They have standing invitations to perform at Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House. Yet the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony Association is not that well-known in its hometown. And that's a shame.
"There are still people that don't have any idea we exist," says executive director Debi Krause-Reinsch. "We've been here forever, we're a big part of the community, and I think that's the case for many nonprofits."
CSYSA was founded in 1980 when Gary Nicholson, a trumpeter from Kansas, and Monte Brown, a fellow School District 11 teacher, decided this area needed a youth symphony. Their 70 junior-high-aged musicians gave one performance that first season.
Now, CSYSA's 450 musicians are giving more than 60 concerts to around 40,000 people annually, in venues ranging from the Colorado Springs Airport to local nursing homes to celebrated concert halls across the nation and beyond.
From start to flourish
Musicians ages 7 to 18 from 60-plus schools, from Castle Rock to Cañon City, audition every year for one of the seven ensembles under the CSYSA umbrella. They include string, wind and full orchestras tailored to the kids' skill levels; more than 30 local professional musicians serve as their coaches. At the top is the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony, a full orchestra for advanced players that Nicholson conducts.
"We're all about high quality," Krause-Reinsch says. "It's not 'how much we like you or your parents,' but we know that kids will just reach to that highest level. So we keep a real high standard and our parents and our kids appreciate it."
SiSi Peng certainly does. The 17-year-old has worked her way through the ranks for six years and is now first violinist in the Youth Symphony.
"The people involved in this organization are fantastic, from our conductors and coaches to the board and office workers, from our parent volunteers to my fellow musicians," she says. "The people are what make this organization great, and why I re-audition year after year."
Also, CSYSA started Mozart Strings in 1994 to provide beginning instruction to elementary-school students, since few local grade schools have strings programs. Mozart Strings features "practice partners," pairing veteran members with rookie musicians. It's open to kids in any local school district, with one-hour rehearsals held twice a week.
Get what you give
Music education is paramount, of course, but adults involved with CSYSA want these young people to excel as citizens, too.
"Gary Nicholson is a top-notch teacher, not just with music but with philosophy," Krause-Reinsch says. "Because he has kept that thought about high quality and giving to the community, that's what we still do. We do what we say; we don't mess around."
Not "messing around" includes expecting kids to show up and be ready for rehearsals, camps and performances. If they don't, CSYSA will wish them well and say goodbye.
That may seem like a lot to ask of children and teens. But the organization has a track record that suggests such commitment instills discipline, responsibility and other values that serve kids well later. Alumni are performing in Cleveland and Hong Kong, while others are in teaching, the military, the foreign service.
Speaking of foreign service, in June 2014, Nicholson, Krause-Reinsch and any other adults who'd like to go along will shepherd 80 young musicians through Japan. They'll perform in cities including Tokyo, Kyoto and Fujiyoshida, Colorado Springs' sister city, and will premiere a commissioned work that combines the full orchestra with Japanese taiko drums.
Tours happen every other year, and in the past have gone to countries such as Bulgaria, Turkey and New Zealand.
"Outside of having a great musical experience, we want them to be exposed to other cultures," Krause-Reinsch says. "And that means living in homes, not being in a hotel, and realizing that people all over the world are pretty much the same."
The students are learning Japanese, at least rudimentary phrases. "The kids might not be able to communicate very well, but when they're playing music it just doesn't matter anymore," she says.
That's when the young musicians step into the role of ambassadors.
"Our goal is to represent, not only the city, but also the country, because when people think about American youth, it's not real positive," Krause-Reinsch says. "They expect our kids to show up in trouble, with weapons. And of course, they then realize, 'No, they're just regular kids.'"
The tours and all CSYSA programs aren't just for children of the wealthy. Donors and fundraising help CSYSA provide $40,000 annually in scholarships for lessons, instruments, uniforms and travel costs.
Somehow, they always find a way to nurture talented young people. In those 34 years, Nicholson says, he's worked with thousands. And sometimes, he sees them again onstage.
"I get a special thrill when CSYSA grads perform locally with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. Since I perform with the Philharmonic, I then have the opportunity to play with former students. That's pretty cool."