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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2005

Toledo Youth Orchestra: 55 years of developing young talent

BY STEVEN CORNELIUS
BLADE MUSIC CRITIC

Now in its 55th season, the Toledo Youth Orchestra is one of the nation's oldest such organizations. For the past 30 years, the ensemble has been directed by Archbold native and longtime Toledo Public Schools teacher Michael Miller.

Even more than the music, it's the opportunity to teach gifted children that keeps him coming back.

"I have always looked at myself as an educator, and these special kids are fun to teach. Our performances are the culmination of hard work, but the work is the thing," said Miller, 59.

"Each student has to be responsible for himself and his peers. And in the long run, learning about that is more important than playing Carmen or anything else. It's that synergistic effect. When it goes and is really swinging, it works at every level."

Not that a TYO performance is an afterthought. A marker of just how well the orchestra plays can be seen in the success of its alumni, including conductor (and former TYO pianist) Dennis Russell Davies, conductor (and former TYO violinist) Steven Smith, harpist Elizabeth Hainen (Philadelphia Orchestra), violist Charles Meinen (Montreal Symphony), hornist Carl Tituck (Detroit Symphony), cellist, chamber musician, and educator Ross Harbaugh, and many others.

Current Toledo Symphony members who are TYO alums include violinist Randy Workman, timpanist Sally Rochotte, percussionist/personnel manager Keith McWatters, and percussionist/CEO Robert Bell.

Keeping the TYO afloat financially is a two-pronged support system with sponsorship coming from both Toledo Public Schools and the Toledo Symphony.

"The relationship is unusual, but successful," said Miller.

For one thing, is has solidified the orchestra's focus on education. Second, because funding comes from two different sources, a difficult year at the symphony does not mean cutbacks at the youth orchestra, and vice versa should Toledo Public Schools be feeling a squeeze.

For Toledo Public Schools, the TYO is a great investment, a place where its best students develop their skills within an exceptional learning environment.

"We have many strong area music programs that have produced a large number of talented and motivated students. With the youth orchestra, we can offer the best of them something special by performing works too difficult to do in school programs," said Miller, who has taught in the Toledo Public School system for 38 years and holds degrees from both Bowling Green State University and the University of Michigan.

To ensure that TYO members contribute as much as possible to their home schools, the orchestra's bylaws require that its members take private lessons and participate in their school instrumental programs, where their musical maturity helps anchor less advanced students. Those leadership skills are then brought back to the TYO.

"Everything works together. We promote the school programs, and they are all for us," said Miller.

It's a win-win situation all around.

The orchestra was founded in 1947 by DeVilbiss High School student Joseph Henry, who called it the Toledo Young People's Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Samuel Szor was an original member. Rehearsals were held at St. Mark's Episcopal Church.

That orchestra began to fail two years later when Henry left for college. Luckily, Toledo Public School music education director Cecil Vashaw recognized the idea's potential. In 1950, she reformed and rechristened the group the Toledo Youth Orchestra. She served as director for the next 10 years, at which point Kenneth Holland, Miller's mentor, began a 15-year tenure.

When not working with the TYO, Miller shuttles among 10 Toledo schools teaching chamber music.

"As far as I know, our chamber music program is unique in the country. I have over 200 students and we have developed a library of over 2,200 pieces ranging from the Renaissance to pop tunes. The program is bustling. Sometimes I will have three or four groups rehearsing in the same building at the same time. I have to run between rooms," said Miller.

When not teaching, odds are that Miller is busy following his other passion, jazz. A trombonist and self-proclaimed "weekend warrior," Miller has performed with touring ice shows and Ringling Bros., and was a long-time member of the Toledo Jazz Orchestra.

"I've been playing jazz since I was 16. It's a hobby and a form of recreation," he said.

Miller is also a composer. Next Sunday's TYO program features the premiere of "Prelude 55," a piece he wrote especially for this anniversary concert. Appropriately, the 55-second-long piece is built around the interval of the perfect 5th.

Also featured is guest conductor Samuel Szor, who will lead the TYO in Tchaikovsky's "March Slav." Trumpeter Chris Albrecht will perform Haydn's Concerto for Trumpet. There is also music by Khatchaturian and Bizet.

Miller guarantees a good performance, but not a perfect one.

"Most of the time they sound like professionals, but then there are the places where they prove to me that they are still kids. That's OK; what's important is the learning that's taking place. Heck, we all learn from our mistakes."

Michael Miller leads the Toledo Youth Orchestra at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle.

Contact Steven Cornelius at: scornelius@theblade.com or 419-724-6152.



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