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Rockland Youth Orchestra Cultivating Young Musicians

Rockland Youth Orchestra teachers
Rockland Youth Orchestra teachers Photo Credit: Tina Traster
Matthew Rotjan teaching Rockland Youth Orchestra
Matthew Rotjan teaching Rockland Youth Orchestra Photo Credit: Tina Traster

NANUET, N.Y. -- Matthew Rotjan and Alex Fung work long days in Rockland's public schools but their energy and commitment to music education is boundless. Nothing makes that more apparent than the spirited style both display while alternately leading the Rockland Youth Orchestra on Wednesday nights from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Highview Elementary School in Nanuet.

Accompanying them on keyboard is Alexander Marrero, another dedicated musician and educator.

Parents who come early to pick up their children can testify to the kind of inspirational classroom environment Hollywood scribes invent to tell stories about teachers making a difference. Rotjan and Fung gingerly spring around the room, sometimes with a violin or a viola in hand. The pace is fast. The praise is robust but expectations are high. Fung's humor is dry. And very funny.

The 32 children, ages nine to 15, enrolled in RYO's fourth season, are alert and engaged, even though they've had a long day at school. On a recent stormy night, every child was in attendance. These children want to be here. At the end of the 12-week season, they will perform in January at a yet to be decided venue.

RYO is an extra-curricular opportunity for young musicians to bolster instrumental school curricula with orchestral experience. RYO students need to be playing at a minimum of Level III at the previous year's NYSSMA festival. Rotjan points out that not every student will land a coveted position in All-County, and RYO gives students a way to experience that kind of collaboration.

"RYO is still figuring out who we are," said Rotjan. " We are safe yet exploratory. It's dynamic -- we look for input from our students, the parents. We're experimenting with a variety of music, from classical to jazz to pop."

All three teachers agree the road to becoming a serious musician or music educator is rigorous. By the time students are college bound, they need to have a certain amount of experience, and some of that training is likely to come from private tuition or extra-curricular programs. School tuition alone may not be enough, Fung says.

Rotjan and Fung, RYO's co-founders, are long-time colleagues and friends through All-County. Fung is the elementary and middle school orchestra director in Nanuet Public Schools. Rotjan teaches strings to grades four through eight in the South Orangetown Central School District. For years the two talked about creating RYO to fill the vacuum left by other youth orchestras that have folded over the years.

Tuition for 12 weeks costs $160. Families who have more than one child enrolled receive a 10% discount per child. The 501 C3 non-profit recently secured a $500 grant from the New York State Chapter of the American String Teachers Association. The grant helps offer half scholarships for students on reduced lunch programs and full scholarships for children on free lunch plans. The directors are hoping to attract students from East Ramapo School District, where music programs have been decimated in recent years.

The next RYO session will begin in March 2016.

For more information, contact Rockland Youth Orchestra at RocklandYouthOrchestra@gmail.com.

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