It takes years of practice for children to become skilled enough to play in the Portland Youth Philharmonic. Most orchestra members spend two or more hours almost every day working on passages, honing their technique, and becoming Olympic athletes of the little muscles.
The parents of these young musicians are equally dedicated, and some families have more than one kid involved in the orchestra. How do they do it? Here’s a closer look at three of these families.
Jemima and Ray Zacharia have had three sons in the orchestra. The youngest son, Elijah, age 17, is currently the co-principal violist. His two older brothers, Samuel, 24, and Isaiah, 21, have graduated. But all of the boys play the viola, and there was a season when all three were members of the orchestra’s viola section.
“When Samuel was 18 months old, we took him to Storytime at the Belmont Library,” said Jemima. “The librarian told me that my son was very responsive to the music portion of class. She suggested that we take him to the Community Music Center for their Mommy and Me classes. So we did that and when he was almost four years old, he told me that he was going to have viola lessons. But I didn’t grow up with any classical music. I asked one of his teachers what a viola is!”
“Lessons at the CMC were affordable,” said Ray who is a software engineer. “That made it easier financially. The boys got chamber music and musicianship lessons, master classes, and sometimes free tickets to Oregon Symphony concerts. The younger sons wanted to do what the oldest was doing. So they all became violists.”
“Our youngest, when he was two years old wanted to start having viola lessons,” recalled Jemima. “It was crazy!”
Because Jemima homeschooled the kids, they had some flexibility when they practiced.
“When they were older, they could be playing in different parts of the house,” added Ray. “You get used to it, even though Jemima and I didn’t have a music background.”
“There was a time when we had a tight budget,” said Jemima. “PYP has scholarships that help, but there are clothes, lessons, and driving back and forth. We had one car and Ray biked to work. PYP helped to support them and develop their work ethics Inspiring to work with other families. The boys looked out for each other and supported each other.”
“It’s important that the parent is involved,” said Ray. “Later when they get going, then they are self-motivated.”
Hae-Jin Kim and her husband, Min Suk Youn, an engineer at Analog Devices, have had three children involved in the philharmonic: cellist Jacob, 19; violist Hailey, 15; and Claire, 17, who is currently the co-principal second violinist. They have continued a family tradition because Kim and her sisters played in the PYP. Kim also maintains a violin studio and is the assistant concertmaster of Oregon Ballet Theatre Orchestra.
“Our house has enough bedrooms so that each kid can practice in their own room,” said Kim. “They usually practice at different times, but sometimes I can hear them when I am giving lessons to my students.”
Portland Youth Philharmonic has several levels of ensembles to accommodate beginning students as they progress. Kim pointed out that carpooling helps a lot, but she mainly stressed the importance of parental support.
“You have to encourage your kids,” said Kim. “It’s a long-term commitment and there are ups and downs. You can’t just give up after three months. They love to make friends in the orchestra, and they find out that making music is fun. They become self-motivating and work very hard. Their peers inspire each other.”
The Youns also make music as a family.
“We used to play at few retirement homes and hospitals when Jacob was around,” remarked Kim. “Now, Claire and Hailey started a club at Sunset High School to continue doing that. Also, the girls recently launched a nonprofit, 4Harmony, with one of my student’s family to help people in need, especially children, like at OHSU Doernbecher.”
Why stop at three? Nathan and Mollie Carter have four kids in the PYP organization: double-bassist Maggie, 17; cellist Simon, 14; violinist Francis, 12; and violist Lucas, 10. Francis plays in the Portland Youth Conservatory Orchestra and the Camerata, while Lucas performs with the Young String Ensemble.
Nathan works in software and grew up playing the trumpet and singing in choirs. Mollie is a former lawyer who retired at age 29 to homeschool their kids. They were subscribers to the New York Philharmonic when they lived there for a few years.
“Our kids take piano lessons as well,” said Mollie. “They all take from the same teacher. So we can schedule a block of time.”
“We have two SUVs – one small and one large,” said Nathan. “We try to drive the small one as much as possible. Now flying with the bass is complicated. You have to rent or buy a trunk that looks like a coffin. it’s about 50 pounds and with padding and the bass, it comes just under 100 pounds.”
All of the music-making turns the Carter household into a full-size music box.
“It is cacophonous at times,” said Mollie. “There is no other way around it. I spend my formative adult years in NYC, so I’ve acquired a tolerance for a myriad of noises.”
“Our house was built by a doctor in 1915,” said Nathan. “There are several bedrooms and smaller rooms. From The Oregonian, we found out that some of the bedrooms were exam rooms. So the kids have plenty of rooms to use.
“Once during COVID, they found a piece that works on three of their four instruments and then learned it while we were taking our evening walk. Then they performed it when we got back. That was super!”
“There have been many siblings in PYP even in my tenure, including multiple sets of twins,” said PYP musical director David Hattner. “There have been several families with three generations in PYP. If the questions is whether talent seems to run in families, I would say that it does! Discipline and the ability to organize time and learning processes also seems to run in families. Remarkable!”
Portland Youth Philharmonic plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
For the first time in its 99-year history, the Portland Youth Philharmonic performs Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Portland Symphonic Choir and vocal soloists Vanessa Isiguen, Hannah Penn, Anthony Kalil, and Zachary Lenox.
4 p.m. Sunday, May 7, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway; tickets $15-$65; portlandyouthphil.org/concerts.
— James Bash