Eager and enthusiastic, they await their conductor’s signal. Then at once, the explosive projection of sound billows from the instruments of even the youngest participants. Bending ears and opening hearts, the Athens Youth Symphony (AYS) is striking a new chord throughout the city’s renowned music community and attracting a multitude of loyal followers.
Birthed from a music composition contest instituted by the Classic City Rotary Club in fall 2000, the AYS was assembled through an audition process and commissioned to perform the winning piece of music at its first public concert on April 1, 2001. Today, as the only full youth orchestra in Northeast Georgia, AYS’s 120 participants, required to audition each season, represent 15 counties throughout the region and attend many different schools, both public and private, as well as homeschool programs.
Under the guidance of director, conductor and professional violist Karl Schab, this unique ensemble is open to all musically qualified students in grades 6 through 12. A Concert Strings group for younger, less experienced musicians and the Philharmonia, for middle school-aged children with advancing skills, complement the program and perform alongside the AYS at its spring concert.
“It’s a totally different experience being in a full orchestra rather than just a stringed orchestra or a band,” says Schab. “Unless they get into a situation like this, they’re not used to hearing the others sounds.” Recalling a rehearsal for this season’s spring concert, Schab describes a song performed in accordance with a large harp, which he situated between the string basses, a trombone and a tuba player. At the conclusion of the harp solo, the low brass players were to begin playing; instead they sat staring at the harp player with their mouths open in awe. Schab remarks that he couldn’t get too mad at them when they missed their intro as he realized that they had never played with a harp in their school bands before.
Amidst varying schedules and personal commitments, these dedicated students converge upon downtown Athens to practice each Sunday at the First United Presbyterian Church and perform two free concerts each season in the fall and spring at the Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall, located at The University of Georgia’s Performing Arts Center—both spaces generously donated.
“I like seeing their improvement throughout the year,” says Schab. “The first rehearsal can be rough, then they begin to feel their way and they realize that it’s sounding good. By the time we get going in the spring, I usually know what kind of orchestra I have and I can program more difficult music for the spring concert.”
After 10 years of hard work, Schab shares that they’re just now beginning to see the real impact of the symphony upon their students’ lives, improving their skills and aiding their acceptance into many college music programs across the country. A number of students have become professional musicians and teachers.
A large undertaking built from scratch, the AYS operates as an independent nonprofit organization, continually raising funds to purchase music and instruments through student fees, private and corporate donations and grants, including the Georgia Council for the Arts.
Sydney Hasler, a rising ninth grade student and trumpeter with the AYS, appreciates the opportunity to perform with this gifted group of young musicians and enjoys the variety of music chosen for them to play—her favorite selections include arrangements from John Williams and Beethoven. “It’s a great chance to learn even more music than what we’ve already been exposed to in middle school,” said Hasler. “It’s a challenge—a good challenge that’s worth the experience as a musician.”
For information regarding the Athens Youth Symphony, visit athensyouthsymphony.org or call (706) 543-1907.