5 Questions to Shauna Quill (Executive Director, New York Youth Symphony)

Founded in 1963 as an orchestra for gifted musicians between the ages of 12-22, the New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) now comprises education programmes in composition, jazz, chamber music, musical theater composition, and conducting, with performances at major venues including Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center. The NYYS works with historically-marginalised communities to offer in-school residencies, free community concerts, and family involvement, and partners with organisations including the Harmony Program, Harlem School for the Arts, the Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the Interlochen Arts Academy.

Led by Executive Director Shauna Quill, the NYYS opens its 57th season on Sunday, November 17 at Carnegie Hall with Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1 as well as a newly-commissioned work by Juilliard composition student Marco-Adrián Ramos and pianist Harmony Zhu’s Carnegie Hall debut. On December 3, the NYYS Jazz band will perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center with drummer and composer Matt Wilson, and throughout the season the ensemble will perform free community concerts at Threes Brewery and other venues throughout New York. The NYYS Chamber Music programme will premiere tikka, a new commission by LA-based composer Nina Shekhar, at Weill Recital Hall on May 5, 2020. The following week on May 14, members of the Orchestra, Chamber Music, Jazz, and Robert L. Poster Apprentice Conducting programs will premiere original NYYS student compositions at National Sawdust, and on May 19, the NYYS Musical Theater Composition Program will close its second season at Joe’s Pub with a showcase of original student works performed by the composers as well as students from the Harlem School of the Arts.

You became Executive Director of the New York Youth Symphony in 2011. Since you joined the organisation you have implemented free community concerts and organised international tours. What are your favourite parts of the job?

Actually, the NYYS had been performing free community concerts well before my arrival here in 2011. Where we perform them and for what purpose are questions that I asked myself, our staff and trustees, and those answers have influenced where we hold them now. International touring is something I’m very proud to have added to our programs–three so far, to Argentina, Brazil, and Spain–and more to come! The opportunity to explore the world as an ensemble is unmatched as part of the learning and growing process. During each tour, cultural exchange with local students was a major focus and became the highlight of the tours. There is so much in this world that can be accomplished through shared understanding of music…I wish we could do more! Hands down my favorite part of this job is working with our students. Many of them are with us for three years or more, so I get the opportunity to know them and their families, and I become invested in their success. Each year when the high school graduating students tell me where they’re going to college, I feel so proud of them. They truly are such amazing humans who go on to do amazing things with their lives!

Shauna Quill--Photo by Pankaj Khadka

Shauna Quill–Photo by Pankaj Khadka

How does the New York Youth Symphony work with partner organisations like the Harmony Program to expand access to your programmes and inclusiveness within music more generally?

Although it seems like just yesterday, we began our partnership with the Harmony Program in 2012. I read an article about them and the amazing work they do and immediately called Anne Fitzgibbon, their Executive Director, to discuss how we could work together. She and I get along famously and quickly discovered that our organizations are perfectly aligned to support each other. Her program starts at age 7 and ends at age 12, which is when our programs begin. Together we have created a pathway of tuition-free music education from the ages of 7-22.

I am now further extending that pathway to provide opportunities to NYYS alums in their mid-20s through a partnership with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Each of our partnerships are custom-tailored to each organization, but with El Sistema programs such as Harmony and the Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the partnership includes side-by-side rehearsals with our students, performances by NYYS students at their facilities, audition prep courses, and now mentorship of their students by NYYS students. We have successfully “transferred” a few students between us, with hopefully many more coming down the path. We know that our efforts to diversify our programs and the greater world of the arts is a continual process spanning years, but we aren’t going anywhere! There are also many organizations like us around the city working toward the same goal so I feel very positive that the support we are all providing will help the next generation fulfill their goals.

New York Youth Symphony side-by-side with Harmony Program--Photo courtesy Harmony Program

New York Youth Symphony side-by-side with Harmony Program–Photo courtesy Harmony Program

You were previously Executive Director of the University of Chicago’s presenting series where you curated award-winning festivals. What was it like to transition from a well-funded presenting programme in Chicago to the New York Youth Symphony, and how do your curatorial skills transfer to youth and education-based programmes?

It is amazing what resources I found when I arrived at UChicago Presents back in 2007–in-residence were eighth blackbird, Pacifica Quartet, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Combined with the outstanding faculty who allowed me free reign to spend time in the research library, I produced festivals of which I’m extremely proud. No one knew me when I first got there, but they trusted my vision and that was all I needed. First was the Messiaen Festival, which I programmed with a few guest artists and the artists-in-residence. It was very well-received and after that, calling partners around the city to join other festivals was easy–26 of them joined the Soviet Experience in 2010. Crazy times, but I loved it.

The NYYS is a different kind of curatorial process. We have several programs for which we are selecting repertoire, however my role is to assist our young music directors who are developing their voice and vision. In addition, we’re curating curriculum, community activities, and experiences to help build the next generation. I feel a great sense of responsibility to use my life experiences to help our students grow–to help them prepare for the world in ways that I felt I was not. And my support of our students doesn’t end when they graduate or age out. I’m here for them and their families forever.

New York Youth Symphony side-by-side with Youth Orchestra of St. Luke's--Photo courtesy New York Youth Symphony

New York Youth Symphony side-by-side with Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s–Photo courtesy New York Youth Symphony

How does your background as a flautist and alumna of the New York Youth Symphony Chamber Music Program influence your leadership of the organisation?

Being an alum of the NYYS Chamber Music Program as well as the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra (where I played while at Carnegie Mellon) has served me really well. I know what it’s like to go through these programs–from the nervous audition, to making music with strangers who then become your best friends for life, and from practicing alone in a room to playing onstage at Carnegie Hall–these are memories I will always cherish, and so will the NYYS alums. I know first-hand the value of what the NYYS programs provide to the students and I can articulate that to parents, trustees, donors, and anyone else who will listen.

How does the New York Youth Symphony sit within New York’s arts education ecosystem?

The New York Youth Symphony is one of many incredible arts education organizations in the area, but what makes us stand out is the level of our incredible students as well as the breadth of our six programs. Beyond the orchestra, the chamber music, jazz, composition, musical theater composition, and conducting programs are all exceptional. Our commissioning program has fostered the careers of young composers, commissioning over 160 works for orchestra, chamber and jazz ensembles since 1983. NYYS is now in its 57th season and has over 7,000 alumni. No matter where they end up–onstage, behind stage, or in the audience–I’m proud that we are able to support their educational journey.