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Equity and Inclusion Through Access to Music Education


The history of the Young Musicians Foundation begins with Young Musical America, a television program created by YMF founder, Sylvia Kunin, in 1952. Kunin’s vision was to bring classical music to young audiences and the success of this program inspired the creation of Debut, a similar program which was conducted by Robert La Manchina.

With growing success and the assistance of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and composer Elmer Bernstein, YMF and the Debut Orchestra was established in Los Angeles in 1955. At the time, the YMF Debut Orchestra was only one of two pre-professional orchestras in the United States. During the same year, the YMF Women’s Council, the largest supporter of YMF from its founding through the mid ‘90s, was also established. All women members of YMF were automatically part of this council whose functions included promoting Debut Orchestra concerts, organizing member luncheons and lecture meetings and supporting the National Audition Week in June beginning in 1957.

1957 also saw the inception of the YMF scholarship program designed to help exceptional students in need of financial assistance. Within a few years, author Irving Stone became president of YMF and Henry Lewis, former conductor of the New Jersey Symphony, became conductor of the Debut Orchestra. Most notably, “Debut Night” was presented at the Hollywood Bowl and anticipated the growth and success of the coming decade. In 1962, YMF founder Sylvia Kunin won an Emmy Award for the broadcast of the “Auditions” and conductor Lawrence Foster became director of the Debut Orchestra. Alumni from this period include Andre Previn, Christopher Parkening, Nathaniel Rosen, Horacio Gutierrez, Misha Dichter, Stephen Kates, Laurence Lesser, Marilyn Neeley, Glenn Dicterow, and Lilit Gampel.

The turn of the decade introduced a new president for YMF, as well as a commendation from the City of Los Angeles. The YMF Debut Orchestra toured Europe, opening for the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland and performed in Berlin. YMF also introduced Calvin E. Simmons, who went on to become the first African-American conductor for a major orchestra, as the conductor for the Debut Orchestra in 1975. Simmons directed three seasons with the orchestra, led several free community concerts, and hosted concerts at area schools. Part of the Foundation’s mission throughout the 1970s was to expand its programming to include more community and philanthropic work and it did so exceedingly well.

YMF built a small library of instruments for loan to students beginning in 1972 and in 1976 founder Sylvia Kunin created the Musical Encounters outreach program where members of the Debut Orchestra who were under 16 performed in elementary schools throughout Los Angeles. During the same year YMF received the Labor’s Award of Honor for Community Service in the Arts from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. During the final year of the decade, Sylvia Kunin was awarded a second Emmy for “DEBUT” a program of Musical Encounters on KOCE-TV. YMF’s international recognition brought the attention of people such as Herb Alpert, Al Jarreau, Henry Mancini, Rita Moreno, composer John Williams, and Dudley Moore who began appearing at gala fundraisers and maintained connections with YMF through the mid-2000’s. Organizations like BMI recognized YMF’s significance and even president Reagan and George Bush Sr. acknowledged YMF’s international contribution to the arts and culture.

Throughout the ‘90s YMF was among the most recognized musical organizations in the United States, largely due to its close connection to the entertainment industry. In 1992, YMF premiered the Disney Youth Symphony Orchestra whose debut performance was broadcast on the Disney Channel with over 10 million viewers in North America and additional viewers in Europe. In 1995, the Youth Mentor Artists Program was established in which senior Debut Orchestra instrumentalists and Scholarship Program vocalists mentored youth in underserved elementary and middle schools and instruments were donated to schools that had none. By 2001 the Youth Mentor Artist Program expanded to 23 schools and had loaned over 200 instruments to their partner sites.

Upon the passing of former board member and television host, Merv Griffin, in 2007, YMF lost several of its high-profile connections, and reduced the organization’s national and regional visibility. Just seven years later, David Weiss, beloved mentor, advisor, passed away suddenly and tragically. At the time YMF was operating eight separate programs with little programmatic interconnection. These programs served two widely disparate audiences: some were primarily geared toward community outreach and education for underserved communities, while others served elite-level high school and college aged musicians. Organizational analysis made it clear that, in reality, YMF had become a bifurcated organization — one that, in addition to serving two entirely different populations, operated unrelated service models with no connection or support of each other. At this point, YMF began to examine its mission and relevance within the changing cultural landscape of Los Angeles.

The Colburn Conservatory, and other orchestral programs such as American Youth Symphony, the USC Thornton School of Music and the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA were established and emerged into national prominence. Perhaps due to the abundance of these newly available opportunities, student participation in YMF Chamber Music, one of the organization’s flagship programs, began to decline. The Debut Orchestra continued its programming, but recruitment of talent was becoming ever more difficult and YMF leadership began questioning the impact and relevance of the Debut Orchestra. The Debut Orchestra served a population of 55 elite young musicians whereas the Teaching Artist Program served approximately 1,100 students with little to no access to music education across 11 different schools and sites. It became apparent that focusing YMF’s resources to provide a single program serving a clearly defined population would be the most effective strategy for delivering the highest quality programs that would have the greatest impact on the communities served.

In 2017 a new strategic plan was adopted which provided a roadmap for creating the significant changes in programming and overall service model. This change was motivated by the desire to provide access to high quality music education, and its well documented benefits, to students and communities who otherwise would not have this access. The Chamber Music Program and the Composers Workshop programs were discontinued to allow for the allocation of greater resources to providing tuition-free music education to more children in more communities. The first public demonstration of the organization’s newly-focused program model was the YMF Family Arts Festival, which honored Rafael Mendez. The Festival featured performances by over 200 students from 4 YMF partner schools. The following year, YMF presented the Connections Festival, held in the Aratani Courtyard in Little Tokyo which featured over 300 students from five partner schools, community partners such as Street Poets and the LA Film School, as well as a performance by the Debut Orchestra in the Aratani Theatre. It was YMF’s final attempt at integrating the two programs but despite operating within steps of each other, there was no crossover or integration between both groups.

Due to demand for YMF programs, the Teaching Artist program doubled in size from 1,200 students served in 2017 to over 2,600 students served in 2018. Community programs also expanded. To accommodate this, and future growth, YMF moved to a 5,000 square foot mixed-use facility in Cypress Park were it was able to host new programs such as the Mike Stoller Music Heals Program for Homeboy Industries and the program formerly known as Neighborhood Orchestra (now Community Music Academy). The final step in the transition of program unification, focus, and explicitly defined service was completed with the discontinuation of the Debut Orchestra in the spring of 2019. YMF is solely focused on serving the community and underserved populations within Los Angeles by providing access to high quality music education to those who otherwise would not have the opportunity. Walter Zooi, current executive director, notes:

“The positive impact of this decision was undeniable. In 2016 our Teaching Artist Program was able to serve approximately 1,200 students at 11 schools and sites across Los Angeles. With our new, unified program model allowing us to focus and expertise in the service of one mission, YMF now serves over 4,800 students at 26 schools and sites on a weekly basis throughout the school year.”

YMF continues to seek ways to serve the community. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, YMF transitioned to an online model, the first of its kind in its history, that was able to provide lessons to students that were impacted by the safer-at-home orders that affected California. Additionally, YMF is creating a service model that aims to serve people beyond music education. Our internship program, community workshops, and social emotional learning (SEL) integration are but a few examples of what the future holds for YMF.

“That there is a wealth of young musical talent in Los Angeles is no secret to anyone; the problem is to provide opportunities for its development. One of the foremost instruments in this cause has been the Young Musicians Foundation.”

— Albert Goldberg, Los Angeles Times — Sun., Apr. 9th, 1961

When reality meets film production...