Engaging Young Talent

by Beth Weimer
Photography by Jeff McSweeney

Youth Music Illinois has rebranded itself amidst efforts to explore new ways to engage students and expand its programming.

Since 1965, the Central Illinois Youth Symphony has cultivated the area’s finest young musical talent through education and performance opportunities. Now known as Youth Music Illinois, the organization has rebranded itself under the direction of Music Director David Commanday and Executive Director Jeff McSweeney. In addition, the newly-created “Big Jazz” ensemble is part of ongoing efforts to explore new ways to engage students and expand its programming. The new name was rolled out last summer—a signal that the institution offers more than the traditional symphony experience. “We’re trying to break down perception barriers,” McSweeney explains. “Becoming Youth Music Illinois allows us to pursue a wider variety of music opportunities.”

Besides the new jazz ensemble (led by Andy Empey of Limestone Community High School), YMI students can participate in Youth Symphony (led by Commanday), Concert Orchestra (led by David Getz of Morton High School), Prep Orchestra (directed by Rosemary Ardner of Dunlap School District), Percussion Ensemble (instructed by Peggy Bonner of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra) and Composition Club (also led by Getz)—plus smaller ensembles for strings, winds and brass.

YMI works with about 150 kids each year, many of whom go on to play in college or pursue music as a career. As part of the learning experience, the students are required to audition each year. They must also participate in their school’s music programs, as YMI works in partnership with local school districts and music educators to supplement their music education.

Other program changes include moving symphony rehearsals from Thursday nights to Sunday afternoons, after observing how loaded the kids’ schedules were during the school week. “Now they’re more relaxed, our attendance is radically higher, and they come in much happier—they’re not exhausted when they hit the door at three o’clock,” says McSweeney. They also implemented a “triple format” for rehearsals, dividing the time into sections to focus on strings, the full orchestra, and then non-strings, making for a more efficient use of their time together.

Both men stress the importance of striking a balance to foster YMI’s culture of support for young musicians, while keeping students of different ages and abilities challenged and engaged. “I tend to focus on having a professional attitude—which doesn’t mean a professional level of execution, but dedication to the excellence that you can achieve,” says Commanday. “I’ve found that’s highly motivational for the students.”

Attaining this level of excellence involves a lot of hard work, but the instructors make sure the students have fun as well. “We play some of the best music there is, and we play it really well,” Commanday says. “And they make friends with some amazing fellow musicians.”

McSweeney believes YMI offers incomparable opportunities for young musicians and encourages the community to attend its performances. “What they achieve together is just phenomenal.” a&s

Visit youthmusicillinois.org for a lineup of upcoming concerts and more information.