Joining Orchestras - Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras

String and full orchestras range from beginner to experienced young musicians.  To join, students participate in an audition and are placed in an appropriate ensemble based on their age and musical experience. Auditions happen each spring, with additional recruiting in the summer if spots need to be filled.

The Opportunities are Endless (Almost!)

After your audition, CYSO Artistic staff will evaluate your performance to determine where your skills best fit within our orchestra ensembles. To hear the level at which each ensemble is playing and where you may fit, watch performance snapshots. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Read frequently asked questions below. If you have additional questions please contact Karen Mari at

What will my child learn in CYSO?

In addition to the musicianship and technical proficiency that students develop at CYSO, the orchestra environment provides young people with skills that translate to all areas of their life. CYSO musicians develop the ability to listen to others respectfully and intently, and learn how to work towards a goal.

Our students learn and grow alongside young musicians from across the Chicago region, developing friendships and learning to collaborate with students they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to interact with. Students leave CYSO with a strong sense of discipline, increased confidence, and a deep appreciation for music and the arts.

What makes CYSO programs different from other music training?

At CYSO, students have the opportunity to work alongside a diverse student body of like-minded young musicians who are passionate, hard-working, and ready to learn. We challenge students to achieve beyond their expectations. Students learn to work individually as musicians and collectively as an ensemble. We view the orchestra as a model for democracy in action; each student contributes to the good of the whole and in the end, the orchestra is greater than just the sum of its parts.

Is experience required?

To join our orchestra or jazz programs, we recommend that students have approximately two years of experience playing their instrument. No music or percussion experience is required for steelpan.

What is Orchestra and what are CYSO’s different ensembles?

  • Symphony Orchestra Rehearses weekly on Sundays from 3:00 – 6:00 pm
    Internationally recognized as one of the foremost youth orchestras, CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra is comprised of the most talented and dedicated student musicians. Under the direction of Music Director Allen Tinkham, Symphony Orchestra students have the opportunity to hone their skills while performing the most advanced orchestral repertoire alongside exciting new works by contemporary composers. Symphony Orchestra’s annual seasons feature collaborations with leading cultural institutions, a concerto competition, and performances at Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall and Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

Since its first season in 1946, CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra has achieved international recognition for its excellence and innovation in orchestral performance. The orchestra is known as an important training ground for the cultivation of the next generation of professional musicians. In fact, you can hear our alumni playing in more than 40 orchestras around the world including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, The President’s Own, Cleveland Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, among many others. See some of CYSO’s notable alumni.

  • Philharmonic Orchestra Rehearses weekly on Sundays from 12:00 – 2:30 pm.

Philharmonic Orchestra, a full orchestra led by Associate Conductor Terrance Malone Gray, is comprised of talented student musicians from the Chicago area providing an advanced orchestral experience featuring exclusive training opportunities including sectionals and coachings with professional Chicago musicians, a concerto competition, and multiple performance opportunities in some of the area’s most renowned venues including the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, the Studebaker Theater, and Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall. Philharmonic Orchestra students have the opportunity to perform advanced orchestral repertoire and new works by contemporary composers.

In addition to its regular season concerts, Philharmonic Orchestra performs two education concerts for CPS elementary school students and does a reading session of works by students composers from CYSO’s Composition Seminar.

  • Concert Orchestra Rehearses weekly on Saturday from 12:30 – 3:00 pm

Led by Michael Mascari, the Concert Orchestra provides advanced orchestral training to predominantly high school aged student musicians.

Concert Orchestra students have the opportunity to perform advanced orchestral repertoire and new works by contemporary composers. Their season includes weekly rehearsals, sectionals, a concerto competition, an audition seminar, and concerts in some of the area’s most renowned venues including Harris Theater, Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, and Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall. The Concert Orchestra has also performed at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

The Concert Orchestra is also featured in the spring at the Chicago Cultural Center on a pair of educational concerts sponsored by the International Music Foundation for CPS elementary school students.

  • Debut Orchestra Rehearses weekly on Saturdays from 10:00 am – 12:00 pm Debut Orchestra, a full orchestra led by Dana Green and supported by Wind & Brass Coach Steven Gooden, provides predominantly middle school-aged student musicians with their first exposure to high level full orchestra training. Their season includes weekly rehearsals, sectionals, and performances at local venues such as the Studebaker Theater and Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.
  • Accelerando StringsRehearses weekly on Saturdays from 1:00 – 3:00 pm under the direction of CYSO Director of String Ensembles Daniella Valdez, Accelerando Strings provides string orchestra training to high school-aged student musicians. The Accelerando Strings season includes weekly rehearsals that focus on technique, string repertoire, musicianship, and presentation skills.

Accelerando Strings students perform two concerts at local venues such as Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall and a community concert at a CPS high school.

Members of Accelerando Strings also have the opportunity to participate in Composition Seminar.

  • Preparatory Strings Rehearses weekly on Saturdays from 10:30 – 12:30 pm

Preparatory Strings, led by Director of String Ensembles Daniella Valdez and supported by PS Assistant Conductor Anne McTighe, provides string orchestra training to predominantly elementary school aged student musicians who read music and have at least two years of playing experience on their instruments. Weekly rehearsals focus on technique, ensemble performance skills, and basic string repertoire.  The Preparatory Strings season includes two performances at local venues that have included the Studebaker Theater and Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

  • Overture Strings Rehearses weekly on Saturdays from 9:00 – 10:15 am

Overture Strings, led by Anne McTighe, under the direction of Director of String Ensembles Daniella Valdez, provides entry-level string orchestra training to our youngest elementary school-aged student musicians. Their season includes two performances and weekly rehearsals that focus on technique, ensemble performance skills, basic string repertoire, and music theory.

What is the difference between string and full orchestras? 

CYSO’s full orchestras include woodwind, brass, percussion, harp, and piano students in addition to string students. String orchestras are only for string (violin, viola, cello, and bass) students.

What are Orchestra audition requirements and excerpts? 

Orchestra auditions for the 2021-2022 season will be submitted via video due April 12, 2021 at 11:59 pm, except for percussion auditions which will be due April 30, 2021 at 11:59 pm. After filling out your audition registration, percussion students will have the option to use CYSO’s facilities to record their audition. 

Orchestra Audition video submissions should be approximately 5-8 minutes long except percussion auditions which are approximately 5 minutes. During that time, students will perform 2-3 minutes of their two contrasting solo pieces and, if they choose, the orchestral  excerpts found at the bottom of this page.

All auditioning students are asked to prepare two contrasting pieces for their audition. For the audition video, please include a 2-3 minute portion of each piece. (You do not need to start at the beginning.) It is important that the two solo selections you choose are CONTRASTING so that the judges hear the range of your technical and musical capabilities: fast vs slow, lyrical vs technical. If your two pieces are 1) a slow, lyrical piece and 2) a fast, technical piece with a slow introduction, make sure you play the fast part of the second piece.

When submitting an audition registration, students will indicate whether they plan to play the orchestral excerpts or not. Excerpts are only required for students who wish to be considered for Symphony Orchestra or Philharmonic Orchestra. If a student isn’t sure whether they should audition for these ensembles, we suggest looking at the excerpts with their teacher to see if it feels like an appropriate piece for their level.

  •  Strings
    • Two contrasting movements or solo pieces
    • Orchestral Excerpts*
      • Violin
      • Viola
      • Cello
      • Bass 
      • *The orchestral excerpts are only required if you wish to be considered for placement in Symphony Orchestra or Philharmonic Orchestra (Sunday orchestras). You do not need to prepare the excerpts to be considered for placement in Concert Orchestra, Debut Orchestra, Accelerando Strings, Preparatory Strings, or Overture Strings (Saturday orchestras).
  • Winds & Brass
  • Percussion
    • Percussionists have the option to record their video on their own, or sign up to use CYSO’s facilities. Percussion videos will be due on Friday, April 30. 
    • To be considered for Debut or Concert Orchestra (Saturday Orchestras):
    • To be considered for Philharmonic or Symphony Orchestra (Sunday Orchestras):
    • Please note that you can still be considered for Debut or Concert Orchestra if you prepare the repertoire required for Philharmonic or Symphony Orchestra.
  • Harp and Piano
  • *The orchestral excerpts are only required if you wish to be considered for placement in Symphony Orchestra or Philharmonic Orchestra (Sunday orchestras). You do not need to prepare the excerpts to be considered for placement in Concert Orchestra (Saturday).

Where do auditions take place and how do I get there? 

In-person auditions take place at CYSO’s offices in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave Suite 833. Link to page with travel info. Depending on current public health recommendations, video auditions may also be accepted. Information on submitting video auditions will be provided via email as necessary.

What will CYSO be judging in my audition?

Things the judges consider

  • Rhythmic accuracy
  • Rhythmic stability (steady tempo)
  • Intonation (playing in-tune with yourself)
  • Tone quality
  • Dynamic contrast
  • Instrument-specific technique
  • Musicality, expression, and phrasing
  • Appropriateness of repertoire for your technical level
  • Ability to recover if you make a mistake
  • Careful preparation of all audition music

Things the judges do not consider

  • The audio quality of the device you used to record
  • The video quality of the device used to record
  • Where you recorded your video and what it looked like (bedroom, living room, bathroom, etc. However, acoustics can be an issue if, for example you record in your bathroom and the sound is unclear due to the echo. Wherever you record, make sure you can be clearly heard.)
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Gender or gender presentation
  • If you have a private teacher or who your teacher is
  • Other auditions you’ve taken or groups you’ve played with
  • How fancy or expensive your instrument is

Where can I find instructions for submitting my video? 

After you have submitted your online audition registration form, a CYSO staff member will email you your video instructions!

Can I edit my video? 

Absolutely no editing or sound enhancements of any kind are permitted. Your Audition video should be one continuous take. Audition videos that are suspected to have been edited or otherwise enhanced will be immediately disqualified.

What if I do not have access to an instrument at home?

If you do not have access to your instrument or have other challenges preventing you from submitting a video, please email Karen Mari at CYSO understands that percussionists in particular may not have access to timpani or a mallet instrument, and we have created separate pre-screening instructions for these students will receive after registering for their audition.

Should I memorize the music?

Memorization is not required. If you would like to memorize your solos, you are welcome to do so.

How long should my audition video be? 

Your audition video should be no longer than 8 minutes, and should include 2-3 minutes of each of your two contrasting solo in addition to your audition excerpts if you chose to be considered for a Sunday orchestra.

What should I wear?

Wear nice dress clothes that are comfortable for you to perform in. Remember that this is the first impression you will make on those who will evaluate you. It is also a good idea to practice in the clothes you are planning to wear at least once before your audition.

When will I find out if I have been accepted? 

All audition results will be announced by mid-June via email. All auditioning students will be contacted regardless of the outcome. Be sure to enter your email address correctly on your Audition Registration Form. Email is CYSO’s primary mode of communication with students and parents.

When are where are rehearsals held?

All orchestra rehearsals are held in CYSO rehearsal spaces 833, 825 & Curtiss Hall at 410 S. Michigan Avenue, the Fine Arts Building (FAB). Enrichment Programs are held in various CYSO rooms at FAB and in various Roosevelt University (RU) rooms at 430 S. Michigan Avenue.

  • 2021-2022 Saturdays
    • Orchestra Rehearsals – FAB Curtiss Hall
      • Overture Strings (OS) 9:00 – 10:15 AM
      • Preparatory Strings (PS) 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM
      • Accelerando Strings (AS) 1:00 – 3:00 PM
    • Orchestra Rehearsals – FAB Room 833
      • Debut Orchestra (DO) 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
      • Concert Orchestra (CO) 12:30 – 3:00 PM
    • Steel Orchestra Rehearsals – FAB Room 825
      • The Jumbies 9:00 – 10:00 AM
      • Groove Steel Ensemble 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
      • Junior Steel Orchestra 1:00 – 3:00 PM
      • Kaiso Steel Orchestra 3:15 – 5:15 PM
  • 2021-2022 Sundays
    • Orchestra Rehearsals – FAB Room 833
      • Philharmonic Orchestra (PO) 12:00 – 2:30 PM
      • Symphony Orchestra (SO) 3:00 – 6:00 PM or 3:00 – 8:00 PM
    • Enrichment Programs – Various Rooms
      • Composition Seminar (SO & PO) 10:45 – 11:45 AM
      • Chamber Music (SO)* 12:30 – 2:30 PM
      • Chamber Music (PO)* 3:00 – 5:00 PM

*Both Chamber Music sessions include Percussion Ensemble which is required of all Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic Orchestra percussionists.

When are Orchestra concerts? 

CYSO concerts are held in the fall (late November and December) and spring (May and early June). Some programs also have winter concerts in February/March. At the start of each season, students will receive a detailed calendar of concert and event dates.

What is the Orchestra attendance policy? 

Membership in CYSO is both a privilege and a responsibility. As one of the nation’s finest youth orchestra programs, CYSO maintains its standing through the commitment and dedication of our musicians. Participation at rehearsals results in successful performances. CYSO attendance guidelines define players’ responsibility in order to ensure the group’s success. Regular attendance maintains the musical integrity of the orchestras, as well as each player’s individual efforts and investments. Students are allowed a set number of absences per concert cycle, which is outlined in detail in our Parent & Student Handbook.

What is the tuition cost of Orchestra? 

CYSO program tuition is available online on our tuition page. We make our programs accessible to all students, regardless of their financial background. Need-based financial assistance is available for all CYSO programs.

What are the requirements for membership? 

Requirements vary for each orchestra, enrichment program, and by instrument. See the CYSO membership requirements PDF for details.

Orchestra Audition Interest Form

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