Orchestra set to debut on YouTube

Josh King

Since it was introduced in 2005, YouTube has revolutionized the way people watch video on the Internet, and now it is changing the way classical musicians grab their gigs.

The fun started on Dec. 1, 2008 with a post on the YouTube blog inviting musicians to be a part of history by recording and uploading audition videos. A group of expert classical musicians selected a group of finalists, and then YouTube users voted on their favorites. The winners were announced on March 2, 2009, and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra was born, making it the world’s first online-collaborative orchestra.

The selected musicians now have some work to do. They will come together in New York City’s Carnegie Hall and perform the latest symphony from Grammy-award winning classical composer Tan Dun. It would be a challenge for any group of musicians, but it will be especially difficult for this group, which includes musicians who hail from more than 30 countries and who play 26 different instruments.

One of the musicians selected to perform in the orchestra was Elliott Burris, a pre-medical student at the University of Virginia. A self-professed YouTube fan, Burris auditioned after a professor jokingly told him he should. Since his selection, he has spent much of his time watching the videos of his fellow winners, marveling at both the diversity and the skill of the members in the group.

“The international feel of this group really excites me,” said Burris. “In the percussion section alone, we have two students from the USA, one from Canada and professional musicians from both Japan and Hong Kong. I think that they will bring different views to the table, which will make the entire endeavor more engaging.”

One of the international musicians bringing his skills to the table is Johan Wiklund, a bass trombone player from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Wiklund auditioned after a colleague told him about the project. Looking at it as an opportunity to try something new and win a free trip to New York, Wiklund brushed the dust off some previously-rehearsed pieces and submitted his video.

“You could say that my preparation was 20 minutes, or four years of university, depending on how you look at it,” said Wiklund. “I just recorded lots of takes until I was satisfied.”

It’s this aspect of the audition process that makes this orchestra so different from any before: the YouTube Symphony Orchestra auditions were conducted entirely online. During a normal audition, a musician prepares a piece, presents it to a panel of experts, and then awaits their decision.

“I’m not a big fan of auditions,” said Washburn student Angie Jamison, a member of the marching band. “The confrontation can be stressful. I think the online audition would rock because you don’t have to sweat the person-to-person relation.”

Yet the person-to-person stuff is an important part of putting together an orchestra, especially when the members come from all across the world. Not being able to meet in person until three days before the April 15 performance, participants have used the latest Web 2.0 technologies to fill in the gaps.

“Google created a Google group for us to communicate on,” said Burris. “There’s also a Facebook group for those of us who use Facebook. I’ve had really long conversations over Facebook chat with one of the violinists as well as another percussionist. Everyone seems to be just thrilled to have been selected.”

Melding new technology with the tradition method of creating music is one of the aspects that has made the project so successful. Allowing musicians from all across the world to audition online has brought in more than 3,000 potential performers.

“It feels great to be a part of a first-time project like this,” said Wiklund. “I’m very proud to be a founding member of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.”