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Meet the Conductors of our Youth Orchestra Program

Christopher James Lees, Katie Ebert, and Eric Thompson, III 

Students returning to the Charlotte Symphony's Youth Orchestra (CSYO) program this fall will recognize two familiar faces returning to the podium: CSYO Principal Conductor Christopher James Lees and Youth Ensemble Conductor Eric Thompson. They'll also have the opportunity to meet Katie Ebert, who joins Eric Thompson this year as Co-Conductor of the Charlotte Symphony Youth Philharmonic. We caught up with our three conductors to find out what they are most looking forward to in the upcoming year. 



As Principal Conductor of the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestras, Christopher James Lees oversees the entire program and works directly with the musicians of the Youth Orchestra, our most advanced ensemble. These extraordinary young musicians perform professional-level symphonic repertoire and have the opportunity to perform side-by-side with members of the Charlotte Symphony.  

"I am ecstatic that this will be the first time in three years that the families in the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestras will have a normal start to the season. Adding two sensational leaders to our Youth Philharmonic leadership team -- Eric Thompson III & Katie Ebert -- also ensures that all youth orchestras will take significant steps towards our vision for a dynamic, musically enriching program that is widely accessible for all." ~ Christopher James Lees 



New to the program this year, Katie Ebert joins Eric Thompson as Co-Conductor of the Charlotte Symphony Youth Philharmonic, our intermediate ensemble which performs advanced high school level repertoire and serves young musicians between the ages of 8-16. Katie is in her 19th year teaching in public schools and is the Director of Bands at Cuthbertson Middle School in Waxhaw, NC. She is a three-time award recipient of the National Band Association's Citation of Excellence and was recognized as Cuthbertson Middle School's Teacher of the Year in 2016/17 

"I am incredibly excited to have students from different schools come and make music together!  Music is what feelings sound like, and the experience of sharing these feelings together, through music, is such a valuable experience for our young people today." ~ Katie Ebert 



Eric Thompson III is returning for his second year as conductor for the Charlotte Symphony's Youth Ensemble, a new training ensemble designed to introduce our youngest musicians to cooperative playing with hands-on instruction. Eric will also work alongside Katie Ebert as Co-Conductor of the Charlotte Symphony Youth Philharmonic.  

"I am absolutely thrilled this season to share all the wonderful, exciting, and magical repertoire Katie Elbert and I have planned for CSYP! I am equally elated for CSYE, and our young musicians who will experience playing in a full orchestra -- many for the first time, with coaching from Charlotte Symphony musicians! I would also like to resonate Christopher James Lees' enthusiasm. It will be an exciting year for our youth orchestras, and I think everyone will enjoy our musical journey!" ~ Eric Thompson, III  Read more

Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as CSYO, Education.

The Charlotte Symphony is… Educating! With Youth Ensemble Conductor Eric Thompson



The Charlotte Symphony Youth Ensemble (CSYE) is a new training ensemble designed to bridge early music education with the Intermediate and Advanced Youth Orchestras. The CSYE is an introduction to music ensemble learning and provides regular coaching by Charlotte Symphony musicians and conducting staff. >> Learn more

We recently caught up with Eric Thompson, conductor of the Charlotte Symphony's new Youth Ensemble to hear about the group's first rehearsal and what he hopes students gain from the experience. 

How does the Youth Ensemble differ from the Symphony's Youth Philharmonic and Youth Symphony?
Sometimes students are discouraged by the audition process, they might not have a private teacher or access to this level of music education, but this is an ensemble that they are able to play in. In this group, the ensemble playing comes first, then the rest. 

I understand the Youth Ensemble recently had its first meeting how did it go?
It was absolutely amazing! The kids are very excited, many are playing in an orchestra for the first time. The excitement was certainly there and I can't wait to see what's going to happen!

What do you hope students will take away from their first season?
From this first season, I really hope that the students start that journey -- that lifelong pursuit and interest in music. I'm certainly hoping they learn to love music as much as I do. And I want to get them plugged into the music pipeline, not only the CSO's three ensembles, but other things, like Western Regionals, All-State, arts camps, and all the things they can get into with music. 



What other skills have you seen students develop from playing music?
Certainly, some of the skills that you gain from music and playing in an ensemble include a sense of community, confidence, motor skills -- but it's more than that. My brother started an El Sistema-based program in Philadelphia. Not too long after starting the program, the schools improved tremendously. The Principals thought that they were doing something like a study hall, but it was all the music. There are all these extra positive things that happen from being involved in music and an ensemble -- even without the kids knowing it! I'm really looking forward to seeing that happen. 

What would you say to students who don't think orchestral music is for them?
Music is for everyone. Music is absolutely universal. I remember hearing my first live concert -- the New York Philharmonic performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in the Park. It was just so exciting! I see so many students who are not interested in orchestral music. But if they give it just a little bit of a chance, they are always excited about it. I would encourage students to give it a chance and give it a try. There are so many things out there that we can close ourselves off to because we've been told that it's not for us, or we assume that it's not for us. But when I think about all of the music that's out there from all of these different composers -- it really is just wonderful. 

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Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as CSYO, Education.

The Charlotte Symphony is… Music in Our Schools


More than 11,500 fifth-graders from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools packed the Belk Theater for the annual "One Musical Family" concerts held March 1-3, 2022.

For more than 30 years, March has been designated Music In Our Schools Month by the National Association for Music Education, and what better way for the Charlotte Symphony to celebrate than to welcome every CMS fifth-grader to a concert!

Since the 1950's, thousands of school children have been attending special Charlotte Symphony concerts that introduce them to orchestral music. It's all part of the Symphony's mission to nurture a passion for orchestral music in our community through diverse programming and top-notch instruction.



At this year's annual concert, funded by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board, students enjoyed music by Rossini, Mozart, Brahms, and more; including a new work by Syrian composer Kinan Abou-afach about the displacement of refugees. Students prepare for the concerts months in advance, using the Symphony's study guides, lesson plans, worksheets, and special activities.


The Symphony trip for CMS students is vital to the implementation of a comprehensive arts education," said Windy Fullagar, Performing Arts Specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. "Not only does it support our arts mission, but it also enables students to see and experience instrumental music in hopes they will want to explore it in the middle grades."



For nearly 70 years, the Charlotte Symphony has inspired and educated local school children through the power of music, and each year the Symphony's educational mission is growing stronger. 

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Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as Education.

Inspiring the Next Generation



A decades-long partnership between the Charlotte Symphony and Northwest School of the Arts continues to inspire the musicians of tomorrow. 

After a quick tune, the musicians of Northwest School of the Arts Orchestra split into sectionals the cellos follow Charlotte Symphony cellist Denielle Wilson to work on the opening bars of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition while the first violins work on fingerings and technique with Kathleen Jarrell, assistant principal second violin for the Charlotte Symphony. These coaching sessions are part of a decades-long partnership between the Charlotte Symphony and Northwest School of the Arts, a CMS Magnet School that provides specialized arts instruction for students in grades 6-12. 

The CSO's Northwest Residency Program is an immersive music education program in which NWSA students work intensively with professional Symphony musicians through individual, sectional, and ensemble settings. 

"The students look forward to seeing the coaches come in," said NWSA Orchestra Director Erica Hefner. "I see students taking more ownership over their role in the ensemble, whether it's by being a leader, or by identifying their strengths and challenges."

Denielle Wilson, who recently joined the CSO, worked with NWSA cello students for the first time last month. "The students were very responsive and flexible. On the first day I was trying to get an idea of their playing levels and what they were comfortable with, and I found that they were all good at figuring out how to make music with their instruments independently, and that makes me excited as a coach!"



Kathleen Jarrell, on the other hand, has been coaching violin at NWSA for more than ten years. "It's been exciting to see the orchestra program's growth. I love helping kids feel more successful at violin, and helping them enjoy being a part of an orchestra. Performing is one of the great joys of my life, and helpings students find that joy and excitement is fulfilling."

Outside of regular coaching sessions, NWSA students attend CSO concerts and rehearsals and work with the Symphony's talented conducting staff. They can also enroll in Recital Seminar, a class unique to the region which focuses entirely on chamber music. CSO musicians serve as both coaches and mentors, focusing on the communication between players, music analysis, and expressive playing. 

Erica has seen first-hand how this partnership has impacted the lives of her students both musically and personally. "Having someone who is a professional on your specific instrument tell you how, when, and why can be incredibly validating to a teenager. In a world where they are constantly questioning their choices and finding themselves, having a professional say 'Yes, that's it!' is motivating."

For Kathleen, it's about creating an experience that is enlightening and inspiring. "I hope the students come away from a coaching session with increased skills and with new confidence and a sense of accomplishment."

"Most of our students do not take private lessons, so having coaches work with them on solo audition material, as well as college audition material, is not only valuable it can be life changing!" ~Erica Hefner, NWSA Orchestra Director

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Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as Education, Northwest Residency Program.

In Her Own Words: Jirah Montgomery



A former member of the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra, Jirah Montgomery also received musical training through the Symphony's Northwest Residency Program. Now, as an assistant with the Charlotte Symphony helping with the Youth Orchestra program, Jirah shares how early access to music education has shaped her into the person she is today.  

My name is Jirah Montgomery, and I've been playing the violin for close to 13 years. Throughout the years, I've learned countless things about how to play the violin both skillfully and artistically. I've learned that playing every note in a piece of music perfectly does not equate to you mastering the piece. There may be a number of "rules" as a violinist, but it's the sole act of playing the violin that helps me feel liberated as I continue to grow up. 

I started playing the violin in 3rd grade in a community program at my elementary school. It's where I met my first violin teacher, a woman I still learn from and now work with today. I had liked the act of playing/learning the violin, but I was not too keen on learning how to read sheet music. I would simply remember how a piece sounded as the class played it all together, go home, and play around on the violin until I found the correct notes by ear. I didn't get very far with this method, as the more challenging the music grew, the more challenging it was to "fake it till I made it". However, once my teacher found out my method, she made sure to spend time with me, showing me how to read music. Not only did she teach me how to read music, but she helped me find my passion for music. She taught me how to take the joy and motivation I felt from actually learning the notes and apply them to the music, literally. 

That feeling continued throughout elementary to middle school, from middle school to high school, and then on. That joy I felt from my first year of playing the violin continued to grow through intense music camps/events, music auditions (both the successful ones and not so successful ones), good seating auditions, and not so good seating auditions. No matter what challenge I encountered and no matter how I came out at the end of the challenge, that joy stayed there, and eventually, through opportunities I was blessed to receive, I was able to share that joy with others. 
 

Jirah Montgomery performing side-by-side with the Charlotte Symphony as part of the Northwest Residency Program

I mentioned those music camps/events where I would be able to share my joy of music with others, but those were usually for a weekend or a week (at the most). It was the events through CSA, CSYO, and my middle/high school orchestra that helped me make longtime friends who also have a passion for music. I would look forward to the days where I would leave school and head to "reunion class" or CSYO rehearsals. Some of my fondest memories come from my reunion class days where we would have potlucks every once in a while. We would all bring our food of choice (it didn't matter whether it was homemade, KFC, or a cultural dish) and we would all sit and eat like a huge family (which we definitely were). I also have countless memories, all of them fond, from CSYO. The rehearsals were held at my high school, so every Tuesday my friends and I would meet in the orchestra room (where the rehearsal took place) before walking out to my car in the student parking lot. We would drive through after-school traffic to a cookout not too far from the school, and we would do this every Tuesday without fail. We would get back to the school, eat, and then help set up. It may seem simple to some, even a little "too much" to others, but it was something I genuinely looked forward to every week. What's better than a meal with close friends followed by playing beautiful but challenging music alongside other friends? 

Even in the hardest times, I vividly remember music always helping me in some way. It could be listening to music, playing music, or downloading random sheets of music from IMSLP; without fail, music has always been there for me. A lot of people wonder where they would be had they not done something when they were younger; I have never wondered what my life would be like had I not continued to play the violin in elementary. 

Right now, as a junior in college, I major in Criminal Justice and minor in Psychology. I've been asked what made me "stop liking the violin". I stand by my answer that I never stopped liking the violin and that I just found something else that I'm also passionate about. Music has always been, and will always be, a monumental part of my life. It's because of music that I've made the friends I have today, who in turn have shaped me into the person I am today. Music has quite literally had an effect on everything in my life, and I honestly wouldn't have it any other way. 

~Jirah Montgomery  Read more

Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as CSYO, Education.

Welcoming Back Our Youth Orchestra Musicians

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The Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra is back for the 2021-22 season! On September 7, our Youth Orchestra Programs returned to in-person rehearsals at Park Road Baptist Church. Rehearsals resumed in the Gymnasium allowing for a greater number of students to socially distance while masked. Despite the larger rehearsal space, our attendance has grown and necessitated splitting the orchestra into two smaller groups for rehearsal purposes. Those mini orchestras are rehearsing the same repertoire and will later be combined for full rehearsals and concerts. Everyone on site was overjoyed and smiling beneath their masks at the prospect of making music again. Read more

Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as CSYO, Education.

Youth Orchestras Get Back to In-Person Rehearsals

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Dr. Jessica Morel leads the CSO Youth Philharmonic in their first rehearsal of the seasons.
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The CSO Youth Orchestra in their first rehearsal in more than a year.
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Dr. Jessica Morel leads the CSO Youth Philharmonic in their first rehearsal of the seasons.
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The CSO Youth Orchestra in their first rehearsal in more than a year.
 
 
 
After 12 months apart, the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestras got back to in-person rehearsing thanks to the generosity of Park Road Baptist Church, which allowed the groups to safely gather in their parking lot. Spirits were high as the groups came together to rehearse works by Chance, Mozart, Mackey, Bryant, Beethoven, and more! The outdoor location allowed for lots of music while still adhering to social distancing guidelines. 

The Youth Orchestra's sounded so wonderful that neighborhood families came by to watch them rehearse from a distance! 


CSO Resident Conductor, and Youth Orchestra conductor, Christopher James Lees shares his excitement at the first rehearsal


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Posted in Education & Community, Youth Orchestras. Tagged as Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestras, CSYO, Education.

Representing Project Harmony


We couldn't be prouder of Kaleb, Shreya, and Micah, who join our Director of Youth Orchestra Programs Aram Kim Bryan in representing the Charlotte Symphony's Project Harmony at the 2021 El Sistema USA National Symposium and Seminario. This year's theme is "Connect, Adapt, Thrive!" with a focus on racial diversity and cultural understanding, musical excellence during the pandemic, and team and family support pre- and post-pandemic. 

Kaleb, Shreya, and Micah performed the premiere of "What We Will Be," a work composed by Danielle Williams of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids, as part of the 2021 ESUSA National Seminario Orchestra. Along with her PRESTO (Program for Rising El Sistema Organizations) Cohort members, Aram Kim Bryan will present on the core values of El Sistema, USA.
 
From left to right: Shreya, Micah, & Kaleb

A powerful after-school intensive program serving families who face challenges and seek to provide greater opportunities for their children, Project Harmony provides free instruments, ensemble music training, and homework help to Charlotte area students. Together with our project partner, Arts+, the CSO serves more than 200 Charlotte area students. 

Project Harmony is inspired by the revolutionary music-for-social-change organization, El Sistema, which began in Venezuela in 1975. There are more than 100 El Sistema USA member organizations and programs throughout the United States. The CSO is one of only five in the state of North Carolina, and Project Harmony is the only affiliated program in the Charlotte region. Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as community, Education, Project Harmony.

A thank you to arts educators, from CSO Musicians

This week we're celebrating Arts in Education Week, a national celebration recognizing the transformative power of the arts in education. As professional musicians, Principal Clarinetist Taylor Marino and horn player Andrew Fierova have been profoundly affected by their music education. We asked them to share their stories. 


Taylor Marino, Principal Clarinetist:

"Having grown up in Charlotte, I owe this city and its music educators a great deal of gratitude for supporting me and inspiring me to pursue a musical life, which ultimately led me back home to be a part of the Charlotte Symphony. 

My middle school band director at South Charlotte Middle School, Carl Ratliff, had a profound influence on me and taught me to pursue excellence, stay focused, and enjoy the beauty that music has to offer. I think of him often, and his great playing and musicianship as a saxophonist was inspiring as well.
At Providence High School, my band director Paul Jackson was an incredible man with a work ethic and drive like I had never seen before. Even while battling cancer, he showed up to rehearsal every day and gave every ounce of energy to the music. His devotion and commitment has stuck with me forever and even though he very tragically passed away 8 years ago, his passion and love of music lives on every day in myself and all the students he influenced. 

My private clarinet teachers, Jim Ruth and Michael Hough were also very important figures in my life. Jim Ruth started me on clarinet at the Music and Arts store and taught me great fundamental exercises that jump started my proficiency in music. Michael Hough, who is band director at Providence Day School and plays with the symphony often, really fine-tuned my playing and prepared me for the rigorous journey that a life in music would be. 

I am beyond grateful to be back in my hometown sharing music with the community that has given me such wonderful musical support."

Andrew Fierova, Horn:

"Music was an important part of my public schooling from elementary through high school in South Carolina's School District 6. It led me to discover a love of performing that set me on my current career path. I loved singing with our elementary school chorus, especially when the songs had corresponding motions. My second elementary school provided the opportunity to join a recorder ensemble, where I learned my first wind instrument. When I got to middle school, I started learning the horn. Band in middle school provided a confidence booster, as I found something that I was truly good at. This helped me to succeed in the rest of school and also find my friend group.

Dorman high school had a very well-supported music program and nice facilities. I was given the opportunity to perform in multiple ensembles, from orchestra to jazz band, as well as outside opportunities like honor bands. These continued opportunities solidified my desire to become a performer.  Without the amazing band directors that helped me along the way, I would not be a member of the Charlotte Symphony today!" Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as CSO Musicians, Education, Musicians.

Celebrating Arts in Education Week

This week we're celebrating Arts in Education Week, a national celebration recognizing the transformative power of the arts in education. To learn more about the positive effect music education has on students, we caught up with Crystal Briley, a music teacher at University Park Creative Arts School.


How were you introduced to music as a child?
I grew up in a musical household -- one where many of my memories are tied to singing together at family gatherings. Music was a natural influence in my life. While many others were outside playing games or riding bicycles, I was learning piano or singing various songs my family had taught me. I am extremely grateful I was able to have the experience of private lessons and that my natural gifts leaned towards music.
My experience is not like those of many of my students and this is what leads my teaching -- that every student deserves an exemplary arts education even if they cannot have private lessons to receive it.

How do the CSO's Education programs help you to achieve that?
Many of my students have never been exposed to the arts outside of our classroom or their own home. The partnership with the CSO through the Link Up program and other various educational programs has offered our students the opportunity to see real life musicians and given me a way to introduce my students to classical music in an accessible and relevant way. When students step foot into the concert hall and hear the insistent call of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or sing along with the eerily forceful O Fortuna from my education mentor, Carl Orff, it does not go over their heads -- it settles deep within them. They experience the music in the classroom and then bring their 'practice' to the hall and go home forever changed. Our time with the CSO is one of the more requested things we do ... "when do I get to play with the CSO at Link Up?" I must admit, the experience of listening to over 1000 students play recorder together with the CSO is an experience very hard to replicate!

Do you have any specific memories of music inspiring or affecting one of your students?
Many of my students have been inspired by music. But one really strikes my mind. We were sitting in class one day learning the recorder parts to The New World Symphony melody. It is a simple theme and one which I thought would be lost on my students. We had spent time working on the piece through listening, playing, and movement. It was finally at the time where I asked them to reflect on what this music meant to them personally. Her response was one that I will never forget. "This music makes me calm. When everything around me seems crazy, I can listen to this song and find peace." When a child can bring such wisdom to a simple and haunting melody, I find that I too am inspired.

Why do you think it's important to keep the arts in school?
We can talk about how the arts are important to our student's education or to our economy and industry. But it is Suzuki who said, "teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music ... and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline, and endurance. They get a beautiful heart." At a time where the social emotional well-being of all humans is at stake, we must take care to teach students to have beautiful hearts.

Link Up 2017
Our students need a place to safely express themselves and we, as their teachers, are the ones who can provide the pathways for them to do this. What better place than the arts classroom to provide this creative and imaginative space? Beautiful hearts are at stake!

What inspires you to teach?
I pursued a career in opera before teaching-- I still love singing and listening to the genre but my heart is with my students. I absolutely love teaching and it is hardly a "job" to me. Through all the difficulties, there is nowhere else I'd rather be. My students give me such joy and they are the reason I get up and go to work every day -- even if it is in a crazy virtual space! Read more

Posted in Education & Community. Tagged as Education, interview.

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