Team players
Durango Youth Symphony makes its debut

SideStory: Portrait of a conductor

Durango Youth Symphony cellist Billyjack Cundiff, 13, left, and Micaela Cooley, 16, principal cellist, practice recently in the Fort Lewis College band room. The 33 members of the newly formed symphony have been working together since September and will hold their first recital Dec. 3./Photo by Judith Reynolds

by Judith Reynolds

You know about the San Juan Symphony, the Four Corners’ professional orchestra. You may not know there’s a junior varsity.

The Durango Youth Symphony has eight first and eight second violins, three violas, six celli, and two basses. In addition, two flutists, two clarinetists, an oboist, and French horn player make up a mini woodwind and brass section. Ever since last September, these 33 young players have swarmed into the Fort Lewis College band room for weekly rehearsals.

“We’ll be adding more players later,” said the symphony’s artistic director and conductor, Mikylah Myers McTeer. “The winds, and especially the brass, will expand next semester.”

Assistant professor of violin at Fort Lewis College, McTeer, 30, put out a call for young musicians last spring. Now she’s got herself a symphony orchestra. “There has never been a full youth orchestra in the area,” she said. “Our schools have a string orchestra and a band, but the brass players never thought they could play in a real orchestra.”

Little, old Durango forming a youth symphony? The only towns in the region that could even think of such a thing are Santa Fe and Albuquerque. But McTeer’s players mostly come from Durango, Bayfield and Farmington. A few drive over from Pagosa Springs with their parents. You’ve gotta start somewhere, McTeer said. That’s why she decided to make the call last spring and see who would show up.

The musicians range in age from 11 to 25, the upper end made up of Fort Lewis students who play an instrument but are not music majors. The college has a symphonic band but no orchestra – not enough string players, McTeer said. It was that void, she added, that pushed her to start a youth orchestra.

Easier said than done, McTeer worked up a plan, a budget and a recruitment strategy, then she approached FLC President Brad Bartel with the idea.

“Brad responded positively right away,” McTeer said. “He understood a youth orchestra would draw students of all ages. It certainly could be used as a recruiting tool.”

MaryBeth Lauro, 13, sits beside her bass during a break./Photo by Judith Reynolds

Projected yearly costs are just under $35,000, with roughly half going to programming, music rentals, mailings, etc. In-kind contributions, estimated around $17,000, will cover weekly rehearsals in the FLC band room and the rental of Roshong Recital Hall for concerts. McTeer’s salary and time have been added to her teaching load as a faculty member at FLC. Her teaching load went up a whopping one credit for initiating the Durango Youth Symphony – planning, recruiting, conducting and organizing fund-raising activities. Sounds like a windfall, a budgetary coup for Bartel. A $2,000 Ballantine Family Grant also helped.

Admission to the orchestra is by audition only. All musicians are required to play in their own school’s music program. None are required to take private lessons, although many do. Yearly orchestra fees have been set at $100.

At the first rehearsal, the players had trouble finding the band room. They appeared to be nervous, downright tentative about this new enterprise. Few seemed to know each other. When they started playing, the music was all but unrecognizable. Coach McTeer prodded and coaxed just to get some sound out.

Parents and onlookers sat around the edges. It had to be one of those dream-nightmare combinations, your kid struggling to learn a musical instrument and making something that sounded like music with a bunch of other neophytes.

But by the end of the first hour, everyone in the room – parents, curious college students and this stray journalist – could identify what the musicians were trying to play: Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane.” McTeer had worked some magic.

Since that awkward beginning, the music and camaraderie have improved. Students now mingle more easily. They play with confidence. During breaks, they even trade instruments to see what it’s like to play a buddy’s cello or viola.

From the start, McTeer has maintained a positive, forward-looking attitude. She treats her players as if they were professionals.

“Congratulations everyone,” she said at the beginning of the first rehearsal. “You are the very first members of the first youth symphony in Durango. I’ve heard each one of you individually, and you are all talented musicians. You belong here. We are going to make wonderful music together.”

McTeer has fielded a new team up on the ivory mesa, and they seem ready to play. At 7 p.m. Saturday night, Dec. 3, the junior varsity will take on the big guys: Edvard Grieg, Gabriel Fauré, and that big Hungarian bruiser, Belá Bartók. •



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