At a time when music education has become increasingly neglected in public schools, the Richmond Delta Youth Orchestra has flourished as a hub of solid musical training for students from all learning stages.
Since moving to Richmond from Ladner in Sept. 2014, the orchestra has grown dramatically. Currently in its 48th season, the orchestra now has 150 students, and has branched out into seven different divisions, including wind and string ensembles, chamber groups, and a full symphony orchestra.
“The programs have grown in quality, and in the number of instructors,” said music director Stephen Robb, adding that there were only 70 to 80 students when they moved to Richmond.
But even as the orchestra’s enrolment numbers have risen, music education has been declining in nearby school districts. Budget cuts have led to the elimination of numerous band and strings programs in Vancouver public schools. In other places, music programs are now run by parent committees.
In Richmond, music is still part of the public school curriculum. Robb points out that there are also many music schools and private music instructors in the city.
But does this mean that music education is growing?
“Depends on what day of the week you ask me that question,” said Robb.
“A lot of the time, I would say no. I think the school system has been under attack, especially in Vancouver.”
Many of Robb’s colleagues in Vancouver no longer work in the public schools, due to the cuts.
At a time when fewer young people are able to get a comprehensive musical training, the orchestra has taken on a larger role and purpose that supports their rehearsals and concerts.
“It’s become our mandate to not just have the youth orchestra, but to actually work with the community to raise awareness for music in general,” said Robb, who joined the orchestra in 1990 as a woodwind coach.
“We try to foster as much as we can in the arts in a lot of different ways, and that makes it relevant to the community.”
The orchestra has been very active in providing live music for both Richmond and Delta, playing in concerts and other community events. Just several weeks ago, one of the orchestra’s chamber string ensembles performed at the inauguration of the mayor of Delta.
“We’ve been doing that since the late 1970s,” Robb had humorously pointed out to the event organizer.
The orchestra performed in their Winter Wonderland Holiday Concert on Dec. 2, with a varied program ranging from works by Haydn to selections from the musical The Greatest Showman.
“We tend to play more classical, but we might also do the pop end of things. Not just music from dead white males,” said Robb.
The Holiday Concert featured an 80-piece orchestra, with students from every division, including the beginner violin group. The group class is an outreach program that the Richmond Delta Youth Orchestra started in 2014, which they offer in collaboration with the City of Richmond.
“This is a new initiative to create more opportunities for young children to get involved in music at the beginning levels,” said Robb.
“Hopefully someday they’ll get to the level where they can join the junior orchestra.”
As the students get older, they begin to get a taste of a conservatory or professional musician’s training and performing regimen. From the junior levels and up, the students can compete in the annual concerto competition, with the winners getting the chance to step into the spotlight as a soloist and perform with the orchestra.
The students also have yearly auditions, where the faculty sits down and listens to how each person has progressed through the year. The audition does have practical implications, as it determines where the students will go in the following year. But the audition’s importance is also pedagogical.
“You learn how to deal with yourself when you get nervous, in a place where that’s safe,” said Robb.
Music students learn many skills that transfer into other areas of life, including how to work through challenging tasks independently. Ultimately, while studying and academics are still important, music education is also crucial in a young person’s development, Robb says.
“Whether or not you become a professional musician isn’t why we do all this. The kids who do music education really learn how to take responsibility.”