ACSO Guest Blog: Thoughts on Orchestra Music Education Programs: Building the Next Generation of Classical Music Players and Supporters

By Steven Wu 

Note from ACSOThe author of this blog, Steven Wu, was ACSO's 2022 Program and Membership Intern and his internship was generously supported by a grant from the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture.

During my time as an intern at the Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO) in the summer of 2022, my work introduced me to the arts administration field, but more specifically, the world of symphony orchestras and their operations. During my first week on the job, I participated in the national orchestra conference with over 1,000 attendees. I met and conversed with directors and personnel from big to small performing arts organizations along the west coast. Although their organizational budget sizes range from more than $7 million to less than $100k a year, they all shared one challenge that plagues the classical music world: an aging audience population and a lack of classical music interest from younger generations. These conversations got me thinking about and researching the current lack of comprehensive music education in America’s K-12 school systems. (Photo: Steven Wu with ACSO staff at the 2022 national orchestra conference.)

The first implementation of music in public education can be traced back to the 1830s in the Boston School Committee1. However, despite the long history, funding and prioritization of in-school music education programs have dropped substantially in the past 50 years, especially for orchestral studies. While a recent study reported that 93% and 89% of high schools now offer band and choir classes, respectively, only 36% of high schools offer string ensembles and orchestra classes2. Also, other studies found that participating students in orchestras are predominantly White (73%), and this inequity carries into professional musicians and orchestra audiences and supporters3. 

Due to the origins of classical music being built upon a largely white, European, and privileged historical background, there is an invisible barrier to entry and a challenge for people to recognize the importance of diversity in the field. Inclusivity and diversity have recently been shown to be one of the top priorities for performing organizations around the world, as shown through the increasing performances of works by female and racially diverse composers. Nevertheless, this does not solve the underlying underrepresentation of people of color in prominent symphony orchestras around the world.  

Music education has also been positively correlated with increased academic achievement through measurements of GPA, graduation rates, and college attendance rates, as well as increased civic engagement as shown through volunteerism, political involvement, and participation in student organizations4. However, these facts are often unknown or overlooked by school administrators. School funding tends to go towards core classes rather than arts programs that are not deemed “necessary. While wealthier families can overcome the absence of school-funded music programs by seeking private instruction from professionals or institutions, children from lower-income families may be financially unable to afford this “luxury” and thus miss out on the intellectual and social benefits from an arts education as well as the opportunity to explore arts as a profession. This trend further perpetuates the elitism surrounding the music industry and the perception that it is a career that can only be pursued by the rich. 

As I researched performing arts organizations across California, I was pleased to find that many orchestras across all budget sizes offer various forms of youth education or community outreach programs - one solution to enhance music education opportunities for youth. For example, San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory’s (SDYS) Opus Project celebrated its 11th anniversary this year as it continues to expand local music programs by “advocating for quality music education, sharing knowledge, and releasing ownership of programs to district-hired music teachers and school sites”5. SDYS helped reinstate in-school music instruction in the Chula Vista Elementary School District for more than 30,000 students. (Photo: San Diego Youth Symphony's Opus Project.)

Additionally, professional orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic have established the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) for underrepresented communities throughout Los Angeles, and provided free musical instruments, training, and academic support to more than 800 students, resulting in 90% of its students going to college in 20166. (Photo: YOLA students with their instruments.)

Other orchestras have also been contributing to community and youth education in various ways. For example, the Auburn Symphony, which has an annual budget of around $100k, created a musical and instructive video series called "What Do You Hear?", tailored to preschool and TK-3rd grade students, as well as a 4-8th grade program called "Symphony Goes to School" that can be provided to schools at no cost7. Other orchestras, like the Pasadena Symphony and POPS, run their own youth orchestra called the Pasadena Symphony Youth Orchestra, and also try to build younger audiences by providing free concert tickets to K-12 students and their families through their Student Access program8. 

However, music education in the U.S. is still nowhere as pervasive as in other parts of the world, such as Scandinavian counties, where weekly music lessons are compulsory in schools from 6-16 years of age9 

Although many performing organizations have community and youth education outreach programs of some nature, those with more passive approaches, like offering free tickets to students, may not be gaining the desired long-term engagement results. Amber Weber, former Deputy Director of the SDYS, recommends that orchestras should build ongoing relationships with local schools to publicize, for example, free concert programs, and also be in contact with foundations and businesses to discuss potential collaboration and sponsorship opportunities for youth education programs. Actively reaching out and performing for more of the community will help drive enthusiasm for the field and gradually diminish the barriers to participation in orchestral music for young people.  

Facing the ever-worsening trend of young people’s decreased interest in classical music, performing arts organizations of all sizes not only need to solve current internal problems stemming from a lack of inclusivity and diversity, but they also need to externally and collectively work toward reversing the trend by actively offering education and community outreach programs. While funding is often the main concern to create new programs, youth education can often serve as an effective leverage point for advocacy and fundraising initiatives.

With the potential for increased intellectual and social opportunities for the youth, coupled with the current lack of comprehensive music education programs (especially orchestral programs) across public and private schools, there is much more untapped potential for orchestras to fill the music education gap and help build the next generation of classical musicians, audiences, and supporters. 

 About the Author

Steven Wu, 21, is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in flute performance at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, along with a double major in Human & Organizational Behavior and a minor in business. Steven placed 1st in the Adult Winds category in the 2021 Hong Kong International Music Festival competition, and was the runner up of the 2022 Coeur d’Alene Symphony Orchestra Young Artists’ Competition. He was also selected as one of two students to perform for Jasmine Choi on the Convention MasterClass at the annual National Flute Association Convention in 2021. While earning his undergraduate degree, Steven has also dedicated a considerable amount of music instruction through interning at W.O. Smith, a music school dedicated to serving quality music instruction for low-income families in Nashville.    





1. Mark, M. (2008). A concise history of American music education. R&L Education. 

2. Give a Note Foundation (2017). The status of susic education in United States public schools-2017. Give A Note Foundation. 

3. Gillespie, R., & Hamann, D. L. (1998). The status of orchestra programs in the public schools. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46(1), 75-86. 

4. Catterall, James S. (2009). Doing well and doing good by doing art: The effects of education in the visual and performing arts on the achievements and values of young adults. Los Angeles/London: Imagination Group/I-Group Books. 

3. Gillespie, R., & Hamann, D. L. (1998). The status of orchestra programs in the public schools. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46(1), 75-86.  

4. National Endowment for the Arts (2012). The arts and achievement in at-risk youth: Findings from four longitudinal studies. 

5. San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory (2022) 

6. Ross, A. (2017). How the L.A. Phil can stay on top of the orchestra world.  The New Yorker. 

7. The Auburn Symphony (2022). Educational Outreach. 

8. Pasadena Symphony and POPS (2022). Student Access. 

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Comments on "ACSO Guest Blog: Thoughts on Orchestra Music Education Programs: Building the Next Generation of Classical Music Players and Supporters"

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Anne Brown - Thursday, December 22, 2022

Thank you for recognizing the Auburn Symphony and our educational outreach video series. I would like to correct two inconsistencies. Our annual budget is now just over $400k. Our free educational video series has two components. The first is the Auburn Symphony Presents: "What Do You Hear" for students in grades TK-3. For students in grades 4-8, we offer a Young Artists video series. Both of these programs are free to educators, students and families and include videos plus on on-line resource guide for teachers. Our Symphony Goes to School program brings a small orchestra of 20 musicians to elementary schools for a 45 minute assembly. This program, however, does require payment and many schools meet the requirement by applying for grants or receiving funding from the district or their PTC. The Auburn Symphony also applies for community grants to support this program and reduce the fees for individual schools. Thank you! Anne Brown, Executive Director, Auburn Symphony

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