditions

This weekend, we will have our second round of entrance auditions for the 2016-17 season which begins in just a couple of weeks.  Most musicians do not enjoy the audition process.  But, they are a necessary part of a youth orchestra experience.  Why is that? I am going to attempt to share with you the types of auditions that we have as a regular part of our program and hopefully, take away some of the mystery that may surround these events.

One type of audition is, as I was referring to earlier, the entrance audition. In the Spokane Youth Symphony, all students are required to pass an audition in order to be accepted into any of our four orchestras. The purpose of these auditions is to give the conductors of our orchestras the chance to hear each student play scales, study piece excerpts, and a solo to determine whether or not the young musician has the necessary skills to participate in the orchestra for which they are auditioning.

Here is the way the process for entrance auditions works. The student (or parent or private teacher) goes to our website Auditions page and clicks on the link to the orchestra level that most closely matches the skills of the student.  A PDF with scales and study piece excerpts is downloaded, printed and practiced for several weeks or months, usually under the supervision of a skilled private instructor. When the Audition Sign-up Form is posted on our website a few weeks before auditions, the parent submits the form and an audition time-slot is scheduled.  The student then comes to the audition at the time and date specified to perform the required material for the orchestra conductor. The conductor and a parent or another adult are usually the only people present in the room. The audition takes about 15 minutes and may include a short conversation with the conductor. Within a few days after the audition, an email is sent to the student and parents letting them know the result of the audition. If accepted, the student is then enrolled by the parents to officially participate in our program.

I have assisted the checking-in process at entrance auditions over the years and have observed that students  often mistakenly think that if they make a mistake or two in their performance, they will not be accepted into the orchestra. Fortunately, that is not the case! (Professional orchestras do have very high standards when musicians compete for a position, however.) The conductors of our youth ensembles really use the audition as an opportunity to evaluate the student’s playing level and readiness to participate in their orchestra. A missed note or rhythm is not the end of their opportunity to join the orchestra. I am very confident in the ability of our conductors to give fair and educated assessments of each musician, always giving the benefit of the doubt.  They really want the student to succeed! We are very happy whenever new students come and “try out” for one of our orchestras.

There is another type of audition that is used, approximately twice yearly, which is the seating audition.  This kind of audition is usually done in a “blind” format (unlike our entrance auditions where the conductor meets the student). For seating auditions, our coaches (members of the Spokane Symphony) listen to the students play one-by-one, performing preassigned excerpts from the orchestra music. The coaches listen to each student while taking notes on what is heard. The coach will have his or her back turned and does not see the student. This is done for anonymity so the results will be as fair as possible. The information is later compiled and students are then assigned to specific seats in their section of the orchestra. Usually, the strongest players sit in the front chairs.  Dr. Baldwin, our artistic director, has written for us the following philosophy for the seating auditions (found in the SYS Handbook 2.2:)

Auditions play an important role in the training and development of a musician, and the system in use by the SYS is typical of all elite ensembles, whether student or professional. While every care is taken to seat students fairly and on the basis of their audition, it is important to recognize that auditions are by nature subjective, and that there is no perfect system for evaluating students. It is important to understand that audition outcomes are in no way intended to discourage students or to belittle their efforts. Auditions judge a player’s abilities on a given day, but are not meant as a judgment of a student’s character or as a way of assigning their relative value to the organization. The SYS conducting staff endeavors to reward hard work and to value every student’s contribution to the organization and the musical product.   

So, all of this to say that though the audition process is probably the least-favorite aspect of orchestra playing for musicians, it should not send a message of rejection to interested and motivated students who would like to join. We welcome new students to audition for one of our orchestras.  Please visit our Auditions page for links to more information.

Best wishes to you all,

Jennifer O’Bannan
Executive Director, Spokane Youth Symphony

For more information about the Spokane Youth Symphony, visit



Reflections Following Music Camp Week

Today, I am enjoying an opportunity to reflect on the week’s events following our Sensational Summer Music Festival 2016 that just ended last night with a concert at St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane.

It is always so remarkable to me (and to all others who observe the process) what happens in a week of music camp.  There is so much focused energy expended by the talented and committed conductors, coaches and students during a very short period of time which produces significant results.  The contrast between the tentative sounds of music that was being sight-read on Monday morning and the confident performance on Thursday evening of the same week is truly amazing.

Another wonderful by-product of the daily experience of students coming early and staying until evening to learn new music in an orchestra setting is seeing new relationships forged and strengthened.  These kids share experiences in achieving a goal of performing beautiful music that only days earlier seemed impossible.

The chamber music portion of our camp this year was really a success.  Students in the Strings Chamber Camp came two hours earlier than the other students each morning to work on trios and quartets that they all successfully performed last night in the Cathedral just prior to the orchestral performances.  In addition to learning to play the music, they experienced the challenge (and exhilaration!) of successfully performing before a large, attentive audience.

All in all, I am convinced that this music camp experience is so very valuable for our students and for young musicians in general. I believe that the benefits of next week’s two-day SYS Day Camp at HNMC for our two younger orchestras  will be very much like that which was experienced this last week by our advanced orchestras.

Now, I need to finish up the preparations for next week’s Day Camp!

Best to you all,

Jennifer O’Bannan
Executive Director
Spokane Youth Symphony

For more information, please visit


SYS Years Gone By

IMG_1779IMG_1781As I am working in the SYS office today, I enjoy looking at the pictures and posters on the walls from years gone by.  I thought I would share some of these with you.  Maybe, some of you remember playing in one of our orchestras during those times?  The photos show some former (and one current!) conductors and students from some years ago.  The posters above promoted concerts in different venues than the Fox Theater where our orchestras perform today.  One poster promoted a concert on May 18th (no year given) at Whitworth University (then “College”) and the other two were at the “Opera House,” now known as the INB in downtown Spokane.

If you didn’t realize it before, the Spokane Youth Symphony organization was started in 1949. Quoting from our SYS History page on our website:

“The Spokane Junior Symphony was born on July 28, 1949, as a nonprofit organization formed to promote a junior symphony in Spokane similar to the famous Portland Junior Symphony Orchestra. Harold Paul Whelan, director and founder of the Spokane Philharmonic, recognized the need for this kind of orchestra had long been felt by prominent  musicians in musical circles throughout the Inland Empire.  Not one of the high schools, alone, could interest enough personnel for a symphony group and no orchestra group was available exclusively to the many talented post-high school young people engaged in musical work.  Under Whelan’s initiative and talented direction, Spokane Junior Symphony began rehearsals in the KXLY television/radio building.  It included 30 musicians from junior and senior high schools and colleges–and a desperate need for oboes, bassoons and violas, a need which continues, at times, even to this day! Applause for the ever changing group of talented musicians has been ringing through the air ever since its first concert on May 23, 1950, held in the Commandery Room of the Spokane Masonic Center.”

Many concerts under the direction of a number of fine conductors have taken place since that time.  There has been tremendous support from SYS families through the years along with the ongoing and crucial work of our board and staff members through the years. Local professional musicians have always worked in the wings with our students in private lessons and coaching sessions to help them achieve the necessary skills to participate in our program.

If you are one of our hundreds of alumni, we would love to hear from you!  Please submit this form, SYS Alumni Questionnaire, to let us stay in contact with you. Also, you can be added to our Alumni web page, if you wish.

Best wishes to you all,

Jennifer O’Bannan
Executive Director, Spokane Youth Symphony

For more information about the Spokane Youth Symphony,


Benefits of Orchestra Playing for Young Musicians

Recently, I spent some time thinking about the reasons why I feel passionately about the importance of the Spokane Youth Symphony, and more generally, a youth orchestra experience. So, I came up with the following list. Maybe some of these thoughts will resonate with you as well.


Spokane Youth Symphony Orchestra violinists

Team Players

An orchestra musician must be a good “team player.” This involves three main aspects.

1) Individual musicianship
The young musician learns the necessary techniques of their instrument and learns to read music. The student works to achieve a quality performance as the two aspects are put together. The student must be able to play their part accurately (good intonation, rhythm, correct instrument technique) and expressively (tone quality, articulation, and dynamics.)

2) Cooperative participation with a group
Participation in an orchestra requires the players to learn to cooperate and perform their instrument in a way that brings a unified, quality sound from the group. Each player must learn to play in a way that blends with the others and does not stand out or disrupt the quality of the sound.

3) Positive response to leadership
An orchestra is an excellent way for young musicians to learn to respect authority figures and show support for leaders. Each section has a leader (principal player) and the orchestra has a conductor. Musicians learn to follow their leaders and show proper respect when communication is required. This requires learning to “watch” the conductor for tempos and expressive directions as well as following the section leader, particularly in string sections, by following with correct bowing directions and articulations.

Mental Clarity and Focus
Playing and performing music requires mental clarity. Gaining mastery of the instrumental technique required to perform musical compositions takes concentration and focus. The young musician learns to focus on what is printed on the page and interpret those musical notes, rhythms and expressive details through their instrument. While all this is happening, the musician, along with the other orchestra members, is taking direction and lead from the conductor and principal players with whom they must coordinate to perform the musical composition as intended. Putting it all together is truly an example in multi-tasking.

Excellence applied
Each young musician must play their part in an excellent way to help achieve the goal of a quality performance. Auditions are often used to determine seating based on the level of performance that each student demonstrates for the conductor or instrumental coach. This process helps maintain high standards for entire orchestra.

Participation instead of passivity
Our culture is increasingly passive. Our young people spend much of their time sitting and listening or watching electronic media of some kind instead of actually participating and creating. Performing music in an ensemble is an amazing and wonderful way for young people to use their minds, bodies, and emotions to produce music that moves and benefits other people.

Time management and discipline
In order to become a fine musician, a student must be committed to the process of practicing their instrument on a daily basis. This habit of practicing will enable a young musician to attain the skills and technique needed to learn to play. Playing in an orchestra does require a commitment of time for rehearsals. With the demands that are made on most students, all of this musical activity requires planning and scheduling. The student who learns to schedule their time will have gained an extremely important skill needed for success later in life. As a member of the orchestra, each student is expected to come to all rehearsals on time. This is good preparation for responsibility in adult years.

Expressiveness, creativity and sensitivity
Playing music well requires an individual to get in touch with their emotions on a different level than is usually asked of students. Musicians learn to express through their instrument in a wide variety of emotions that help make music come alive for the listeners. When this is done corporately with other musicians, a shared experience on a very human level takes place.

Stage presence / audience preparation
Orchestral musicians learn to become comfortable performing in front of audiences. This is good preparation for any situation in which they may need to make presentations, musically or verbally. One requirement that is usually made of youth symphony musicians is that of auditions. This is another situation in which a student learns to function under pressure. The more a student has these experiences, the more comfortable he or she becomes in handling them.

Relationship building
The shared experiences that students have making music together often forge long-term, quality friendships. The youth orchestra experience also gives them a group of students with whom they can relate who share their passion for music and excellence.

Draws families and businesses
A youth orchestra program is a community gem that can serve to draw new members into the community. Young professionals and working families relocating to a new area often look for opportunities in the arts for their children when considering a community.

These thoughts come from my own observation and experience. I would love to hear from you other ways that young musicians benefit from participating in a the youth orchestra .

Best to you all.

Jennifer O’Bannan
Executive Director, Spokane Youth Symphony

For more information about the Spokane Youth Symphony, visit