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After 20 Years, DSO's Young Strings Play On

Dallas Symphony Orchestra

In 1992, fewer than two percent of major American orchestra members were people of color. Some Dallas Symphony members decided that would not do.

Jamie Allen is the DSO’s Education Director. He says Young Strings was formed to teach Black and Hispanic children how to play classical instruments, like the violin and cello.

“The whole mission of the program is to really to change the culture and change that balance,” he said. 

The program offers mostly low-income participants free lessons by top teachers. Today, there’s an almost even split of African American and Latino participants.

“We’ve had over a thousand kids go through the program, and in any given year these days we have 200 students involved from grades two through twelve,” Allen said. “When it first started there were a total of eight, so we’ve grown quite a bit from there.”

To celebrate that growth in the program’s 20th year, former Young Strings cellist Stamos Martin, has written “Do They Dream?” 

The DSO commission includes parts for all current and past Young Strings members, including teachers. Allen says Martin wrote simpler parts for young members and  tougher sections for older ones. 

“Both students and teachers, when they first saw it, there was a bit of a gasp. ‘Oh my, can we really do this!?’ Now they’re really excited about it,” Allen said.

“I was not interested in playing Mozart and Beethoven anymore. I still love Beethoven, but it was old music for an older time. And we need a new music today for our time,” Martin, the composer, said.

Martin, who’s Black, says if he hadn’t been picked for Young Strings back in high school, he’s not sure he would now be completing his PhD in composition.

“I saw it as a vehicle for success. If I want to succeed in what I want to do – which is to play music in some serious fashion in the future – then this was an important step to progress through,” Martin said. “It was definitely an affirmation of this is what I want to do.”

Catalina Simmonds, a Frisco ISD music teacher, played with Martin in the Young Strings program years ago.  Neither of her Mexican-born parents graduated high school as teenagers.

“I knew for sure I didn’t’ want to live the life my parents had to live through. I wanted out of my East Dallas neighborhood that I lived in,” Simmonds said. “All my friends that lived in that same neighborhood were pregnant at 15 and I didn’t want to be that.”

“It was my ticket out.”

Simmonds says Young Strings, which she first joined when she was eight, changed her life. And now, one of her eight year-old students auditioned and got picked for the program.

The youngster may or may not pursue music as a career, but former Young Strings member, Ashley Hunt, says that’s OK. The 32 year-old insurance broker thanks her Young Strings training for some of her business success.

“It gave me discipline, a lot more discipline, a lot more ability to make reasonable judgment calls in kind of weird scenarios, because I travel internationally, currently.

 I have math abilities,” Hunt said. “I wasn’t inclined to do math. You have a little more attention to detail, whereas some of my colleagues have very little attention to detail.”

Hunt attributes those life skills to Young Strings. And years of scientific research also suggests musical training is tied to improved reading and literacy skills, and an ability to delay some cognitive challenges from aging.  Hunt and the others in this story will perform in this afternoon’s world premiere of Martin’s “Do They Dream?”

Allen says live strings will make a world of difference compared to the electronic facsimile.

The world premiere of "Do They Dream?" is free and open to the public Friday at the Meyerson Symphony Center, 6:30 p.m. 


Full studies exploring the benefits of music training:

‘The Relation Between Instrumental Music Activity and Cognitive Aging’, American Psychological Association, 2011

‘Subcortical processing of speech regularities underlies reading and music aptitude in children', Behavioral and Brain Functions, 2011

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.