Experiencing an Elgar Cello Concerto, a live symphony, more than once was typically unaffordable for Claire Refaey and her family.
That was until her son, Adam Refaey, 11, joined the Charlotte Symphony Youth Ensemble (CSYE) which made these concerts — that can cost up to $100 per ticket — more affordable.
To Refaey, it is a joy to know that her son can immerse himself into these musical productions without the cost becoming burdensome.
“Knowing that we could walk up and get a $10 ticket so that he can go watch the piece of music that he was so moved by, again, was incredible,” Claire Refaey told QCity Metro.
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Refaey’s son has been a part of the program since Feb. 2022. Although he takes private lessons, Reafaey feels that her son has developed skills that don’t usually come from playing alone.
“To become part of an orchestra, where you are a part of a whole, you have to listen to those around you, you have to figure out how to play together, and then how to enhance that playing to another level together,” Claire Refaey said.
Adam Refaey noted how being in the youth ensemble has challenged him to grow as a musician.
“It kind of pushed me to my limits. I have to match what everybody else is doing or else the song doesn’t sound right,” he said. “It’s a lot harder but it’s more fun playing in a group than by yourself.”
Improving access to formal instruction
The CSYE debuted in Feb. 2022 and is the Charlotte Symphony’s youngest orchestra with children as young as age 8.
Unlike the Charlotte Symphony Philharmonic and Youth Orchestra, the CSYE is not audition-based. It’s a complete training program that serves as a pathway to its advanced youth orchestras.
CSYE participants, who often have limited access to formal music instruction, are introduced to playing in an ensemble and are coached by Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musicians.
A tuition fee is required to join but financial aid can cover up to 95% of the cost.
Aram Kim Bryan, vice president of learning and community engagement, told QCity Metro the aid offered decreases financial barriers which bridges the gap between affordability and accessibility.
Charlotte Symphony President and CEO David Fisk shared that Project Harmony, Charlotte Symphony’s afterschool music program that provides free instruments and instruction to Title I schools, is another pathway to each of its youth orchestras.
“We want to make sure that we are being as welcoming and accessible as possible,” Fisk said. “We are really keen to make sure that music is given the chance to be well supported.”
Becoming more inclusive
Discussion surrounding the creation of a youth ensemble began in the spring of 2021 after the Charlotte Symphony, Kim Bryan said, wanted to make its orchestra more inclusive.
The organization partnered with First Baptist Church West who were interested in establishing a music program with the Charlotte Symphony.
Charlotte Symphony Youth Ensemble practicing with conductor, Eric Thompson III. Photo: Charlotte Symphony
Originally, the youth ensemble was supposed to begin in the fall of 2021 but COVID pushed its start date to 2022.
Since then, about 40 children have joined the Charlotte Symphony Youth Ensemble.
Eric Thompson III, conductor of the CSYE, noted his favorite part of this role is being able to encourage children who tend to become discouraged.
Although the youth ensemble is still in its infancy, he believes this program will be a stepping stone to elevating children to the Charlotte Symphony Youth Philharmonic (CSYP), an intermediate skill level orchestra.
A ‘student first’ program
Jose Vargas, father of 10 year old Mia Vargas who plays the clarinet, transitioned from Project Harmony – the afterschool program – to the youth ensemble.
At Music & Arts, a rental instrument and repair store in south Charlotte, a student series clarinet begins at $269 and can cost as much as $2,000.
For Vargas, the youth ensemble has been helpful in making instrument rentals more affordable.
“They’re so flexible in the way they look out for the student first, and then we kind of figure things out along the way,” Vargas said.
The youth ensemble has also provided his daughter with an opportunity to be exposed to more of Charlotte’s music culture, noting that he did not have the same opportunity growing up.
“I think about one event we went to at [Truist Field] and it was a concert and fireworks,” Vargas said. “My daughter was ecstatic about it. She was like ‘oh that’s so and so and pointing them out.”
Beyond the music
Justin Bilancia, father of Eden, 10, and Nala Gourdet-Bilancia, 8, feels that this program has not only molded the musical skills of his children but has provided them with role models.
Additionally, he said he and his wife want to continue to advocate for the skills they are gaining from music such as critical thinking and complex thought that translate to art, math and english.
“It’s wonderful to watch your children be at a full professional symphony,” Bilancia told QCity Metro.
“When I was growing up, the concept of sitting through a symphony was something that my parents would never dream we would do. I don’t have to encourage [Eden and Nala] to sit through it. They’re already connected to it.”
Additionally, Bilancia’s daughters have examples to follow when they watch the other orchestras perform, which to Bilancia, is paramount.
Moving forward, the Charlotte Symphony will continue to expand its collaborations so that it can reach new audiences.
“We believe that our best work is often done only by working with others,” Fisk said. “I think taking the symphony out into the community is a very important complement to what we are doing in trying to welcome folks into our values.”