Making Music: Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras

Provided by the Jacksonville Symphony

For most, summer is a time to recharge, chill, and maybe catch your breath. Not for Deanna Tham, principal conductor, Winston Family Endowed Chair with the Jacksonville Symphony. She’s busy preparing for her third season overseeing the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras (JSYO) program — an umbrella name for six musical ensembles.

JSYO’s educational program gives local Mozarts-to-be the incomparable experience of making music with others. Founded in 1993, it serves more than 350 young musicians annually, ranging between the ages of seven and twenty-one.

In addition to two full orchestras and four smaller groupings for students on the younger end of the spectrum, JSYO maintains a presence in six local elementary schools; many of the program’s all-stars can also be heard doing frequent one-off performances at local venues and events. 

Students in JSYO aren’t just making music; they’re picking up skills that will serve them throughout life. “You learn about collaboration, social awareness, sensitivity, listening, empathy — skills you don’t necessarily get directly from focusing on solo repertoire,” Tham says. “With music, dance and other arts in a collaborative setting, so much of the learning occurs in the moment. You have to react right there.” As a result, music students develop what she calls “hypersensitive empathy toward others, the ability to read what your fellow musicians mean.” 

Last season’s signature JSYO achievement was a trip to Los Angeles for about fifty members of JSYO’s top-tier Philharmonic orchestra. The trip wasn’t for a competition exactly … more like a master class, with feedback from a panel of experts. The JSYO students were joined by three other high school and college-level orchestras — all attending the Los Angeles International Music Festival by invitation.

In addition to the works they played — by Beethoven and deFalla — the students absorbed a lot of cultural attractions and had a great time, Tham says. “You should’ve seen their faces when they first walked into the performance space ….” which happened to be the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall. 

The students also visited Disneyland and the Getty Museum. “The students saw a lot of artwork that related specifically to the pieces they performed,” Tham notes. “We definitely want to do more travel going forward, and we’re looking forward to big cultural destinations in the future.”

The JSYO program has expanded since Tham started. “We’re getting out into the community more, which I love,” she says. Last November, “we did a big Veterans Day program in conjunction with Memorial Park.” There’s also an ongoing chamber music program that gives honors students a chance to perform at various venues and events around Jacksonville – including the Symphony Gala last January. If you recently attended an event at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Jacksonville Public Library in Downtown or the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Springfield, you probably heard JSYO students performing. 

You can’t teach that much music to that many students without drawing on the talents of local musicians as coaches. And Tham has major help from numerous full-time members of the Jacksonville Symphony itself. 

One of these is the orchestra’s principal violist DJ Cheek, who works with the JSYO’s elite string quartet, helping them on the finer points of musicmaking. “My approach is an integrated one, addressing technique and also characterization and different colors,” he explains. Coaching the string quartet “helps me articulate my own musical goals. It redounds to your own practicing and performing.” He also does sectional coaching (i.e. all the viola players as a group) for JSYO, striving for a sound that’s “super characterful and ringing.” In addition to his full-time work with the Jacksonville Symphony, Cheek also teaches at UNF and has a full schedule of private students. 

He’s not alone. Other orchestra members who work with JSYO students include principal bass John Wieland and violinist Patrice Evans, who provide after-school strings instruction at local elementary schools; Ran Kampel, principal clarinet; Chris Bassett, bass trombone; and many others.

To participate in the JSYO, student candidates must apply, and in many cases, audition. The selection process, especially for the higher skill levels, is competitive. And most spots for the 2019-2020 season are already filled. But not all of them. Tham says parents who want their kids to participate this coming season should check with the office to see if some accommodation is possible. 

“Parents can always contact us in the fall,” she points out. “If a parent is thinking about starting their child off at a beginner level, we may still be able to find space without waiting until next spring.” At a minimum, she adds, “we have a big database of private teachers and can make a referral based on the child’s age, instrument preference and skill level.”

For more information on placing a child in the JSYO program, at any level, parents are invited to send an email to

Author: Arbus

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