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How The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles Is Diversifying Music


This month, we're profiling community organizations around the country that are shaping Black history for the future, like the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.


SIMON: That's the orchestra playing the John Williams "Superman" theme at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It is the largest Black-majority orchestra in the United States, with just over 100 members who range in age from 12 to 28. Charles Dickerson III is the founder and conductor of the orchestra and joins us now.

Mr. Dickerson, thanks so much for being with us - maestro.

CHARLES DICKERSON III: Good morning, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So does Hannah Innes, a high school senior and assistant principal cellist in the orchestra. Thank you very much for being with us.

HANNAH INNIS: Thank you for having me, Mr. Simon.

SIMON: Mr. Dickerson, tell us about the orchestra.

DICKERSON: Well, the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles began in 2009 when a group of nine African American high school instrumentalists approached me to work with them that summer as they sought to just make music through working on repertoire and learning performance techniques. I agreed to work with them. And by the end of the summer, we had grown from nine to 24 because these young people brought their friends. And we put on a little recital. The recital went quite well. A couple hundred people showed up.

And after the recital was over, these young people asked me, Mr. Dickerson, we want to keep this going because many of them were playing in other ensembles where they might have been the only person of color, certainly the only African American. And they, many times, just didn't feel as welcome as they would like to. I said, OK, let's keep that going, and we did. And now we offer four or five programs. We are also now trying to expand. My mantra, Scott, is that there needs to be an inner city youth orchestra in every city where there's an NFL team. And we started that process by now creating the South Side Chicago Youth Orchestra. And if COVID relents enough in this coming spring, we will open a new program in New Orleans.

SIMON: I'm struck by a recent report by the League of American Orchestras. Only 1.8% of musicians in professional orchestras are Black. And apparently, that's reflected in youth orchestras, too, isn't it?

DICKERSON: It's probably less than that in youth orchestras. I actually serve on the board of League of American Orchestras, and the league recognizes that this is an issue. And so we're seeking to make those numbers better. The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles is one of the very, very few orchestras that live and breathe and operate, really, within the heart of the African American community within the country. Most other youth orchestras are in outlying areas where Black people don't live, and therefore, access for getting to and participating in those orchestras is a barrier. Another is cost. Tuition is a barrier for many of the young people who might be a part of our orchestra. We do not require any tuition.

And then finally, I'd also like to point out that, regrettably, in the African American community, all too often, young people don't get to start in music until they're in school - like fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Those young people are at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for a seat in an orchestra because they're competing against young people who have begun at 4 years old, 5 years old, 6 years old. And we specifically do not require auditions, and that distinguishes us from other youth orchestra programs.

SIMON: Hannah Innis, how's being part of the Inner City Youth Orchestra helped you grow, discover music?

INNIS: It's helped my musicianship and leadership skills, as I've gone to work with members of the cello section, as well as members of other sections within the orchestra. And I would say, in terms of confidence, it's definitely helped in my ability to perform.

SIMON: What kind of difference has Mr. Dickerson made?

INNIS: Frankly, I'm very inspired by his willingness to dedicate so much time and effort to a group of young students that most likely wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to such great opportunities. And his representation is very important.

SIMON: Has he helped you discover new music, more music?

INNIS: During orchestra rehearsals, Mr. Chuck would let me sit on the podium and conduct and look at the full scores of some of the pieces we are doing. And at the time, I was learning AP music theory in school, so it was very cool to apply the knowledge that I was learning to what we were learning in orchestra.

SIMON: Let me ask both of you this together. Which Black classical musicians especially inspire you? Maestro?

DICKERSON: Scott, I'm old enough to remember when Marian Anderson was still singing. My parents always had records that she had produced, and I had the privilege of listening to her. And then Andre Watts.

SIMON: We conveniently have a recording of Andre Watts playing Rachmaninoff, "Concerto No. 2." Maybe we should listen to that for a moment.


SIMON: Maestro, I wonder if hearing Andre Watts, knowing he was Black, made a difference in your life?

DICKERSON: Absolutely, without question. To have somebody of your own culture to get to be a superstar and be an example to what you can achieve - Andre Watts is, for me, Marian Anderson is, for me, the Arthur Ashe, the Althea Gibson, the Tiger Woods.

SIMON: Hannah Innis, let me ask you. Any musicians have been a particular source of inspiration for you?

INNIS: For me, it was Sheku Kanneh-Mason. I remember when he performed at the royal wedding.


INNIS: Because of ICYOLA, I was able to attend one of his concerts when he was in LA, as well as a master class, which helped me when playing my pieces 'cause now I better understand them through theory.

SIMON: Hannah Innis, I feel I cannot end this conversation without imploring you to play something for us. Is that possible?


SIMON: What will we hear?

INNIS: So I'll be playing the "Variations For Cello" by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who is a 19th century composer, conductor and activist.

(Playing cello).

SIMON: "Variations For Cello" by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor beautifully performed by Hannah Innis, assistant principal cellist from the Inner City Youth Orchestra. We also spoke with the maestro, Charles Dickerson III, founder and conductor of the orchestra. Thank you both very much.

DICKERSON: Thank you so much, Scott.

INNIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.