‘When we work together, we can do a lot of things’: New youth orchestra prepares for 1st performance

Published 5:43 pm Wednesday, April 3, 2024

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By Ayanna Eckblad

Eighty middle school students are getting ready to perform a concert for the South Central Minnesota 2024 Middle Level Excel Honors Orchestra.

Although the group’s title has “South Central Minnesota,” in it, the orchestra has people from as far away as Charles City, Iowa.

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About a year and a half ago, a group of Albert Lea and Austin middle school and high school orchestra directors realized there was a need for a youth orchestra program for youth who wanted more challenging music opportunities than what was offered at schools. From this idea, the South Central Minnesota Excel Honors Orchestra was formed.

“There are other youth orchestras, but they tend to be toward larger cities,” said Excel Honors Orchestra board member Kiven Lukes. “So we’ve got a pretty big geographical area that isn’t being served.”

In addition to being on the youth orchestra’s board, Lukes is also the president of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. Albert Lea schools’ orchestra teacher Becky Crissinger serves as president of the board.

The youth orchestra’s board of directors began recruiting students by going to area schools and sharing about the new opportunity. They volunteered their time to reach out to homeschool students in the area as well. Lukes explained that this was because they wanted to make sure that the orchestra was available to anyone who was eligible and wanted to participate.

In the orchestra’s first large-scale event, students will get to challenge themselves and hone their musical skills by playing an advanced composition together in front of an audience of their friends and family. The students have had the names of the songs they will be playing for a few months but will not be rehearsing with a director and other members until the day prior to the event. To ease into playing, the orchestra will practice separately in sections according to their instruments with a designated director before coming together.

“Some of these young people have a lot of talent and when you put them all together it’s actually going to be an amazing performance,” Lukes said.

He hopes the event will be uplifting for families to be able to see the area youth perform.

The 2024 Middle Level Excel Honors Orchestra will play at 3 p.m. April 13 in the Albert Lea High School auditorium. The orchestra will play five different arrangements of music. The event is free and open to the public and will feature guest director Mark Gitch, orchestra director at Wayzata High School in Plymouth.

Lukes said he hopes this will become an annual event that the community is able to look forward to and will lead to a long-term, permanent youth orchestra for both middle school and high school students.

“[We’re] trying to design it so that it’s a maximum benefit to the students,” Lukes said. “Even though we’re not a metropolitan area, when we work together, we can do a lot of things.”