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Young Musicians Program: Prodigal parade of talent onstage at Berkeley

 Halley Warren
Pianist Halley Warren's rendering of Emma Lou Diemer's "Toccata" brought down the house at Hertz Hall.  (Photos by Charles Herlevic)
 
 

- When pianist Halley Warren took to the stage as part of the recent Young Musicians Program end-of-the-summer concert, the audience was already buzzing from an afternoon of extraordinary performance. But as the 17-year-old Warren launched confidently into her rendition of Emma Lou Diemer's "Toccata," an intricate arrangement that involves simultaneously playing notes and plucking the piano strings to simulate percussion, the Hertz Hall crowd rose to its feet, often erupting into spontaneous bursts of applause throughout the five-minute performance.

Warren was one of 75 Young Musicians Program (YMP) students who performed that afternoon. For these young musicians, this final concert is the culmination of a summer spent studying, practicing, and performing music. For YMP, the concert is a tradition.

For 36 years now, YMP has provided full scholarships to exceptionally gifted, underprivileged children ages 9-18 from around the Bay Area. In addition to offering year-round private instruction, the program welcomes students to the UC Berkeley campus for seven arduous, but gratifying weeks during the summer, all in the pursuit of enlarging and perfecting their innate musical talent.

Despite its lofty goals, YMP is facing daunting economic problems in the coming year. As an academic outreach program, a portion of its funding comes from state outreach grants, which were slashed in half in the recently ratified 2003-04 state budget. Still, YMP administrators and instructors remain committed to continuing to provide free music training to those in need.

Director Daisy Newman lights up as she sings the praises of the program. "YMP will survive. The program is utopian in nature, but it is vital and relevant to today's children."

A whole new world of music

 Daisy Newman
With flowers from grateful parents and students, Director Daisy Newman celebrates the Young Musicians Program final concert.
 

 
 

Newman, an opera singer who spent 18 years touring and performing around the world, came to YMP just this past March. Having begun her career in children's music administration with the New York Philharmonic in 1991, she moved on to direct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Education Program for eight years before coming to work at YMP. "I went through such a battle in Detroit trying to survive with a free lesson program, and they're doing it here year-round, with a summer camp. I couldn't believe it," she smiles.

While YMP is a program designed specifically for disadvantaged children, Newman is quick to point out that it is not a program of entitlement. Auditions to gain admission into YMP are competitive and intense, requiring each applicant to demonstrate their musical ability before a panel of judges prior to being accepted as a participant. Potential students are put through a series of exercises that test their ear for music, as well as their demonstrated skill on an instrument, which requires the performance of a prepared selection of music. This past spring, there were 110 children auditioning for a mere 23 openings.

Once admitted into the program, the young musicians undergo a rigorous course of study. During the summer session, students are required to take classes in music theory and music history, and also receive hours of individual instrumental or vocal tutoring. While each child is already proficient in a particular instrument, they are all given instruction in both piano and chorus.

The majority of new students has had no formal musical training and enter the program unfamiliar with theory and sight-reading, having learned to play purely by ear. Because this type of structured music education is new for many of the young musicians, there can be a period of adjustment. "A lot of the kids come into the program playing little folk tunes they've learned by ear. Because they have an innate musicality, they resist learning how to read music," says Newman, explaining that the children are required to study sight-reading for ten minutes at the close of each lesson.

The program's training focuses on two genres of music – jazz and classical. "Some students relate more to jazz than classical," says Newman. "But all of our kids receive classical training first – starting off with basic scales and techniques, and eventually moving on to selections by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. I tell them that they can't get away from theory. If they want to play jazz, then theory is more important to them than it is to the classical musician. They must understand chord structures, because that's what jazz charts are built from."

Not just another music program

One of YMP's primary objectives is building the self-worth of the child, which includes addressing issues of discipline and protocol. "When we accept a child via audition, we must address the whole child," says Newman. "A lot of the kids don't understand that they must come on time, with their music and their instruments in order. I talk with them about performance protocol, private lesson protocol, dress code – and I impress upon them the importance of hard work," she says. "The children must achieve — they must meet expectations or they will be invited to leave."

The program also focuses on the student's future, placing a heavy emphasis on preparation for college. During their junior year of high school, YMP students receive SAT training, college search counseling, and tutoring through Americorps. Headquartered at Morrison Hall in the center of the UC Berkeley campus, the summer camp allows the students to fully take in the collegiate environment. "Bringing the kids onto the campus of a major university like this one plants the dream for higher education. Without that kind of early contact, you've got a hard sell as the kids get older," says Newman, noting that in the past 16 years, an amazing 100 percent of YMP seniors have gone on to some form of college.

A number of YMP graduates return to the Berkeley campus during the summer to work with the current students. This summer, seven former students, including lead counselor Jeannine Anderson, spent their summer teaching and mentoring the kids. Anderson, who finished the program in 1991, has gone on to receive her bachelor's degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and her master's in opera performance from the Mannes College of Music in New York. She has come back to work with YMP nearly every summer since she left. "I learned so much while I was here, " says Anderson, "and now I can come back and offer these kids advice about what awaits them when their time here is over."

Graduating senior Ana Valderrama appreciates what the Young Musicians Program has meant for her over the last five years. Valderrama, an accomplished flautist whose composition "Poema 20" won a standing ovation at the August 3 final concert, will be attending USC this fall on a full academic scholarship. "Being at YMP has been so enriching for me. Being here kept me grounded and reminded me of what is important in life," says Valderrama, who was this years recipient of the "Director's Award for Superior Overall Achievement."

What does the future hold?

With the summer session and final concert behind them, the students and staff of YMP are looking forward to the coming year. Though the current cuts in state funding are worrisome, YMP administrators are confident that they will survive with the help of private donations. Already receiving about two-thirds of their funding through corporate and civic sponsorship, they know that they will have to do even more fundraising in the future. "We're certainly concerned," says Newman about the impending cuts. "But I'm an optimist. Part of my job here is to raise money through private donations and I intend to pursue that vigorously."

Another of Newman's immediate goals is getting the word out about what they're trying to accomplish at YMP. For much of its existence, the program has relied on word of mouth to advertise. She plans to change that, and envisions a parents public relations staff that will do the grassroots work in their communities – putting up posters, handing out flyers, and talking to the local press. Newman also plans to recruit more vigorously, and wants to visit as many schools as she can in the coming months. "I call it 'going into the field,'" she says. "The word is not getting out enough into the communities. I run into too many people who tell me that they've never heard of us and we need to change that."

"We have a unique opportunity here to help children from low-income homes become better musicians and better citizens," says Newman. "I am excited to be here, doing the work that I'm most passionate about, and I believe that we can make YMP even stronger and more dynamic in the coming years."