SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange and Maplewood communities are full of artistic opportunities for young people, one of which has been around for a long time. The Youth Orchestras of Essex County, created in 1956, is the state’s longest running youth orchestra.
Offering musical mastery to children from ages 8 to 18, YOEC, which is based in Maplewood, has four ensembles: the Overture Ensemble, a beginner orchestral experience for mostly elementary school-age children; the Junior Symphony, a full instrumental orchestra for intermediate musicians, mostly middle school-age children; the Essex County Symphony Orchestra, an advanced, full orchestra for mostly high school-aged children; and the Anything But Classical Ensemble, which allows musicians of all ages to explore the many types of music out there.
“I love being able to help give children from all backgrounds an opportunity to experience what it is like to learn and perform in a professional orchestra setting. I enjoy getting to know the children and their families,” YOEC Executive Director Jessica Mester told The Villager.
Mester, who has a bachelor of music degree from The Hartt School of Music and has performed professionally as a singer and clarinetist, said that this season’s musicians hail from Millburn, Short Hills, South Orange, Maplewood, Glen Ridge, Verona, Bloomfield, Montclair and Westfield, as one does not have to be an Essex County resident to join.
“We are a small group this year, but we make a big sound,” Mester said of the 50 participating musicians this season. “We focus on quality more than quantity.”
Though a small group, the YOEC very much feels like a family, as students from throughout the area come together to hone their skills. For some, YOEC is indeed a family affair.
“My own children were in these groups from the age of 9 through high school. They are both professional musicians today,” ECSO conductor Karen Conrad told The Villager. “Actually my brother-in-law was in this orchestra when it began 60 years ago and still talks about his experiences with YOEC. He is in his 70s now and still plays the violin with three different orchestras on Cape Cod.”
Conrad, who has a bachelor of arts degree in music education from Montclair State University and a master’s of music in cello performance from the New England Conservatory in Boston, has been conducting the ECSO for 11 years. Conrad has been a public-school music teacher in the area for 40 years and has performed with the Paper Mill Playhouse orchestra, the New Jersey State Opera, N.J. Pops, New Jersey Ballet and at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, among others.
Conrad said she finds it rewarding to see “how students from many different towns get together to perform and become good friends. As the conductor I get to work with the students for four years or more. It is fun to watch them grow as young musicians and young adults.”
YOEC is also a family affair for Anything But Classical conductor Rick Faulkner, who is able to direct his own daughters, Lisa and Daphne, in the ABC Ensemble. Faulkner, who has a bachelor’s degree in music education from Indiana University and a master’s in jazz performance from Manhattan School of Music, loves bringing musical variety to his daughters and his other students; he finds great value in pushing young musicians to explore musical styles other than classical.
“For one thing, it opens their minds up to what a big, diverse world we live in,” Rick Faulkner told The Villager. “Also, because we focus on music that involves a lot of improvisation, it helps them develop those kinds of skills, which you don’t usually get in the typical classical education. It also helps them learn how to express themselves spontaneously rather than just playing parts in an orchestra.”
ABC currently has 10 musicians — the youngest in third grade and the oldest in 12th. While the ensemble focuses mainly on jazz, over the years the musicians have tackled African, Cuban, Colombian, Middle Eastern, Appalachian, Irish and Italian music, among others.
“In five years with ABC, we have yet to repeat any repertoire in the main concerts,” said Rick Faulkner, who has worked as a freelance trombonist and bassist, and as a music teacher at every level from pre-K to college; he is currently a full-time music teacher in New York City. “We did have a lot of fun with a James Brown funk piece a couple of years ago, and the kids are loving the New Orleans piece we’re doing now. We even brought in an expert on New Orleans parade drumming to help them get the authentic feel.
“I love working with young musicians, helping them find their musical voice, and exposing them to music they might not otherwise encounter,” he continued.
And Rick Faulkner is not the only one who feels this way. Lou Kosma works with some of YOEC’s youngest musicians as conductor of both the Overture and Junior ensembles. Kosma, who has a music degree from Temple University, has been attached to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Vermont Symphony. In February 2014, Kosma received the New Jersey Music Educators Distinguished Service Award.
In his more than 20 years with YOEC, Kosma finds it incredibly rewarding “watching the kids and the music mature,” especially when he sees them move on to more advanced roles with YOEC and in the general music world. “I like the moment the light bulb goes off and they finally get what they were working on.”
In his time with YOEC, Kosma has had the opportunity to work with students of all ages.
“When I first participated with YOEC, I conducted the oldest group, ECSO. Due to scheduling while still at the Met, I had to make a change. Junior Orchestra opened up and I willingly moved to that,” Kosma told The Villager. “When asked if I would be happy with a younger group, I replied, ‘Music is music, loud is loud and soft is soft. The notes don’t change. I can be happy.’ This applies to Overture, as well. I can give them basic principles to carry them throughout their musical experiences. Music is music!”
While some may think that working with such young musicians could be a challenge, Kosma sees a lot of advantages.
“Middle school music students are like sponges. They absorb the material and continue to work right up to the performance. They have a lot of energy,” Kosma said. “By working with the middle school students, I hope to give, reinforce and enhance the musical foundation and tools necessary to perform successfully in an ensemble.”
For Conrad, though she does recognize challenges, she is overjoyed to continue working with her musicians who consistently yearn for more knowledge and instruction.
“Challenges to working with the high-schoolers? Keeping them away from their cell phones for the two hours of rehearsal,” Conrad joked. “They are often tired in the evening and thinking about their homework so I try to keep them focused and excited about what they are doing.
“High school-age musicians are full of interest,” she added. “They are open to suggestions and direction. They want to succeed, improve and learn. The world of great music literature is open to them.”
Exploring this world of music is a great outlet for the musicians.
“It’s a lot of fun,” ECSO violist Michael Xu, a junior from Millburn, told The Villager. “Right now I’m under a lot of stress, but when I’m here I get to close it all out and practice.”
Xu has been with YOEC for approximately three years and really enjoys getting to focus on his music with other young musicians who are equally driven and have a gnawing curiosity to learn more. While he stresses about SATs and the college application process, Xu is relieved to be able to focus on music with YOEC.
Sam McCrory, a fifth-grader from Maplewood, loves playing keyboard with ABC; he grew up around music as his grandfather is also a pianist and he has been hearing his grandfather play since he was a baby. For Sam, the keyboard allows him to explore all that music offers.
“I like that it can change; it’s very adaptable,” Sam said of his instrument, his enthusiasm and affection for YOEC clear. “You can convey so many moods with it, from classical to rock. There are so many ways you can play it.”
For sixth-grader Daphne Faulkner of Montclair, the opportunity to connect with other young musicians is bar-none her favorite thing about YOEC.
“We get a change to practice and make new friends who have the same interests,” she said.
Daphne, who plays violin in the Junior Symphony and drums in ABC, also likes being able to play a wide range of music, saying that her school orchestra never does classical music and doesn’t have the same range.
“This semester, ABC is doing this New Orleans-style piece called ‘It Ain’t My Fault,’” she said excitedly. “We’re going to get cool costumes and it’s going to be really fun.”
Daphne’s older sister, bassist Lisa Faulkner, told The Villager that getting a chance to play so many different types of music in ABC is “fun and adventurous.”
The eighth-grader, who plays with ECSO and ABC, values the social aspect of YOEC almost as much as the musical aspect, saying that she loved attending the organization’s cookies and cocoa social, where she was able to just hang out with her peers.
“I really like the concerts; I like the performance opportunities,” Lisa Faulkner said. “It’s fun to be on stage, showing what you learned. It’s also nice to be backstage, bonding with everyone.”
Everyone involved with YOEC seems to love the performance opportunities. Kosma recalled conducting his students at Independence Mall as a highlight of his YOEC career, while Conrad fondly recollected YOEC performing in Austria. Lisa Faulkner lit up with a bright smile when she described playing at Turtle Back Zoo, after which the musicians got to go see the animals, and her father, Rick Faulkner, said he loved playing at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair last December.
Luckily for all involved, YOEC has several performances planned for the next month. YOEC will perform again at Trumpets Jazz Club on Sunday, May 6, and at The Turtle Back Zoo on Saturday, May 12. The free YOEC Spring Concert will be Sunday, May 20, at South Orange Middle School, where YOEC also practices, and the Spring Community Concert will be Monday, May 21, at Winchester Gardens in Maplewood.
“The musicians get the opportunity to learn and perform with professional — internationally and nationally known — conductors,” Mester said. “They are also able to meet other musicians that don’t reside in their towns or go to their schools. YOEC was created by educators. We believe in the ‘whole child,’ therefore, our musicians are well-rounded and have interests and participate in many other activities in school and outside of school, such as sports, theater, robotics, just to name a few. Of course, we want them to take their music seriously and to come to rehearsal prepared, but the social aspect of rehearsal with YOEC is very important to us as well.”
YOEC will hold auditions for its next season in June and the organization offers scholarships to those who may need them. For more information or to become involved, visit www.yoec.org.
Photos by Yael Katzwer