How Contemporary Youth Orchestra Came to Be

Hi to anyone who is reading! This is my first blog - ever. 

I have always found it interesting to read blogs, whether they be people I know, or who are writing about things I am interested in, and sometimes just random blogs to hear the thoughts that are running through others minds. I suppose I will start this new portion of my life by sharing the daily (or weekly) journey of running the only youth orchestra in the country dedicated to new music. 

CYO is my love child. 

Liza Grossman conducting Styx in 2006.

Liza Grossman conducting Styx in 2006.

When I was in my 20's (in 1993), I was directing a small ensemble at a local music school (Cleveland) and finishing my undergrad in Music Ed and Music Performance at Cleveland State University. (I am a violinist turned violist that same year). At the time, Ed London was the director of the Cleveland Chamber Symphony - a new music ensemble in which I was fascinated. He was holding a music conference for music teachers on how children could access contemporary music. I was excited about attending, as Bernard Rands, the Pulitzer Prize winning composer, composer in residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra (at the time) and composition professor at Harvard was the featured guest. 

WOW! Ed London approached me and asked if my little orchestra (of 40 children) could be the demonstrating group for one of the pieces. AHHH! Are you serious?! After I picked my jaw up from the ground and stopped jumping up and down, Dr. London handed me the score and parts from Bernard Rands - his piece 'Agenda for Young Players'. 

Well, the piece was notated in a format which I had never seen. It was graphs and squiggly lines. What? So - I did nothing with it. I looked at it pondering how to approach it with the orchestra, but decided to wait until Bernard came so I could ask him how to read this notation. When he got here (SO excited to meet him), I sat down with him and told him I was confused. He spent some time with me, explained it, I understood and rehearsed the orchestra twice for this conference. 

Now its the demonstration day. My little group is on stage at Cleveland State University (where CYO is now in residence) on the big stage. The audience is filled with teachers and new music supporters and enthusiasts. I am backstage with Bernard and he says to me, 'you conduct the piece and I will explain it to the audience'. Again...'WHAT?' 

I went out with him, and the two of us ran that portion of the program. It was exhilarating! At the reception, Bernard pulled me aside, looked me in the eyes and said 'You have a unique ability to hear and teach this kind of music. I think you should start a youth orchestra dedicated to new music'. Excuse me? He must be kidding. I mean, as much as I dug being a part of this energy, I didn't know anything about new music. PLUS I was just positive that I was going to direct the youth orchestra at this small local school forever! I was happy and had success with the students - I felt good about the education I was able to give them,  and was very comfortable with what was happening. 

His words continued to resonate in my head for the following year. I started programming music that was a little outside the box and realized that I was stronger, happier, felt my conducting was stronger and my brain was working with more capacity when doing music that was not 'standard'. I loved it. The school admin was changing and it became clear to me that it was time to boogie. 

During the 1994-95 school year, I started the planning process for CYO. I asked a colleague of mine to join me with this endeavor - and he wasn't keen on the idea. I should have known then not to push him to join me, but I did anyway. Looking back, I was nervous to do it on my own; but was really on my own anyway. (He left after a few years due to differences in our philosophies - so it worked out in the end).

So - start a youth orchestra? Not only START a youth orchestra, but one that ONLY does contemporary rep? Was I crazy? No - just young and naive enough to not be daunted by it. I invested my life savings ($400), plus asked a few parents to help me financially (these three families are still involved in CYO!) I called all of the students that I knew and asked them to please join and be a part of this orchestra for just one year. PLEASE! 

However, I had to come up with a name for this new orchestra. Wow. It’s like naming a baby. That name will help to identify this being forever. HUGE responsibility - but oh so much fun! I named my love child the obvious name - the Contemporary Youth Orchestra. CYO began in September of 1995 with 35 daring young musicians. 

Now in season 17, CYO is a massive music entity. We have a dedicated, amazing group of people who are on the Board of Trustees, an impressive list on the Advisory Board, hundreds of supporters, a General Manager who is deeply dedicated and filled with non-stop energy and ideas, local musicians who continue to share their talent and time, a graphic designer who is able to show our mission with each concert through art, a Grammy Award winning sound and recording engineer, a videographer who has grown with CYO from the beginning and always finds the cool angles, an artistic and unique lighting designer, a University that has us in residence,  and the most important part - 120 of the area’s top musicians, ages 13 - 18. What I mean my 'top' is that they all (and I mean ALL), have boundless passion, energy, dedication, love and spirit for creating. They are the true heart and soul of this powerhouse known as CYO. 

We are about the musicians, the music and reaching our audiences while challenging everyone to expand their artistic reaches! There is so much more to share! 

I will continue to share stories about this unique educational wonder, located humbly in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Click here to check out our website. 

From the podium of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, the future sounds great! AMO CYO!