When students leave our program and move onto the next chapter of their lives, they begin a special relationship with CYSO as an alum. Regardless of whether or not they go into music, our alumni still hold onto the many memories of rehearsals, performances, and friendships. An example of one of our most faithful and dedicated alums is Jerome Fifer, ’53. Mr. Fifer, whose brother James is also an alum, has continued to support CYSO as we’ve grown from a single ensemble organization to the program we are now. In a recent interview with Social Media Team member and Symphony Orchestra violinist Alyssa Shih, Mr. Fifer talked about his memories from his time in CYSO and what fuels his love of music.
To start off, what year were you in CYSO and what instrument did you play?
I was in the CYSO from 1950 through 1953 and I played oboe!
How did you start on the oboe?
Well, in high school I wanted to play clarinet. The clarinet was a popular instrument at the time. The artists were (jazz clarinetists) Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and all like that. I got in the band at Tilden Tech [High School], and I sat in the clarinet section way in the back, and my dad said, “Well no! If you exert your musical energy into the oboe, you would probably have less competition!” and I said, “I don’t know if I want to do that. I want to play clarinet,” and he says “No, try it!” So I tried the oboe, and all of a sudden I went from being way in the back playing the clarinet to playing the oboe up at the front—the only oboe in the orchestra. That’s how it started!
What was it about the oboe that made you stick with it, other than that you didn’t have as much competition?
Well, at first, to be honest, it was a little egotistical. A little, because I’d be the center of attention, the only person playing that instrument. But after I got into it, and I listened to the recordings, I just fell in love with the sound of the oboe, the interpretation, to make so much beauty out of the notes that everyone else was playing. That’s what just kept me with the oboe. And then when I went to concerts at Orchestra Hall and heard the various symphonies play, I fell in love with it.
So from there, how did you get to playing oboe at CYSO?
My dad recommended that I audition, and I did! That’s how it was! I said, “Okay, I’ll try.” And I guess it was a part from Gershwin’s American in Paris—that’s what I played for my audition, and I was accepted.
What do you remember about rehearsals?
Rehearsals were very organized, very intense. Very serious as opposed to what went on in high school at the time. Dedicated to getting the music right, and to make beautiful sounds. That’s what I remember.
I played a principal part in Brahms’ First Symphony, I remember that, oh that was really an impression that stayed with me. And also, the New World Symphony by Dvořák. That sort of music was not played in my high school band and I was just overjoyed to be a part of that.
How did your youth orchestra exceperience affect your college experience? Students are often caught between majoring in music or something else. How did you come to the conclusion that you were going to keep doing music?
Ok, it is not accurate that I didn’t play music professionally, because I did. My profession is engineering, and my side work is music, and I’ve been a professional musician since 1953, a member of the Musicians’ Union, and I play professional music on the side a lot. Music has been a part of my life all the time. Even when I was in college, I would be attending classes at IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology), and leaving classes to go play professional gigs on the oboe with various orchestras. So yes, it has been a part of my life, and a very serious part, but a small part.
The people that I met [in CYSO] had a different attitude from my students that I rubbed elbows with in college. Those were students of engineering, mathematics, electronics, whereas the people that I played with in the orchestra were from various professions and had various attitudes. There were professional people: lawyers, doctors, and the like, and I just met a host of people that just had, I guess you’d call it, an artistic attitude.
After college once you started working professionally as an adult, why did you continue playing music?
It’s in my heart! I enjoy making music and I enjoy interacting with musicians.
I know that you still attend the CYSO Gala and other events. Why have you kept in touch with CYSO after all these years?
It was a big experience in my life! To go from a poor neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to playing principal oboe in a symphony at Orchestra Hall, it left an impression on me all my life, and I relate to young people that want to do that as well. One of the things I’ve done throughout my life is teach music. I taught music and dance at a private school— Mayfair Academy—from approximately 1962 to about 1980. And I just enjoy helping young people to learn what it means to make music from the heart, and that’s what has motivated me.
How have you seen CYSO change since you were a member?
Oh, it’s grown in size, in complexity, it’s more complex, you have more orchestras, and it’s a little more organized, yes. At the time I entered, I think it was just one orchestra. Now I believe there are various orchestras that are part of the youth symphony. Yeah, that’s one difference.
Do you feel the character of CYSO has changed?
Yes, and no. It’s devoted to making music, and making the art. That has not changed. That’s the same. The exercise of this art reaches out to more people. More young people, earlier, and probably to a much larger geographic space, than it did when I entered in 1950. That’s the difference.
Since as you’ve said, CYSO has grown so much, I’m curious how you would compare the attitude around CYSO.
It is in many people’s perception, the premiere group to participate in, if you are a young person. And for students that like to express their musical ability through their schools, many times they’re with other young people that are there to be part of the group, to play in the band, but they don’t necessarily want to make music. And so, that’s the difference between the youth symphony, and many local high school bands and orchestras. It’s the seriousness and the dedication to the art form.
What is one piece of advice that you have for our CYSO students?
Dedicate yourself to making the music that your heart tells you to do. It requires discipline and sacrifice, but the reward just cannot be measured. The reward is infinite. So you’ll have to sacrifice some ball games, some TV, some social stuff, dances, to practice and get the music right. But it’s worth it. Making art right from the heart, that’s what’s important.
ABOUT ALYSSA SHIH
Alyssa Shih is a Symphony Orchestra violinist and senior at Walter Payton College Prep. Outside of music, she book binds and does graphic design in her spare time. Alyssa hopes to pursue Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences.