5 Questions to Sean Shepherd (composer) about NYO-USA’s Composer Apprentice program

From Tanglewood to Interlochen and beyond, summer programs supplement school-year music education by offering condensed (yet intense) experiences for young musicians. These programs expose kids and teens to new mentors, various teaching styles, and friends from other parts of the country, all while helping them build skills and relationships that strengthen the credentials needed to seek post-high school pursuits.

Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America is a relative newcomer; founded in 2013, NYO-USA quickly grew to include a second orchestra, a jazz ensemble, and apprenticeships in music librarianship, orchestra management, and composition. Sponsorship from foundations, individuals, and corporations means the only costs incurred by participants are travel expenses to and from Purchase, New York.

NYO-USA’s composer program constitutes a low- to no-cost experience that is as much about professional development as education. Even for adult composers, chances to get one’s orchestral work performed are rare. But the composer apprentices of NYO-USA 2023 were already familiar with the challenges of orchestral composition: Lucy Chen (Potomac, MD) and Lili Masoudi-Namazi (Cranford, NJ) had already written for orchestras through state youth symphony programs. They were both also Luna Lab fellows in the 2022-23 season, earning a premiere of their respective pieces by the International Contemporary Ensemble.

This summer, coached by composer Sean Shepherd, Lucy and Lili wrote and workshopped new orchestral pieces which were read by the NYO-USA, as well as short brass fanfares that the ensemble performed on their nationwide tour. We caught up with Shepherd, who has been working with NYO-USA composer apprentices since 2013, to discuss opportunities for young orchestral composers.

Sean Shepherd

Sean Shepherd

Composing for orchestra can be quite unlike composing for small ensembles or soloists. Can you describe the differences, and explain how you think an orchestra-focused apprenticeship like NYO-USA’s is helpful for composers?

Orchestra is often considered an advanced point of arrival for young composers, and for all of the likely reasons: it’s big, it requires lots of knowledge about a lot of topics before the artmaking can even begin, lots of people are involved and that can bring complication, and it’s expensive, no matter how it comes together. These all have a way of putting a lot of pressure on the experience of composing, or even on the piece itself. It can feel daunting to tackle such a project at any age, but one thing about throwing our apprentices into the deep end at an early point of their musical development (though in reality, I would argue that we just take down the buoys and let them swim on over) is that this experience can weave its way into their next phase of study, rather than the more typical “you’ll write when you’re ready” track that has been in place at most learning institutions.

The idea of “adding” the scale and spacial problems that writing for 80+ musicians brings to the “normal” act of composing is considered standard compositional pedagogy, and I like that this approach could subvert that. To state the obvious, it takes an organization like Carnegie Hall to provide the resources that make it possible to do this with these super-talents, and I would call it a steep learning curve, even for the brightest of 16-18 year-olds. But as I’m interested in seeing a bright future for orchestral music in this country, I think this program provides a little demystification, and hopefully a little connection. Beyond the rush of a good reading, I want composers (and not just our apprentices!) to think about the orchestra as something that’s possible — to work with, to compose for, and to enjoy.

NYO-USA pairs composer apprentices with performers who are roughly their own age. How do you think these peer relationships affect the composers’ and performers’ experiences with new music?

It’s really the core of the program, and the reason that we bring the apprentices into the NYO-USA environment. In the first season of NYO-USA, 10 years ago, I asked the orchestra who among them had met a living composer or presented a world premiere. Almost no one raised their hand. Every year that number goes up, if nothing other than from returning NYO-USA members, and it’s no longer considered so exotic.

It has absolutely been a priority to have composers and new music very much involved at NYO-USA from the beginning, and while many summer programs have been doing this for a long time, there is usually a repertoire-digestion priority, both for musicians this age and older. Brahms Third, Shostakovich Fifth, Mozart Jupiter Symphony, Don Juan: these are the kind of core-rep pieces that musicians will see a lot of as professionals, and they absolutely need to know them well. NYO-USA considers itself a touring group, which means that the orchestra-building happens while the repertoire at hand is being rehearsed. The fact that this happens to include Gabriela Lena Frank, Ted Hearne, Samuel Adams, Valerie Coleman, and Lili Massoudi and Lucy Chen — it normalizes the repertoire as a living, growing, reflective body. No apologies have ever been given or required, and this is something that, as one of those quill-whippers, is promising.

Conductor Andrew Davis leads NYO-USA in rehearsal with composer Valerie Coleman -- Photo by Chris Lee

Conductor Andrew Davis leads NYO-USA in rehearsal with composer Valerie Coleman — Photo by Chris Lee

Lucy and Lili were tasked with writing brass fanfares. What are the challenges and opportunities of the genre, and how did the apprentices address or subvert them?

One of the many ways that the apprentices get a taste of the profession is finding that every season of NYO is a little different. Douglas Beck [the director of artist training programs at Carnegie Hall] and I are always hatching thoughts and plans for what might be possible in upcoming seasons (which depends very much on the other pieces programmed, the tour, the venues, the rehearsal schedule, etc.), and we try to provide ways of getting the apprentices as thoroughly in the mix as possible.

This year, the brass and percussion had less to do in the tour program than, for example, the Alpine Symphony year, and we thought, How can we get the composers involved in this potential programming gap? From my perspective, it’s a win-win for the students on both sides of the page. We had the opportunity to delve a little more deeply into a part of the orchestra that Lili and Lucy both understood but hadn’t worked with in a focused way. They both wrote pieces that were reflections of themselves — as always with our apprentices, the two pieces were deliciously different! — but which also approached the assignment of an amuse-bouche or venue-flexible pre-concert bonus with integrity. They have a lot to be proud of in what they made.

“Youth program” can imply a basic or rudimentary approach to mentorship, but Lili and Lucy came to you already familiar with the requirements of orchestral writing. What was it like to work with composer apprentices who are already developing professionals?

The Composer Apprentice program matches the rest of NYO-USA’s approach when it comes to what we have grown to expect from these students — buckets of talent, buckets of promise, and then we place zero designs on their future while providing lots of challenges and horizon-seeking while we are together. We don’t consider whether an applicant has any orchestral music in their portfolio — that is nearly always about the student’s access and opportunities, which vary hugely depending on where they live — but we spend a lot of energy thinking about a student’s feel for the orchestra and how to deepen that over the course of the spring and summer that we work together. Many of our composer alums are truly thriving as emerging artists, but NYO-USA participants have gone in many directions, professionally speaking, since their experience at Purchase and on tour, and the composers are no different. I like the idea that this experience will stay with them, whether or not the details and the training do.

Lucy Chen and Lili Masoudi-Namazi -- Photo by Chris Lee

Lucy Chen and Lili Masoudi-Namazi — Photo by Chris Lee

You’ve been working with NYO-USA apprentice composers over a decade when the environment for school-aged composers has changed substantially: competitive young-composer opportunities are cropping up not only nationally, but in regional or local organizations, too. Have you noticed this growth yourself as you review NYO-USA apprenticeship applications?

What we struggle with, year after year, is the conflict between the number that we bring — two per year, which makes it a very personalized and broad experience for each individual — and the number of high-school aged composers who have applied and would thrive and benefit from the program. As with many other facets of life for students in America, we see that the composers who are the most prepared for NYO-USA, an entirely free program, are coming from major metropolitan areas and other places with lots of access to classical music training, and that training has been expensive to obtain. That has not really changed at all since I’ve been seeing who applies, even as some can beef up their resumés earlier and earlier.

What we truly try to parse in the tea leaves and video essays and the op. 1 string quartets is the potential to expand their palate in every imaginable way — musically, intellectually, experientially. Sadly, but truly, good training does not a great composer make, and there are also 17-year-old musical poets who pour their heart onto the page but need a lot of help with the basics of notation. We try to find the best balance, and to consider a composer’s potential prominently in our priorities.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or