Youth Rock Orchestra Pairs Maine Musicians With Touring Bands

Aug 3, 2017

There’s an old joke: “What do you call a viola player with a beeper? An optimist.” The idea is that classically trained musicians may have a harder time getting gigs than rock or folk artists. But there’s a project in Maine that’s designed to put young orchestra musicians on a live stage to give them a sense of what it’s like, and for some young players, it’s renewing their interest in music.

Kevin Oates was classically trained in cello at the University of Southern Maine. After graduating, he taught in public schools for eight years while touring with local bands on the side.

Oates says he began to realize that what he learned from playing live shows was largely missing from the typical school music curriculum.

“A big part of music education in schools doesn’t focus on application. It focuses on teaching the skills, it focuses on playing in an ensemble, and creating community within the school, but not application outside of the school,” he says.

Kevin Oates
Credit Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler / Maine Public

And so the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra, or MYRO, was born. An early idea to name the group Portland Youth Rock Orchestra, or PYRO, was dropped, but the founding concept of placing teenagers on stage to play alongside touring bands stuck.

The collaboration process usually goes something like this: Oates reaches out to bands playing shows in Maine to see whether they would be interested in sharing the stage with a group of high schools students. If they are, he transcribes the band’s songs for orchestraL instruments, arranging them so that MYRO can back the band with minimal changes to the group’s stage routine.

Because MYRO’s shows often take place in the middle of a band’s tour, the two groups may not have a chance to rehearse until just hours before the show, but MYRO toured last year with the Boston-based group The Ballroom Thieves, doing eight shows in nine days from Maine to Virginia.

Oates believes it was the first time a youth orchestra has toured with a professional band in the U.S.

“It was really incredible to give students that experience. Here’s what touring life is like: it’s not luxurious, it’s cramming into hotel rooms, cheap meals, and you’re in a van most of the day traveling. It’s not glamorous at all, but they really embraced it,” he says.

“I actually used to hate viola but after I joined MYRO it made me like it again,” says Nora Ahn of Portland, who has been with MYRO for two years.

Ahn says at one point she actually thought about quitting, but now embraces the challenge of performing live with a professional band.

“It’s like this crazy adrenaline rush. I’m pretty mild-mannered when I’m not stage but then I just kind of light up,” she says.

And Iris Walter, who has played cello in the group since its inception, says the common bonds these experiences generate are what keep students coming back to MYRO and engaged with orchestra music.

“People aren’t just here to play the music. We’re here because we have friends here and it’s a great community to play with,” she says.

MYRO is in rehearsal for an appearance with Guster Aug. 12 at Thompson’s Point in Portland.

This story was originally published Aug. 2, 2017 at 4:33 p.m. ET.