Inside the program inspiring the community's young musicians.
Imagine teaching fine motor skills to 8-year-olds so they can learn to play instruments almost as big as they are. Unless your child picks the tiny viola, this is what is done for them by the instructors in the Flagler Youth Orchestra.
For the past 15 years at Indian Trails Middle School, on any given Monday or Wednesday after regular school hours, you can find children from 8 to 18 in a hall of classrooms sawing through etudes and leaping up and down arpeggios in pizzicato. “Pizzicato” is when you pluck a string instrument. If you didn’t know that, you were never in the FYO, and you never met Cheryl Tristam.
Tristam, executive director of the orchestra, “conductor of all things non-musical” as she calls herself on the FYO website, is one of a seven-person staff. While the other six guide the minds and hands of young musicians learning to read the unfinished sheet music of their lives, Tristam is “the problem-solver,” fixing instrument case straps, finding lost folders (and insisting they stay found this time, please) and marshaling over three hundred students toward musical knowledge.
“No one doubts an 8-year-old can learn how to play,” Tristam said, but it does not come easily to everyone. “Some kids are here because their parents value a music education. With others, you can tell they’re going to be really talented musicians.”
Prelude to a free program
Tristam recalls how the FYO began, before it had hundreds of auditioning violists, violinists, cellists and bassists each year: She had enrolled her daughter in a fee-based string program nearly 16 years ago and her first assignment as a volunteer was to tell the families they couldn’t run it anymore. No more money.
"They’re not in battle with other students, they’re in battle with the musicians they were a week ago."
— CHERYL TRISTAM
She volunteered to take it over and brought in Jonathan May (“He’s a cello rockstar”) to help run it as a free program, supported by the school district and community donations.
Tristan and May started with 11 children. Once word got around that the new Flagler Youth Orchestra would be free to enter, their first open house saw 150 children.
“It exploded,” Tristam said. “Because it’s free, and it’s pretty exceptional to have opportunities for kids as young as 8.”
The staff has grown with the size of the orchestra, and it has changed often. Teachers at the FYO establish solid reputations, Tristam said, and parlay them into lucrative jobs elsewhere in Florida. The experience can be just as profitable for the students.
“It’s a very nurturing environment,” she said. “We understand that there’s natural, organic competition, but it’s not something we cultivate. They’re not in battle with other students, they’re in battle with the musicians they were a week ago.”
A young person's guide to the orchestra
The young musicians relish the battle.
“I really like it here,” said 12-year-old violinist Angelique Costello. Angelique wants to be a professional musician one day and prefers the FYO to private lessons. She has made a lot of friends after two years in the program, and she looks forward to practicing and hanging out with them twice a week.
Parents get just as involved. Chris Rabatin, once a saxophonist himself, recalls his son Shaun asking to join the FYO after seeing some of its advanced students perform for potential recruits. Shaun picked the viola after a woman at the FYO open house said she earned a scholarship through her mastery of the instrument, and Rabatin has watched his son climb toward that mastery for five years.
“We go to every show,” he said. “Grandma and Gramps go. He enjoys this, and there’s nowhere else around you can get programs like this. If he doesn’t stop growing, that viola’s gonna look like a ukulele.”
“From personal experience,” said Flagler County School Board member Andy Dance, “all three of my kids, when they were younger, were part of the youth orchestra. I think arts are really foundational in a solid education. The district’s focus on supporting all the different arts has been a big part of its success.”
'She knows what to do'
One person who has observed the program grow from the beginning is Cheryl's husband, Pierre Tristam. Before he became too busy as editor of FlaglerLive.com, he even ran the concession stand at Indian Trails during the Monday and Wednesday practice sessions. It has become a smoother operation after 45 concerts in 15 years, he said. "Without hesitation, she knows what to do."
Their two children, Sadie and Luka, have gone through the program as well. It helped Sadie get into her preferred college, and "It's certainly doing wonders for my son," Pierre Tristam said. "I look at him do what he's able to do with the violin, and I just can't believe it. It's as if he was born with it in his hands."
And in a sense, he was. Luka attended his first practices in a baby carriage, tagging along with Mom and Dad. Many others have similar stories of growing up with the program (see the sidebar), and they often stop Cheryl Tristam to say hello and to thank her.
"She can't go anywhere in the community without running into students," Pierre Tristam said. "It's this constant and enormous progeny all over the county."
He said the organization is unique in the state, with key support from the school district and other fundraisers.
"Once you have that in place," he said, "you can have these fantastic, humongous concerts where Cheryl can do her thing, and her whole purpose is just to keep that alive."
Preparation and finale
Wednesdays are for “fundies,” Tristam said, the staff’s attempt to convince the students of the fun to be found in fundamentals.
“They’re not buying it,” she said.
The FYO is sorted into different playing groups based on skill level determined at auditions. Artistic Director Sue Cryan works with the least and most advanced players, the Prelude Players and the Harmony Chamber Orchestra. Kathy Finn conducts the Con Brio Orchestra, Niki Mousikos the Overture Orchestra and Elinor Gervasio the Opus One Player. All teach violin and viola fundamentals. Joseph Kalisman teaches the cellists; Jeremy Bartlett teaches the bassists.
Mondays are when the students find the real fun: rehearsing the pieces they perform at one of each season’s three FYO concerts.
In preparation for the 15th season’s Autumn Legends concert Nov. 18, students practiced lifting and lowering their instruments along with the conductors’ hands, letting their volume rise and fall with the dynamic markings on their music and letting loose with barbaric yawps in a Viking song.
“The difficulty of the music has steadily increased,” said Jonathan Fisk, a 19-year-old Daytona State College freshman who is now a volunteer instructor in the orchestra he’s been a part of for almost a decade. A cellist, he plays weddings and other events in quartets and quintets with his friends, and plans to audition for the Orlando Philharmonic.
The Flagler Youth Orchestra got him here, Fisk said, and he knows hundreds of other kids have the opportunity to reach that level.
“Make it through the first year,” he tells students, “that’s when you’re developing dexterity. Then it gets better and better. Just listen to what the teacher is telling you, and your potential is limitless.”
Brian McMillan contributed to this story.