Youth Orchestra Founder Says There’s A Future For Musicians In Pittsburgh

Dec 8, 2016

At a south Hills bookstore, members of the Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic Orchestra break out into smaller ensembles to perform at their annual holiday fundraiser.
Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA

Albert and Jen Wolf love the sound of their daughters practicing their instruments at home, but that wasn’t always the case.

“When they first begin, it’s a lot of very unusual sounds and you’re not sure what’s coming out of that instrument,” Jen Wolf said. 

“And I laugh with friends all the time that neither of our daughters chose a very ladylike instrument.”

Their daughters play saxophone and trumpet for the Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, or PYPO. Last Sunday, the Mount Lebanon family visited a South Hills bookstore for PYPO’s annual holiday fundraiser.

Playing with an advanced ensemble is a big commitment for students, but having a musical kid is a lot of work for parents, too – shuttling them to rehearsals and chaperoning field trips.

Prelude band director Bruce Lazier leads a brass ensemble, including trumpet player Nick Shannon.
Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA

“(This time of year) it’s high school concerts, and PYPO concerts, and the extracurricular concerts, the band concerts, the marching band concerts,” said Albert Wolf. “It’s very fun.”

And there’s the cost.

“It’s a pretty reasonable tuition for this group actually,” Jen Wolf said, “but then all the kids are expected to have private lessons, on top of this and that for school, and the instruments start getting expensive.”

Jack Shannon, 16, played with a brass ensemble for the fundraiser.

“This is my sixth year playing trumpet in PYPO,” he said. “I’ve been playing trumpet eight or nine years, so a while.”

He said he likes how the dedicated group has elevated him as a musician. Plus, he said, it’s opened him up to new opportunities.

“We played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony last year, Ode to Joy, and that was awesome because we played it with a choir,” he said.

PYPO’s big holiday concert is just around the corner. They’ve been preparing with long Saturday rehearsals since the start of October. They’ve even started prepping for some spring programs.

Conductor Bruce Lazier leads a small ensemble at the Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic Orchestra's holiday fundraiser.
Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA

Shannon said he enjoys the challenge. He hopes to go to the University of Pittsburgh and continue playing trumpet. But he said since the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently went on a two-month strike over contract disputes, he’s been talking to some instructors about his future.  

“I told them I’m really considering pursuing a career in music,” he said, “and they’re just like, ‘Well, maybe back in the nineteen hundreds, early Twentieth Century, it might have been a little bit easier. Now they said it’s very difficult.”

Roger Tabler, music director and founder of PYPO, said maybe – maybe not. His group of musicians has grown in the past 25 years, from 40 to more than 200 students. They range in age from 6 to 18, and tackle increasingly difficult music of all styles.  

He said that proves there’s a strong passion and feeding system of musicians in Pittsburgh.

But Tabler said he’s gotten a lot of questions about the PSO strike, which ended last month.

“People are ecstatic about that,” he said. “But at the same time, there’s a soberness to it, especially for kids who were considering careers in music, it makes you stop and think, where are we going to be in 10, 20 years, where is the whole market going?”

A lot of PYPO’s staff are adjunct instructors and work multiple jobs. Tabler said the music field is filled with people who aren’t in the few elite symphony roles.  

“I think the model, and that’s what we do that here at the youth harmonic, drawing on our pops past, is going to be more popular oriented,” he said. “More community based arts organizations, instead of everybody has to come downtown to a concert.”

PYPO holds each concert in a different neighborhood, and does smaller concerts around town too – something the PSO has been doing more of in recent years. Tabler said the traditional symphony model is being out grown. He said live performers are figuring out how they fit into a digital landscape, where people can access any music any time.

Tabler said the musical training is the same, but the philosophy has to be different.

“But there’s endless possibilities in that too,” he said. “I don’t want to fall back and say we’re afraid of the future, or there are no jobs. There are endless possibilities, we just have to be creative in ways we’ve never really considered.”

The Pittsburgh Youth Philharmonic’s Annual Holiday concert is Dec. 17 at Chartiers Valley Intermediate School.