The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Young Strings program celebrates 30 years of educating the next generation of classical musicians this year. Established in 1992, the program has served over 5,000 students in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex since its inception, providing them with free access to instruments, expert instruction, outside learning and scholarship opportunities, and more. The program was founded by Dwight Shambley in Dallas with the intention to increase the diversity of American orchestras. Shambley was the only Black performer for many of his 48 years with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Shambley died in 2020 at age 70. Matthew Morgan was his final student. He and Shambley would discuss many such topics – including what it meant to be an aspiring Black performer in a mostly white field. The world of classical music can be hard, Shambley told him. “But he definitely wanted me to look past that – to not give up at all. And he just wanted me to keep pushing. It is always nice to see other people who are just like you in a position where you see yourself in the future,” remarked Morgan.
Morgan was accepted to every conservatory he applied to upon graduation from Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, with full scholarship offers from multiple schools. Young Strings gave Morgan what he needed to grow as a player – top-tier teaching, regular performance opportunities, a chance to be around other gifted musicians. During the pandemic, when he almost quit in frustration, his Young Strings family motivated him to keep going.
The Young Strings program has a 100% high school graduation rate and largely serves students of color who attend schools without their own music programming. Participation in Young Strings provides a lasting impact on its students, many of whom go on to pursue higher education and careers in music, fulfilling the mission to increase diversity in arts spaces including orchestras.
Currently, Young Strings begins working with fourth-graders at four Dallas elementary schools, said manager Carolyn Jabr. Then, each January, students from across the Dallas Independent School District in grades 6 through 11 can audition. About 30 will land spots; right now, about 220 are participating. Most are from low-income neighborhoods, Jabr said, where spending $100 a week for music lessons would be out of the question. Many will be first in their family to attend college; Young Strings guides them through their applications, arranging for professionally recorded audition videos and paying for accompanists.
“We’re trying to remove all the barriers, so they have a full music education experience and can go as far as they want to go,” she said.
Shambley pioneered the program to address orchestral music’s longstanding diversity problem. For many of his 48 years with the DSO, he was the only Black performer, said his wife, Sho-mei Pelletier, the symphony’s associate principal second violin, who has been with the program since its beginning. According to a 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras, only 2.5% of professional orchestra musicians were Hispanic/Latino, and only 1.8% were Black. Some Young Strings graduates have indeed gone on to play in major orchestras, Jabr said. Others are working as session musicians or freelance artists.
And it’s not just the students reaping benefits, said Pelletier. “Symphonies that don’t connect with cities become irrelevant and die,” she said. Young Strings bonds the whole city to the DSO. Through students and their friends and families, “we have future patrons, future donors, future audience members.”
“Not only has the Young Strings program changed the lives of many students, it has had a profound impact on our staff, musicians, and organization as a whole, ” said Kim Noltemy, President & CEO of the Dallas Symphony Association. “100% high school graduation and college acceptance rates and multiple alumni leading successful careers educating young musicians shows the impact of representation and opportunity. We look forward to educating and inspiring the next generation of talented, diverse musicians in the next thirty years and beyond.”