STORY BY JOSH BETANZOS. PHOTOS PROVIDED BY YOUNG STRINGS.
“Music deserts” occur when students in schools with a higher percentage of poverty lack access to music. They tend to have fewer music teachers, music courses, dedicated rooms for music, and proper equipment. Young Strings works to bridge the gap and fight these inequities by increasing diversity and access to music education across the city of Dallas.
Young Strings, which ranges from elementary to high school, is one of the many education programs sponsored by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO). They provide musical instruments, performance opportunities, and mentorship. They even offer weekly lessons with teachers, some of whom are alums of the program.
Carlos Vargas was a member of Young Strings when he was a high school student at Booker T. Washington in Dallas ISD. After graduating, Carlos continued to embrace his love for music by developing a passion for teaching the next generation. For the past seven years, Carlos has acted as a mentor, educator, and encourager to his cello students.
“Music, in general, opens up your world to many more possibilities,” Carlos says. “At Young Strings, the whole point is raising and creating a community that is interested in classical music.”
Young Strings was created in 1992 by long-time bassist and the first Black musician for the DSO, Dwight Shambley, to increase diversity in orchestras nationally and give access to those unable to pursue their passion in classical music.
America’s orchestras demonstrate drastic disparities in their racial demographics, with musicians of minority backgrounds constituting under 15% of the total orchestra member body, according to the League of American Orchestras. That number has grown from representing just 3.4% of all orchestra musicians back in 1980, but still shows room for improvement.
The program now serves students of all backgrounds, averaging 250 students per year. The results have been overwhelmingly positive: a 100% high school graduation rate and college acceptance rate among students in the program.
Research in cognitive neuroscience shows that active music participation has benefits beyond playing an instrument, such as increased reading comprehension. Social inequities can make it so many students do not receive this benefit. Young Strings has enabled students to have a pathway to college through music. Some, like Carlos, pursue careers in performance and education.
The program traditionally has a three-level system for teaching the students: Overture, On-Track, and Finale. This year, they created a new division, Prelude, to precede the Overture level by offering group lessons to elementary students and both familiarize and serve many students at once. To enter the program, a student must audition before being accepted and placed into one-on-one lessons with a teacher.
Auditions for 2023 occurred this past Tuesday, Jan. 31. Prospective students auditioned for the opportunity to join the program, and current Young Strings students auditioned to move to the next level of teaching and mentorship. Most of the time, students stay with the same teacher throughout the program. At the Finale level, most students are paired with a present member of the DSO, due to orchestra members’ knowledge of the pathway it takes to get into an orchestra, their experience teaching at the college level, and how to prepare an audition for a conservatory or higher education opportunity.
Jen Guzman, Director of Education at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, emphasized how truly important the relationship is.
“Obviously, you need the skills to teach an instrument,” Jen says. “But everybody who teaches for our program is so dedicated, and at the heart of what they’re doing is the mission of bettering lives through music and offering opportunities where there’s no access.”
Students perform juries once per year in February for a panel of Young Strings teachers and the Artistic Director. It is a graded performance to determine progress and readiness for the next level of teaching. Students are judged on everything from bow technique, sound quality, intonation, and rhythmic integrity of the piece.
Besides these graded showings, performance opportunities occur throughout the year for students. During March through May, the musicians will perform every other weekend, sometimes opening for the symphony, performing welcome music for symphony-goers on nights the orchestra plays, and other times performing at private events, occasions held at some of Dallas’ most notable landmarks, like the Perot Museum and the Omni Hotel. They’ll also complete two internal competitions per year and a more significant end-of-the-year recital for all the program members.
Jen helped start a new scholarship fund for Young Strings students last year to help students gain experience in more master classes and music camps outside Dallas. The program sent six students to Interlochen, one of the country’s most prestigious music camps and academies, Apple Hill Chamber camp, and the University of North Texas summer camp, paying for the flight expenses when necessary. The hope is to give students with a passion and the skills to pursue music seriously a chance to work around other dedicated musicians from different parts of the country.
“We want to keep doing things like that, and give them a taste of what it would be like to be a musician,” says Jen. “Show them what’s going on outside of this bubble.”
Young Strings celebrated its 30th anniversary this past November 2022. For 30 years, Young Strings has made both college and the world of classical music accessible to students from underrepresented backgrounds. They have instilled a passion for the arts and established a community that will live as an integral part of the Dallas classical arts culture for years to come.
“Music just gives you a sense that you belong,” says Carlos. “It helps you find the right people.”