When Randy Detrick and Greg Ferguson started the Olathe Youth Symphony, there were 40 kids playing in one symphonic orchestra. Twenty years later, the group has ballooned to 200 students performing in two orchestras.
Each of the two groups has all the sections of a typical symphonic orchestra: strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. That’s an experience most music students don’t get until high school. The philharmonic orchestra features students in grades six through nine, while the symphonic orchestra is made up of students in grades nine through 12.
Although the group rehearses and performs in Olathe, it’s not exclusive to Olathe students. The majority come from Olathe and southern Johnson County, but Detrick said the group has drawn musicians from places including Belton, De Soto, Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan.
The symphonic group plays original scores — not arrangements made easier for students — of classical pieces by composers such as Beethoven or Mozart.
“When we first started, our goal was to build that level of performance so students would not only be able to perform this level, but they would demand it,” Detrick said.
The kids must audition each year to retain their spots in the orchestra. Auditions for next school year will be May 13 and 14.
There is a youth symphony in Kansas City, but Detrick said that didn’t satisfy all the local need.
When they started the Olathe group, “we found that many of our kids either could not afford to be involved in that group, or there wasn’t enough room for them to be part of that group,” Detrick said. “We wanted to make sure that our kids in Olathe and southern Johnson County were able to have this type of experience … for the same cost as little league baseball.”
Detrick is now the orchestra program facilitator for the Olathe School District and said the youth symphony has helped boost participation in the school orchestra programs. It also gives band students challenges they might not face in marching band or concert band at school.
The group is like a family, in some ways, and Detrick said alums often stay in touch and even attend rehearsals when they’re in town.
Sarah Peters, who was in the orchestra from 1999 to 2007, is now a graduate student at the New England Conservatory in Boston and has played violin with the Boston Pops Orchestra and the New World Symphony. When she visited Kansas City last month, she found herself drawn to the Monday night rehearsal.
“I just snuck in hoping no one would see me, and I could just start playing,” she said. “It’s so nice to know that even though I graduated, I can still come back and they still care about me.”
She wasn’t quite sneaky enough to go unseen, but Detrick and Ferguson let her play in with the group, anyway. The orchestra is dear to Peters, partly because it was her first real source of friends when she first moved to Kansas City after having been raised in Japan.
“It’s easier to make friends in music, because you already have this common interest, and in music, you don’t need so many words,” she said.
If it wasn’t for the youth symphony, she said, she might not making music her vocation. However, Peters thinks it’s an important experience for everyone — not just career musicians.
“Maybe not all of us are going to go into music professionally, but it’s still an experience that a lot of people can enjoy,” Peters said. “If there are people who are in the youth symphony, they can appreciate (classical music), and then we have an audience.”
Adam Thomas, who played viola in the orchestra from 1999 to 2001, didn’t go into a career in music, but the skills he gained from the youth symphony helped land him a scholarship to attend Belmont University in Nashville.
“It’s good for students to be actively involved in music,” Thomas said. “It’s nice they have that opportunity to keep that momentum and that musical passion alive outside the school yard.”