Manny and Claudette just LOVE what they do. Conducting a top notch youth orchestra is their side job. Manny is a member of the Minnesota Orchestra and Claudette is a music teacher at Breck School.
Describe your business.
The MN youth symphonies has been around since 1972. With the idea of giving students a very accelerated nature in orchestral music. It has grown to become an organization that brings kids through, it is a pre-college program. They learn a lot of the skills if they decide they are going to pursue this profession. For kids that don’t want to pursue, they are going to get a superior education playing orchestral music they won’t get anywhere else. The organization has 4 staff conductors for 4 orchestras. One is only strings. Then we have 3 symphonic orchestras. One is philharmonic. The next orchestra is repertory and that is conducted by Claudette. The kids are typically older, they have already gotten their feet wet and they are playing the kind of stuff you are going to hear at a MN orchestra concert. They are playing things that require a lot more technique. Then the next orchestra is symphony, that is conducted by Manny. This for sure is repertoire you will hear from the MN orchestra. This is basically at the college level, the kids in here are very serious. Looking at music as a career, or to minor in college, or to teach music.
What would your students say they love most about the organization?
The students love the challenge of it. That is the big attraction for many of them. We are very tough. If they are involved in a program like this, it is all about discipline and personal accountability. We have attendance policies that have been copied around the country. It is the repertoire, it the sense they are coming to an organization that treats them like professional musicians.
Why did you decide to work here?
Because it is fun! It truly is fun! You are witnessing young musicians doing something for the first time, and that is kind of a big responsibility. They are either going to love classical music because of what you brought to it, or they are going to hate it. You are on the hook for it either way.
What is something most people don’t know about the organization?
If you are not involved in listening to classical music, you won’t be aware that there are elite organization for young musicians, like a traveling team for sports. I don’t think people expect it to sound as good. If you listen to the orchestra, you would think you are listening to a professional orchestra. Our slogan is you will be amazed. The reason we came up with it is because people would always come up to us and say, I was amazed, I couldn’t believe it. When they hear what the kids do, their eyes get like saucers. They can’t believe it.
What was it like when you first started?
When we took over, they were down to about 65 people in the program. What used to be 3 full sized orchestras, 300 students. They offered the job to Manny, but since I had experience building the program at Breck, we took the job as co-music directors. At the end of our first year, we had 120. At the end of the second, we had 200. At the end of the third year, we had 300. And then after that, we stayed consistently around 350, which is the size we want. We never want it to get so big. It is like a family, more of a ma and pa organization. We really are like a family. Challenging and fun.
What has surprised you most?
What high level we have achieved with these kids, without a doubt. At the beginning, it was blood, sweat, and tears, mostly tears. It is fabulous to follow the careers of these kids. What surprises you is how these kids grow. There are any number of surprises, some of the parents are angels without wings. Some of the volunteer work they do. Also, the scholarship people. We made it a policy that anyone who qualified would not be turned away from money. If they passed the test, we figure that out. We will never turn a kid away for money.
What is your most memorable experience working here?
Manny – I have had many. Uncharacteristically, I was conducting a string piece. It was a subtle, beautiful, organic sort of sound. They weren’t getting the sound. They were trying and not getting it. It was at a dress rehearsal at Orchestra Hall, I want you to hum the opening. Out from them came this heavenly sound of them humming, exactly the sound I wanted. Now, I said, make that sound. And within about three measures, they had me in tears. That is the sound. That is the sound they gave me at the show. Still for me, with all the great things these kids have done, that is the most wonderful bit of learning because I only guided them. They had to listen and respond to themselves. Claudette – I can’t even pick one, I have so many!
Any exciting plans for the future?
I am taking my orchestra to Cuba. We are going to play four cities in Cuba. The future for young MN musicians is very bright. There is a lot of talent out there and they all want to learn. There are also a lot of great teachers. Our dream is to develop this program into our own building and develop a school based around what we do. Our vision from the beginning is to develop a program that starts kids from a very young age and goes through high school and gives them a very comprehensive education. Kids that come out of MN would be the top kids in the country.
What do you like most about being a leader?
We get to call the shots and the students are our primary concern. They come first before everything. We don’t look at it as trying to make a buck, we want them to get the most for their money. We are not doing this for the money. Our complete concerns are about giving these kids the best education we can give them.
Any advice for other leaders?
Know what you want. Know what it is that you want. You may not get it right away, but have a vision of what it is that you want. Make sure you are doing it for all the right reasons. Once you start doing it for you, forget about it. It has to be about them or that thing you are trying to cultivate. We are hoping we are creating and adding to the musical community of this country. Anyone who is involved in an enterprise needs to remember what their vision is. Never lose sight of your goal.
What do you love about this neighborhood?
I walk on the lake with the dog and absolutely love letting the dog go crazy. It is a great big playground for him. It is about the food. If I live in a place I can get good food, I am a happy camper! The more varied it is, the happier I am. The original Pancake house. I am on a first name basis with everybody. That is the one I go to the most. Also, Punch, fantastic pizza.
Why do you think it’s important for people to shop local?
All good things start local. Local economics are the well spring of any good economy. These are the people you get to know. One of the reasons I love the original Pancake House is I know the people, they greet me, I am happy to give them my money because I want them to stay. When you shop local, you are in control of the quality. I get my wine from Vinifera for that reason. I love local.