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NYO-U: For Young Musicians, By Young Musicians

By Akshay Dinakar

With a simple twirl of the maestro’s baton, a glowing forest of cell phones metamorphosed the audience of Carnegie Hall into an electronic aviary of digital noise. Adding to the auditory ambiance and anomaly of the moment, 110 teenagers on stage in red pants and stars-and-stripes sneakers lifted their phones high above their heads and orchestra instruments. A classical music concert—traditionally accepted as a forbidden space for electronic devices—had been conquered by the digital.

Commissioned for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) in 2015, the first few notes of Tan Dun’s Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds are created by the orchestra and audience members using their phones to produce a synthesized melody.

Each year, NYO-USA—launched by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute in 2013—brings together the nation’s brightest young musicians ages 16–19 for an unforgettable summer of music making. After participating in a residency with leading professional orchestra musicians, the teenagers have the opportunity to travel and perform in great music capitals of the world, serving as dynamic music ambassadors. Empowered by the success of NYO-USA, Carnegie Hall has since launched NYO2 (a younger orchestra) and NYO Jazz.

Tan Dun’s integration of cell phones as “digital instruments” in the NYO-USA performance experience is an important symbol of the connection between youth and technology. Just like athletics and visual arts, the performing arts must evolve and embrace modern digital technology as a pathway for training the next generation of young artists. The exuberance of the young musicians’ playing of Tan Dun’s piece highlighted the secret ingredient of NYO-USA’s success: While inspiration comes from those who are older, wiser, and more experienced than us, the motivation to grow comes from peers our own age.

As I sat on the Carnegie Hall stage with my violin in one hand and my phone held high in the other, these insights came to mind. They led me—a three-year member of NYO-USA (2013, 2015, and 2016)—to propose a novel idea to the team at Carnegie Hall: the creation of NYO-U, an online collection of mini–master classes hosted and produced by NYO-USA musicians. A free and open-access resource, NYO-U would serve to celebrate the diversity within NYO-USA and inspire the next generation of young musicians to pursue their artistic dreams, regardless of ability or background.

I got the green light, and the following summer, NYO-U was born. Now a growing collection of 60+ mini–master classes that have amassed more than 150,000 online views, NYO-U offers educational content that spans classical techniques, jazz improvisation, and real-life advice for musicians. Topics include “Mastering Fast Passages,” “Finding Your Performance Inner Zen,” and “What to Do When You Just Don’t Sound Good.”

The project showcases the contagious, effervescent enthusiasm these young musicians possess in their readiness to share their personal backgrounds and knowledge, and it provides an opportunity to spotlight the amazing hometown communities that have supported their development as young performers. The hosts’ personalities and youthful vernacular are superpowers that allow them to connect with young audiences in authentic and relatable ways that older teachers may not be able to emulate.

NYO-U is created by musicians, for musicians. As the creator of the project, it’s been unbelievably uplifting to hear about kids who watch the master classes, and then a few years later join one of Carnegie Hall’s national youth ensembles and host a mini–master class of their own. The NYO-U journey came full circle when I was producing a master class with Jonathan Lopez, a clarinetist in NYO2 2016 and NYO-USA 2017. Having reached the final line of his script, Jonathan looked into the camera and said: “I hope to see you host a mini–master class someday.” I couldn’t help but smile imagining the inspiration that so many young musicians might feel hearing those words.


Akshay Dinakar is a 2013, 2015, and 2016 alumnus of NYO-USA, and the creator of NYO-U.

The full collection of mini–master classes created for NYO-U is available on the national youth ensembles’ YouTube channel.


Photography by Chris Lee. 

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