The Birth of the Chennai Youth Sinfonietta

I was in Chennai in the beginning of October 2022, working with children who, despite any other challenges they face in life, they choose music to express themselves and share with the world something powerful and beautiful. The reason I was there was to help the final stage of preparation before the launch of a new orchestra—the Chennai Youth Sinfonietta.

Keys of Change, the organisation I represent, first came to Chennai in May 2019. Keys of Change is a charity organisation made up of individual that believe music is one of the most important tools in life to empower young people. It has established youth orchestras all around the world, most notably the Fukushima Youth Sinfonietta, which has performed at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Boston Symphony Hall.

In the case of Chennai, we say that Western classical music has had a limited presence, but interest has been increasing. There was no regular orchestra or youth orchestra that performs in the city, yet more and more young students are learning Western instruments. Keys of Change became part of a group of partners assisting in the creation of a youth orchestra in the city of Chennai, which would be open to players of all levels, and all backgrounds, but particularly to those contending with difficulties in life, and will be an empowerment opportunity for all those involved.

Musée Musical

The centre of the newly formed Chennai Youth Sinfonietta became the Musée Musical, founded in the 1800s, which is the oldest music store in India and currently also a music school.

“Musée Musical has been always striving to promote and foster classical music in the city of Chennai and particularly among the youth. We are proud that Chennai can now boast of its very own Youth Orchestra, a first of its kind in India,” exclaimed Sachin Das, Director of Musée Musical.

Keys of Change collaboration happened with Musée Musical Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that promotes the performing arts. The Foundation works toward co-creating, collaborating, and supporting individuals, groups, and organizations that use any art form to create an impact in society and help develop the ecosystem and habitat to nurture all forms of art as the highest endeavour of human achievement. The Musée Musical Foundation aims to work with Music, Art, and Theatre.

Effects of the Pandemic

During the pandemic, through 2020 and 2021, while waiting for social distancing rules to ease, we continued weekly group rehearsals with the young musicians of the Chennai Youth Sinfonietta (CYS). Using our Keys of Change teachers’ network from Europe, South America and Australia, we provided online guidance for string and wind players. I was so surprised to see that, despite the challenges of the pandemic, the number of players that stayed in the group, and kept coming for the weekly online rehearsals did not falter, and the focus, and spirits, remained high through this time.

Embracing the reality

Fast forward to 2022, and the idea of a launch concert was finally becoming a reality. Keys of Change sent Pedro Gomez, Venezuelan violinist and violist and one of our most talented teachers, to intensify the rehearsals and prepare the ground for the big day. Most of the basic concepts of working together in an orchestra were completely new for the students, who, not only have never played in an orchestra before, but have also just come out of the pandemic were most activities, including school lessons, were online.

Some of the musical challenges faced during this time included learning how to listen and react as a group, follow and lead each other, show flexibility and expression with the music, and discovering ways to show trust to each other. Some of the practical challenges included learning about punctuality and managing time for self-practice.

Working with the young musicians

I wish I could find words to convey the pride I feel when I go in the classroom and start rehearsing Gershwin and Beethoven with them. This was a selection of works so difficult that could have been played by professional musicians, yet these children came every morning and afternoon to rehearse, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. They came because they wanted to share with the world that whom they are today will not define whom they will be tomorrow.

The concert

The concert was a huge success. Granted there is still a long way to go musically; the bigger goal was to use music as an invitation for something greater. The success the students experienced was not a result of an external “gift” but that of their own hard work. There was a great emotional improvement, and many students were trying very hard to help others, to keep the focus in the group, and to contribute to the success of the orchestra. There was a magical sense of accomplishment when the performance was completed, and a sense of greater self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence were evident among the Indian musicians.

The response from the audience said it all: they got a standing ovation — their first standing ovation, the first time perhaps in their lives that they felt the results of their hard work were seen, recognised, applauded, admired. I wish I could describe the atmosphere on the stage, from the nerves of standing in the wings, before we all came on, to the ecstatic smiles at the end. The young musicians worked fully as a musical team, perhaps experiencing this kind of intense and focused teamwork for the first time in their lives. They were following and leading, they were flexible with the music, they were listening, to themselves and to those around them, they felt responsible for others, they felt proud of what they were doing, they discovered a self-worth that perhaps never imagined existed in them before. At the end, they all expressed a keen desire to continue their rehearsals and present more performances.

After the performance, a few of the young musicians broke down in tears while congratulating each other. I suppose the feeling of achievement and success was overwhelming, allowing them to open up and feel, even briefly, that they are not “children” but “musicians”.

“Panos Karan Sir – our daughter Iniya has been so blessed to be part of the Chennai Youth Sinfonietta. We have to thank you for bringing the Keys of Change organisation into the world and changing young lives with the power of music. Last evening, we were totally lost in your music which was so magical, soothing, moving and beyond what words can explain. Our daughter is truly blessed and has gained a lot from being part of this wonderful orchestra. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We are proud parents of a child that’s in your Youth Sinfonietta and we only have you to thank for this. From this enriching experience, we also believe that music can change lives, as it does for our daughter. Thank you Sir.” – Message from a Parent