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Teen classical musicians learn how to throw out the sheet music and improvise

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At YoungArts Los Angeles, an intense, week-long workshop for aspiring artists, tradition is put aside in order to challenge pre-conceived notions.

As if being a teenager doesn't come with enough anxiety, try deciding to pursue a career as an artist at the same time. Luckily for aspiring creatives, organizations such as the National YoungArts Foundation have been guiding high schoolers through this process since 1981.

YoungArts provides scholarships to fledgling artists of all disciplines: actors, filmmakers, painters, writers, musicians and more. They also put on regional programs — in Miami, YoungArts's headquarters, as well as New York and Los Angeles — where winners can receive a week’s worth of coaching from professionals in their field.

Recently, at the Los Angeles workshop, a handful of classical musicians had their preconceptions about music challenged.

Classical musicians are raised to be precise. They're taught to treat each note of a score as law — to perform in exact tempo and flawlessly in tune. But for professional violinist and educator Daniel Bernard Roumain, getting young orchestral musicians to play with sound is vital.

With this group of students — some of the most accomplished in the country — Daniel designed a series of exercises meant to get them to riff off each other. That’s second nature to a jazz performer or a guitarist in a jam band, but it was new and even uncomfortable for these musicians.

Aubree Oliverson is a 17-year-old violinist selected from a pool of thousands to be here. She’s been playing since she was six years old. She observed that "Daniel [was] a very interesting, passionate artist." At first, she didn't know what to think of him — saying "he had some really wacky ideas."

But Roumain is trying to address what he considers a failing of classical music education.

"One thing that occurs to me is that classical music students are told to do just about every aspect of their lives and careers," Roumain explained. "They're told what to play, when the concert is, what to wear, where to sit. They don’t have a lot of control, really."

Roumain was one of the master teachers at YoungArts Los Angeles, a recent and intense week-long workshop for teenage artists of all disciplines. At the end of the week, each discipline performed a show, and Roumain wanted his students to produce something way outside their standard recital paradigm. Their show was a mixture of live film scores, brief, flashy solos, and reinterpretations of classical standards, such as a Bach prelude traded off between cello and tuba.

"They've created their own groups and collaborations," Roumain said. "They're, in many ways, in complete control, of at least this concert. Certainly they've had a lot of say this week."

Roumain also pushed his students to improvise with each other — a skill that can go entirely neglected for classical musicians. But he believes these exercises had a lot of broader applications: "When they graduate, they’ll have to make all their choices themselves. Hopefully, they’re getting a good sense of what’s waiting for them, [after] their academic careers."

It’s all part of a larger effort to encourage students to decide what they want classical music to be like, to think outside tradition. That’s a little lofty for a musician whose career goal is a chair in an orchestra, but for other students, such as 18-year-old Katya Richardson, the emphasis on self-direction feels less foreign.

Richardson began playing piano at age eight, but soon she discovered that "playing notes that weren’t on the page was way more fun." So she decided to become a composer.

Still, she had never made up music with other people before — let alone people who aren’t musicians. But part of the show involved a collaboration with the YoungArts filmmakers.

Said Richardson: "We had a series of two-minute segments from each of the film students. We got into groups and viewed the films. We decided on who would play on what films, what instrumentation would be needed, and what style."

During the screenings, the musicians watched each other as closely as they watched the films, waiting for cues to pieces they’d pulled together just days before.

Perhaps most unconventional of all, Roumain had his students improvise the show’s finale just hours before the performance.

Aubree Oliverson reported that she and her peers were "kind of worried. We didn't know what was going to happen. So Daniel decided to lead us using two chords, only two chords, on an arrangement of 'Amazing Grace.' And he would point to the people he wanted to be playing at that moment. And he would give signals for which chord to play. So he just created this arrangement out of thin air. And it actually sounds pretty good. I've never seen anything come together that quickly."

YoungArts Los Angeles lasted only a few days, but Roumain hopes the experience will live on for much longer. He explained: "By giving them full license, and really only guiding the process of their own self-discovery, I'm giving them a different perspective to consider. And that's something hopefully they can carry with them for the rest of their lives."

After the show, the students packed up, met their parents, and drove home to get ready for school the next day.

And after that? They’ll have to make it up as they go along.

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