The MAYS orchestra gives local students a chance to find fun and friendship in the symphony.
Emily May Costa compares the Metropolitan Area Youth Symphony (MAYS) to a musical hug.
“Our motto is grow through music,” says Emily, the program manager. “Rather than being harsh, which a lot of music education tends to be, our philosophy is more nurturing. We want to nurture the love of music, and through that love, you grow into a better performer.”
The tuition-based program – which is starting its 10th season – is comprised of six orchestral groups of varying skill levels. About 150 Central Florida students, ages 5 to 22, are currently enrolled.
“Classical music has this reputation of being scary and not very kid-friendly,” Emily says. “If you play a wrong note, you’re not a bad person. You’re not going to be shamed here.”
For Emily, a cello player and teacher, MAYS is truly a family affair. Her mother, Maureen May, is the artistic director; her brothers, Elliot and Nathan, also work with the students. And Emily’s husband, Jason Costa, is executive director of the Jonathan May Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the program by providing scholarships for students and funding for concerts.
MAYS was founded in 2010 after the unexpected death of its inspiration and honorary founder, Jonathan May. He was Maureen’s husband and the father of Emily, Elliot, and Nathan.
The music education program is divided into MAYS of Orlando, with four orchestras, and MAYS of Lake County, which has two orchestras. MAYS of Orlando rehearses on Sunday afternoons at St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo and performs four concerts a year. Maureen is conductor of the Symphony – the program’s most advanced orchestra.
Jonathan founded and was the artistic director of several youth orchestras in Central Florida and other states. MAYS was launched to continue his legacy of providing quality music education for youths.
“His teaching philosophy was our launchpad,” says Emily, who lives in Winter Park. “We’re trying to maintain the idea that you learn your best when you love what you’re doing.”
Megan Sabella, a violinist and recent graduate of Winter Springs High School, began with MAYS during its first season.
“They definitely care more about if you’re enjoying playing, not just if you’re super-good,” she says.
This fall, Megan will head to the University of Florida to study music education. She appreciates the opportunities that MAYS has given her to instruct and mentor younger students at its annual summer camps.
“That was a good way to figure out that I liked teaching before majoring in it,” Megan says.
Every year, Maureen has a batch of students like Megan who want to major in music education. But she knows most of her pupils don’t plan on becoming professional musicians or music teachers.
“Instead, the majority of my students are going to be the future art supporters,” says Maureen, a professional cellist and orchestra director at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park.
“So, I really want to train them to think about the role that arts and music have in our community and what it’s going to take for them to continue that through their lives,” she says. “They’ll be the ones who are helping tune their little kid’s violin one day.”
Maureen and Emily enjoy seeing their students develop musically over the years. One example has been Marcelo Celi, a rising junior at Lake Howell High, who made quite an impression when he signed up for the first summer camp that MAYS offered.
“He came in and played a Beatles tune by ear on his little blue violin,” Maureen recalls with a laugh.
Marcelo says it can be challenging to learn all the required music in the MAYS repertoire, but it’s well worth the time and energy.
“The concerts are the best part, because you go out and perform, and you can look around and see all your friends performing with you,” he says. “It can be a little stressful sometimes, but it’s fun.”
MAYS prides itself on being an inclusive yet competitive program. Students are placed in the appropriate orchestra via an audition process. Auditions for the 2019-2020 season are currently underway.
Pupils can choose to participate in additional opportunities with MAYS, including playing at cultural events within the Central Florida community. MAYS also holds a concerto contest that its students are invited to enter every fall, and the winners get to perform as soloists at the annual spring concert.
Violinist Melissa Erdem, who joined MAYS a couple of years ago, was one of four concerto competition winners for the 2018-2019 season.
“I like playing for the community and seeing their faces when they hear the music,” says Melissa, a rising sophomore at Hagerty High. “I just like the appreciation you get. And I’ve made nice friends.”
Longwood’s Katherine “Kate” DeGroot, a rising sixth grader who is homeschooled, just finished her first season with MAYS. She quickly made her mark in the program’s Repertory, a group for advanced young musicians. Like Melissa, Kate was also a concerto contest winner.
“I just really like the music that we play here,” says Kate, a violinist who got a kick out of performing her winning piece as a solo at the spring concert. “Playing in front of everybody by myself is kind of scary, but I just love it.”
Lake Mary resident Darlene van Hissenhoven has two daughters who perform with MAYS – Ayla, a rising senior at Lake Mary High, and Analise, a rising sixth grader at Millennium Middle.
Both girls play violin, and Analise is also a beginning viola student. Darlene, the associate program manager for MAYS, appreciates the organization’s focus on its students’ growth and well-being.
“MAYS gives them the opportunity to be a part of something that is larger than themselves and to push their skills to the next level because they want to get there,” Darlene says. “The expectations of them are high, and they rise to it in amazing ways. Also, they can make friends with a diverse group of people who are all similarly focused on excellence. I love how the little ones look up to the big ones, and how the big ones nurture the little ones.”
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