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Young Musicians & Artists: A fun and supportive experience for young creative students

For nearly 60 years, the non-profit program has been offering residential music and arts summer camps where youth can further their artistic interests while forging lifelong friendships.

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Raúl Gómez-Rojas rehearses with the YMA orchestra. Photo: Courtesy of Young Musicians & Artists.
Raúl Gómez-Rojas rehearses with the YMA orchestra. Photo: Courtesy of Young Musicians & Artists.

The Pacific Northwest has a number of summer programs for youth that are geared to one specific area, such as instrumental music. But there is only one program that encompasses a wide swath of the arts – music, theater, dance, and the visual arts. You may not have heard of it, because it relies heavily on word-of-mouth. It’s called Young Musicians & Artists – YMA for short – and it has garnered the reputation as a magical place to nurture kids’ artistic interests in a supportive environment.


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Divided into two separate sessions that each run for two weeks on the grounds of Willamette University in Salem each summer, YMA draws on professional instructors to teach youth who range from grades 4 through 12. The first session is centered on music with a focus on choir, band, and orchestra. The second session covers theater, musical theater, technical theater and stagecraft, dance, song writing, creative writing, visual arts, and photography. All attendees stay in dorms and at the college cafeteria during each session, which includes the weekend. 

“We have excellent programs,” said YMA executive director Kate Andries. “Some kids go to both camps. For example, choir kids from the first session will take musical theater in the second session. We also have musicians from the first session who do visual arts like photography in the second.”

Loaded with a faculty consisting of top-notch teachers and a ratio of students to instructors of just 8:1, YMA can give each student in-depth training. The program also has camp counselors and counselors-in-training, all YMA former attendees themselves, to oversee and guide students. Perhaps the best recommendation for YMA is its high number of returnees. Many students come back year after year to improve their skills and meet the new friends that they have made the previous year.

Daily shooting assignments in the YMA Digital Photography program help students learn composition, exposure techniques, black and white, and more while communicating a range of photographic themes and concepts. Photo: Young Musicians & Artists.
Daily shooting assignments in the YMA Digital Photography program help students learn composition, exposure techniques, black and white, and more while communicating a range of photographic themes and concepts. Photo: Young Musicians & Artists.

“Kids benefit from private lessons,” said Andries. “Art education in the schools is not very robust. There are not that many opportunities for kids to do art classes during the summer, so there can be a dip in learning during the summer months.”

Nearly 60 years of teaching arts each summer

Founded in 1965 by Sister Ann Miriam, a music teacher at Portland’s Madeline School, the program started as a one-week music camp under the name Young Musicians. It took place in various locations around the state, but added visual arts, changed its name to Young Musicians & Artists, and settled in at Willamette University in 1974. 

Over 13,000 youth have attended the summer camp programs since the organization was founded. And talk about alum, YMA has an impressive and diverse list that includes composer Kenji Bunch; Oregon Symphony assistant concertmaster Peter Frajola; Hollywood studio musician David Ewart; San Francisco Opera tubist Zachariah Spellman; actor and director Adrienne Flagg; former NPR correspondent Emily Harris; The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee; Pink Martini violinist Nicholas Crosa; professional photographer Rick Schafer; Broadway conductor Ben Whiteley; and Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Peter Holmström of The Dandy Warhols.  

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Supportive place for budding artists

Camp director Galen Cohen has a long relationship with YMA, starting in 1993 as a young cellist. He became a counselor-in-training and was a full-fledged counselor for a few years. After college and a professional degree as a mental health therapist, Cohen returned to YMA in an administrative role in 2008. For the last ten years, he has anchored the program as its camp director. 

“YMA is very near and dear to me,” said Cohen. “We create a safe environment for the kids. We are intense about the focus on music and the arts, but we are not competitive. We are focused on the emotional and social experience for the students. Our goal is for the kids to leave camp feeling safe and secure in their arts experience.”

Students in YMA's songwriting session have several opportunities to perform their songs in front of live audiences, as well the chance to record their songs while at camp. Photo: Courtesy of Young Musicians & Artists.
Students in YMA’s songwriting session have several opportunities to perform their songs in front of live audiences, as well the chance to record their songs while at camp. Photo: Courtesy of Young Musicians & Artists.

Because he supervises the faculty and the counselors, Cohen is the glue that makes everything a YMA work. 

“Every instrument has a faculty member,” said Cohen. “Every subject has a faculty member. I manage them and make sure that everything is okay. If there are behavioral issues that escalate to a level beyond what the counselors can handle, I address them. I am also the parent contact, so I handle all of the emails from parents.” He also works with the medical team and the mental health team. YMA always has a nurse available onsite who can address any medical emergency, as well as mental health support for students.

YMA has a no cell phone policy. Students sign an agreement that they will not bring their cell phones to camp.

“Usually the kids are fine,” remarked Cohen. “They have a withdrawal for a couple of hours. Then they engage with each other and communicate. If a kid has brought a cell phone to camp, the counselor will collect it. It’s the parents who are the most anxious. They might try to control things from afar.”

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A day at YMA

Over the years, YMA has developed and refined methods to get everyone involved in a way that achieves positive results, and it’s not all rehearsal and practice. The program has built in time for games, sports, bird-watching, and other elective activities.

YMA combines learning with the fun of a traditional summer camp, where attendees make new and often lifelong friends. Photo: Young Musicians & Artists.
YMA combines learning with the fun of a traditional summer camp, where attendees make new and often lifelong friends. Photo: Young Musicians & Artists.

A typical day for orchestra students balances musical sessions with non-musical fun. The day is divided into periods with two periods taking place in the morning. For strings, for example, the first period works with sectional coaches for an hour and a half. Then they have a break, followed by orchestra rehearsal for an hour and a half. After lunch there’s a period for string chamber ensembles divided into ensembles for more and less experienced players. That is followed by an elective like soccer, tennis, origami or bird watching. Afterwards there is free time. Kids can practice or play four square or hang out. Most evenings after dinner there is some kind of performance by the faculty or students. 

“Over the course of the two weeks, my colleagues in band and choir do a similar plan,” said YMA M Director Raúl Gómez-Rojas. “Your final goal is the concert at the end of the second week, but halfway through on Saturday or Sunday we do a showcase concert, which is internal for the students and live streamed for parents. I do a couple of movements with the orchestra – part of a program.”

“YMA is an experience where every single person who is involved grows as a person and as an artist from the youngest kid to the staff, including faculty,” added Cohen. “I really try to have that frame of mind going in that the YMA exists to develop everybody. Everyone experiences a transformation during the course of the program. At the beginning, some of the first-timers are homesick, and then they get past that and thrive. At the end of the camp, they often struggle a bit to say goodbye. It is really touching.”

Camper’s perspective

Alum rave about the program and often identify it as a life changing experience. Masha Paul is one of them. In 2011, she was fifteen years old when she attended her first camp.

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YMA dance students spend the majority of time developing skills in modern and African dance. Photo: Young Musicians & Artists.
YMA dance students spend the majority of time developing skills in modern and African dance. Photo: Young Musicians & Artists.

“I lived in Providence, Rhode Island and grew up watching dance movies,” recalled Paul. “When I was in high school, I looked up musical theater programs online and came across YMA. So I begged my mom over and over to go to this camp.” Her interest was in the musical theater and dance programs that are offered in the second session.

We were a low-income household, and my mom talked to Galen. But this entire time, I thought that YMA was in Salem, Massachusetts, and not Salem, Oregon. Then I got a scholarship, and then we realized, ‘Oh, no!’”

“I flew across the country for the first time by myself,” continued Paul. Galen arranged for Mia Matusow, a YMA board member, to pick her up. “She met me at the airport, and I stayed at her home overnight. Then she drove me to Salem. Without Mia and her family, I would never have been able to attend YMA. I went to the camp for one year, and then was asked to become a counselor. I did that for the next two years and each year I came back I stayed with Mia.”

“I gained a lot of confidence in YMA,” said Paul. “I got a lot of feedback from instructors and my peers, and that helped me to improve my performance. YMA was safe and fun, and it allowed me to raise my voice. There’s an inclusive vibe at YMA. No one is shut out. I made a lot of friends, and learned that the world is not a mean place. That was a huge takeaway. I came out of my shell, became a more outgoing person, and made a lot of friends. I still do community musical theater and go to dance class.”

From camper to teacher

Nicole Accuardi attended the musical theater program during her first year in 2002 when she was fifteen years old. She became a counselor-in-training the following year, and switched to the theater department. That experience helped her get accepted into Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s training camp for high school juniors. 

“The OSF camp had 65 kids from all over North America,” recalled Accuardi. “I would have never been accepted into the program if it were not for the training that I got from YMA.”

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Theater classes at YMA study vocal and physical training, character building, physical expression, improvisational technique, and ensemble development. Photo: Courtesy of Young Musicians & Artists.
Theater classes at YMA study vocal and physical training, character building, physical expression, improvisational technique, and ensemble development. Photo: Courtesy of Young Musicians & Artists.

Accuardi continued at YMA as a theater student and as a counselor for a long while, extending into her first two years of college. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in acting, acted professionally, and followed that with a masters’ degree in teaching. For the last several years, Accuardi has been a full-time drama teacher at the da Vinci Arts Middle School in Portland.

“It was a dream of mine to become a teacher at YMA,” said Accuardi. “I’m in my seventh year teaching there. It’s the greatest place on earth. We have all of these incredible teachers from different disciplines. It’s like going to a retreat with these brilliant artists.”

“For theater, we’ve been doing a concentration in Shakespeare with speeches from plays,” added Accuardi, “and in improvisation, following impulse and physicality. It is a beautiful thing to see a ten-year-old and an eighteen-year-old working together in an ensemble. They support each other, and they learn from each other.”

When asked to summarize her thoughts about YMA, Accuardi replied, “YMA is the number one place for youth to get conservatory training for two weeks – partnered with the most incredible opportunities for leadership and training for youth – partnered with the most inclusive and supportive experience that someone could have for their entire life.”

YMA’s music director and orchestra conductor Raúl Gómez-Rojas conducts a concerto performance at the 2023 camp. Photo: Courtesy of Young Musicians & Artists.
YMA’s music director and orchestra conductor Raúl Gómez-Rojas conducts a concerto performance at the 2023 camp. Photo: Courtesy of Young Musicians & Artists.

Another instructor’s perspective 

Raúl Gómez-Rojas will be starting his fourth summer as YMA’s music director and orchestra conductor. He is well-known in Portland as the music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony and as the resident music director of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

“The cool thing about YMA is that when a kid comes, they most always want to come back,” said Gómez-Rojas. “The return rate is pretty high. Each year we see a lot of the same kids, so you know what to expect. The camp is always full, and last summer was the largest YMA camp ever for Session One with 75 students. They could barely fit on the stage at Hudson Hall for the final concert.”

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Because the kids have a wide range of experience, it can be very tricky for Gómez-Rojas to find the best pieces for the entire ensemble. Less-experienced students are paired with advanced students, who have additional opportunities to play in Chamber Ensemble and take the spotlight in concerto performances.

Making mistakes is part of the learning process, and at YMA that takes place in a positive way – even for faculty members.

“Last year we didn’t have a tuba student, but we have a tuba available on site,” recalled Gómez-Rojas. “So at the beginning of camp I decided that I would learn how to play the tuba with the goal to play a Sousa march. I got some coaching and practiced every day in the morning. By the time the performance came, I was so terrible that people around me couldn’t stop laughing.”

Since Gómez-Rojas is a native of Costa Rica, he is fluent in Spanish, which has proved to be a real asset with some young campers.

“My first summer, on the second day of camp, Galen called me because there were two girls – sisters from Forest Grove – who wanted to go home,” said Gómez-Rojas. “Their English was very limited. They were overwhelmed. Galen wanted me to talk with them in Spanish to make sure that they knew that they were welcomed at the camp. I did that. They didn’t say much. They were shell shocked. If they wanted to go home, we would let them do that. I asked them to hang in there one more day. That worked. They stayed for the whole camp, and by the end of camp, you could see a lot of growth. They were confident, smiling, and happy. Then they came back the following year. Just a few weeks ago I was a guest clinician at a high school festival and they were playing in the orchestra, playing with confidence and joy.”

Tuition and scholarships

YMA is the only summer camp in the Pacific Northwest with a comprehensive reach into many art forms. Washington did have a similar program, but it didn’t survive the pandemic.  California has a couple of programs, including the Idyllwild Summer Arts Program

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It may seem that the cost for a two-week session, at $2,145, is high, but the good news is that scholarship funding is available.

“Our scholarship program is robust,” said Andries. “We allocate about $100,000 per year for scholarships. They are all need-based. We don’t do merit scholarships at this point. We still have funds available for this year.”

That’s good news, but the application deadline for this year is fast approaching – May 5. The first session runs from June 23 to July 5. The second goes from July 7 to July 19. To learn more about YMA, visit ymaarts.org. You might help a young person to have a positive, life-changing experience.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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2 Responses

  1. I attended YMA for music in 1978 and 1979. It was wonderful! So happy to read it is thriving. Thank you for the great article.

  2. This is a wonderful program and for many children, a major and life changing experience. Although there is some scholarship funding available, programs such as this largely remain available only to those with the means to pay the more than $2,000 for a 2 week session.

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