Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.

Omaha Area Youth Orchestras: Love at First Hear

  • October 22, 2018

Aviva Segall has always been passionate about music. Hearing the cello for the first time as a little girl, she remembered that “I got up and started screaming, ‘I want to play that one, mommy!’ It was love at first hear.”

For the past 20 years, as Music Director and Principal Conductor at Omaha Area Youth Orchestras (OAYO), Segall has been hearing the beautiful sound of other young people discovering music. The program serves 550 musicians annually, ages eight to 18, in Omaha, Council Bluffs and surrounding areas. It reaches more than 100 schools and 29 school districts. Now in its 60th season, OAYO has grown to six orchestras (“four orchestras by audition and two by teacher recommendation”) and 18 chamber music ensembles. All provide high-level musical instruction and such performance opportunities as concerts and outreach events. And: “We occasionally have a new music ensemble, and our conductor for that is our alumnus, Vimbayi Kaziboni, who was the assistant conductor for the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris and is now the new music conductor at Boston Conservatory at Berklee.”

OAYO started as a combined effort of the Omaha Symphony Guild and the public schools, said Segall. “The goal,” she added, “was for the schools to enable more advanced musicians to perform great works of classical literature, inspire musicians to advance and to bring back musical leadership skills to their school orchestras.” In addition, it was thought that being a member of OAYO would inspire the young musicians to appreciate the Omaha Symphony, creating both the artists and the audiences of the future.

To strengthen this bond, “We have two side-by-side rehearsals and a side-by-side concert every year with our top group, Youth Symphony, and the Omaha Symphony. Maestro Thomas Wilkins, Music Director of the Omaha Symphony (and principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra) conducts most of that concert.

“The Omaha Symphony also does two side-by-side rehearsals with our second orchestra, Youth Philharmonic,” Segall added. “Our youngest string group, Youth Concert Strings does a side-by-side with the string players of our top group, Youth Symphony. It allows our Youth Symphony strings to close the loop, being both mentors and mentees!”

Since joining OAYO, Segall has added orchestras and have expanded the chamber music offerings. An ambitious impresario, she is always busy adding and tweaking; but also, when necessary, accommodating. “We just try to do the right thing for our musicians and our community. Depending on the needs of the community, we have expanded some programs in the past,” she said. However, “we are in the process of re-evaluating our programs to better fit the changing music education landscape. Young musicians have busier and busier lives, so we are trying to make sure that their experience with us fits in with their primary commitment to their schools. We have been switching our schedule to have more ‘events’ that can be optional for our high school musicians at busy times during their school year.” Especially with OAYO’s entry level Prelude programs, “We are trying to figure out how to make sure they are offered in places and times that work with student needs, especially transportation needs.”

Segall draws inspiration from Maestro José Abreu, the founder of Venezuela’s El Sistema children’s music project. “José Abreu (who passed away this March) talked about the orchestra as the ideal society. In short, all the qualities you expect to find in the ideal citizen are refined and polished through practice, rehearsal and performance in an orchestral musician. Those include knowing when to lead and when to follow, how to take responsibility for your own part so you can contribute to the good of the whole, when your voice is the most important and most importantly, when it is time to step back and listen to others.”

OAYO enjoys a great deal of community support. “We have fabulous community partners,” she said, listing “public schools, professional arts organizations and other community partners. All parents volunteer three times in a season; we also have been lucky to have wonderful staff and board members. We go for the win-win-win in every partnership. ”

This year, for example, “We had a Veteran’s Day concert at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. There was a fighter plane in the concert space!” In situations like these, “If our students have a great experience and our partners get their goals in a collaboration met – and we have the capacity to do it – it is a good partnership.”

OAYO has been with Ludus for about two years. Ludus was selected, according to Segall, “as the least expensive, most adaptable option that ‘talks to Charms’” – the predominant office assistant software used by schools for their extracurricular programs. “We still need to figure out how to make it work with Charms better and need to figure out the season ticket packages more effectively, said Segall, “but we had some staff turnover….”

Segall has more wishes, such as performance venues that are less expensive and in which “ we could have more rehearsals!” She also wishes for “a composer in residence and could commission pieces for all of our orchestras and chamber music groups every single year. Especially pieces that the groups could perform together.”

She loves what alumni like Kaziboni and William Welter, the new principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony, have achieved. “We have a number of other professional musicians, but also teachers, entrepreneurs, doctors, etc! I am very proud of all of our alumni! The best thing is to see the children of alumni in our program!”

Most of all: “I love my job! I always say if you want to have faith in the future of this country, all you have to do is spend three minutes with any one of the fabulous young musicians in OAYO!”

If you’re in the Omaha area, and are interested in attending one of OAYO’s concerts, check out their Ludus portal at