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Making Beautiful Music: Inner City Youth Orchestra Makes History

By Angela N. Parker


Los Angeles - DaQuan Robinson,15, was worried. I and his summer music program was canceled and the bassists could not imagine going the entire summer without playing. Determined to not let that happened, he reached out to Charles Dickerson, who was a conductor at the program.

Dickerson agreed to do a special summer course for DaQuan, and 8 of his fellow music students, and by the time the summer was over there was over 24 participants. At the conclusion of the program, they put on a summer recital that was very well received by the community. While Dickerson expected it to be a onetime thing, the youth had other plans.

“One of the young people invited me to come to their birthday party and when I got there I realized I had been set up,” said Dickerson, with a chuckle. “All 24 of my students were seated in the backyard, ready to play, and they told me that they wanted the program to continue beyond the summer and I said okay, and by the end of the year we had 50- 60 young people participating.”

That was in 2009, and soon the little group was making big waves, and, in 2011, they were invited to play alongside the Morgan State University Chorus as part of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on The National Mall in Washington D.C. Caught off guard, but thrilled, Dickerson quickly went into fundraising mode and incorporated the group, now known as the Inner City Youth Orchestra, into a 501c3. As the executive director and the conductor, Dickerson keeps expanding the reach of the organization. In 2011 - 2012, ICYOLA hosted its inaugural concert season around the city, primarily at various churches, and concluded with their first concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Today, ICYOLA is the largest majority African American orchestra in America. ICYOLA offers five programs: the ICYOLA Orchestra Program, an annual concert season that features both the standard orchestral repertoire and contemporary music that resounds within the community that ICYOLA serves; the ICYOLA Academy, that teaches students at Los Angeles Unified School District elementary schools how to play an instrument; and the Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship, which trains emerging professionals to take and win auditions with American orchestras, in partnership with the USC Thornton School of Music and the League of American Orchestra. The organization is also the official orchestra of California State Dominguez Hills. In 2019, The Orchestra expanded its program to reach youth worldwide with the creation of the South Side Chicago Youth Orchestra, which was first formed on the campus of Chicago State University; and The Youth Orchestra of Tsakane, South Africa first formed on the campus of the African School for Excellence in Tsakane.There is no fee or audition process to join.

While African Americans make up 13% of the population, a study done in 2016, by The League of American Orchestra found that only 1.8% of those in the American Orchestra Industry is African American and Dickerson acknowledges that the vast majority of classical musicians that are celebrated are “dead White guys,” but notes that there are brilliant Black writers and composers in this field.

“When people say that classical music is not ‘our music’ that is bull,” Dickerson continued. “Look at Black composers such as Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, who lived at the time of Mozart, (look at) William Grant Still…Adolphus Hailstork, Michael Abels, who composed the ‘Get Out’ soundtrack, H.B. Barnum…unfortunately a lot of our contributions in this field is not appreciated by the larger chorale community, or even by us. When we say Black people only play a certain kind of music we limit ourselves to a certain monolithic way of thinking.”

The pride that Dickerson feels about the growth of the organization is only second to the pride he feels in the students who have come through the program, many who have used what they have learned to improve and uplift their communities for everyone.

"Our youth learn those complexities of music, and are able to transfer those qualities in a way that makes them complete and whole and more competitive in every aspect of life.”

All ICYOLA performances are suspended due to COVID-19., you can follow the organization’s social media and check the website for information about future programs.

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