Teaching Alternative Styles: An Interview With MYRO Director Kevin Oates

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In this blog, we would like to introduce you to Kevin Oates. Kevin is the founder/director of the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra (MYRO) based in Portland, Maine. While some people might think that this is an oxymoron, MYRO (a 501(c)3 non-profit organization) is an ensemble that focuses on the same classical string techniques as a “traditional” orchestra but in an alternative music environment. Founded in December of 2013, MYRO has grown from 12 students to 25 in the top touring ensemble and has recently formed MYROCK (Maine Youth Rock Orchestra Classics for Kids) for its younger students. Since its formation, MYRO has performed with 25 local and national musicians and bands with styles including rap, metal, folk and soul. This past April, MYRO became the first youth orchestra in the country to tour with a nationally signed band, performing nine shows on the East Coast with folk rock band The Ballroom Thieves.

Kevin was clear to state that because his ensemble is performs alternative styles, this does not mean that the students are not required to demonstrate a high level of technical proficiency on their instrument. The ensemble holds auditions similar to any district or all-state ensemble, requiring students to demonstrate three octave scales, two excerpts in contrasting styles (classical repertoire only) and a sight-reading example. Kevin focuses on the development of tone and intonation while maintaining consistent bowings, advanced techniques such as ponticello and glissandos and even encourages his students to improvise. He has found that his students are gaining confidence and musicianship skills while having the opportunity to perform for sold-out crowds. He has also noticed that these skills are translating into the students’ traditional orchestras. After recording an EP and debuting a video on NPR, it’s not hard to see why the students love what they do.

When asked how a classroom teacher can try to replicate MYRO’s results in a school setting, Oates encourages other teachers to use alternative styles within their ensembles. By using either pre-existing arrangements of popular tunes or arranging the song yourself, the benefits of modern music with your students can be substantial. Oates points out that many popular songs are in “difficult” keys for string players; use this as a teachable moment. Chances are that many students know the melody and with careful listening will naturally make adjustments to their intonation. Using original keys also provides your students the option to use the artist’s original track as a play-along, tuning their ear and training their aural skills while listening to the music they are most familiar with.

If you want to arrange the music yourself, Oates suggests taking the following steps:

  1. Transcribe the melody
  2. Find your chordal bass
  3. Add harmonic support and experiment with switching the melody between different voices
  4. Selectively add expressive techniques to heighten the natural emotion within the song

While this is certainly a lot of work, Oates says the reward of seeing your hard work translated by your students is well worth the effort. If this seems daunting, Oates suggests trying arrangements done by Larry Moore (which can be ordered at Johnson String). Varying in difficulty, these arrangements are true to the original piece and still include the technique that you, as a teacher, are trying to instill in your students.

Utilizing alternative styles with your students is a great way to connect the classical musicianship of a trained player to the music they love and already listen to on a daily basis, and your students will have fun while they do it. Isn’t that what music is all about?

Click here to learn more about Kevin Oates and the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra. Also be on the lookout for his latest projects:

American Youth Rock Orchestra, a nationwide YouTube-auditioned orchestra set to launch in 2017.

Empire Youth Rock Orchestra, a youth rock orchestra to be based in New York City starting in September, 2017.

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