Symphony Orchestra Retreat 2019: How an Orchestra Becomes One

Each season, CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra begins the year with a three-day retreat over Labor Day weekend. The orchestra gathers to begin rehearsing the fall repertoire but, perhaps more importantly, to begin the process of getting to know each other and becoming a true ensemble. With the departure of seniors at the end of every season, Symphony Orchestra is almost always one-third to one-half new students each year, and the process of learning to work together as a team begins anew as members come and go.

Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster and Social Media Team member Nicole Tong wrote about her experience at this year’s retreat, the anticipation of seating assignments, how the group gels into one, and the joy of gathering around a campfire.

Something in the air felt different this time. As always, I welcomed the pond scenery, habitual sighting of dragonflies, and thickened concentration of trees. One hundred and twenty young musicians from around the Chicagoland area escaped their lives at school and came together in a secluded retreat center in northern Illinois to make music. I had gotten used to the years of inside jokes, and yet, I welcomed this breath of fresh air, free of limits, pressing responsibilities, old news.

The Labor Day Retreat began five years ago as a way for Symphony Orchestra, CYSO’s flagship ensemble, to kick off the new season with rehearsals and bonding. With approximately nine hours of rehearsal packed into two and a half days, some might say we’re crazy. Then again, we are CYSO.

Upon arriving at the Loyal Ecological Retreat Center for my fourth retreat, I was relieved that I finally remembered where everything was located—the cafeteria adjacent to the rehearsal room next to the lobby and stairs. Not to say that I didn’t get lost at least once trying to find my way through the labyrinth of rooms, but my sense of direction had at least improved.

At 7:00 sharp Friday evening, more than a hundred bodies crowded the narrow hall. The room was saturated with uneasiness, anxiety, excitement, and tension, knowing that our fall seating assignments were about to be announced. The chatter of excitement grew.

“The sooner you get out of my way, the sooner you can see the seating, people,” Kaytie told us, moving through the throng of teenagers to tape the pages of names to the wall. I laughed to myself, realizing that I had heard these same words out of her mouth for three years.

Armed and anxious, the musicians took out their phones and snapped a photo of long-awaited seating assignments. Some excitedly whispered to each other, occasionally letting out a louder-than-intended gasp of surprise. Others went off into a corner with furrowed brows as they ran their eyes down the page. But just like that, it was over.

Inside the rehearsal room, hornists blared incomprehensible scales and the Star Wars theme. Nearby, a violist scavenged for a mute under heaps of folders and two cellists peered over a score, discussing bowings. Suddenly, the doors to the rehearsal room swung open and Maestro emerged. The orchestra fell silent and out of the principal oboe came a ringing A, kickstarting the first tuning of the season. Like Alice stumbling upon a rabbit hole, it is this silent limbo between reality and magic before the first notes of our repertoire are played that I appreciate the most every year.

Moments later we began with Saint-Saens’s Symphony no. 3 and everything fell into place. Someone forgot to come in at the end and the entire serious atmosphere was broken down into laughter. The anxiety of seating auditions and meeting new people dissipated. The herd had gathered around an oasis only to discover that it was, more or less, a mirage. What truly mattered was our dynamic as a group, and looking around, I knew we would be okay, no matter where we sat.

The bonfire Saturday night certainly showcased that.

“Graham crackers, anyone?” someone yelled every three minutes.

Heat radiated from the center of the bonfire as kids dipped their marshmallows into the lapping fire. Somewhere, somehow, a chaperone started freestyle rapping about bassoonists and awesomeness. The crackle of a hard-earned fire surrounded us.

That weekend, I met a twelve-year-old senior, a girl who has mastered three instruments, and four harpists—four! This year’s Symphony Orchestra is truly a diverse group of not only musicians, but people. The young musicians bring expertise in their instruments, passion, humor, and peculiar musical preferences. No more seating audition results, at least until next spring.

The new season has begun.



Nicole (Weirui) Tong is co-concertmaster of CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra and has been a member of the organization for the past six years. She is a senior at Naperville North High School. In her spare time, Nicole enjoys traveling, writing, memorizing tongue-twisting raps, and binge watching Planet Earth.

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