The Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta (YONA) is an El Sistema-inspired program based in Edmonton or Amiskwaciwâskahikan and Alexander First Nation in Treaty 6 Territory. It is a free music-centred program that grows, evolves, and responds to the needs of the communities it serves.

YONA was launched through the visionary work of the administrative team at the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO), the support of YONA’s founders, and the innovative partnership between the ESO and the Edmonton Catholic School District. In September 2013, the doors of St. Teresa of Calcutta School (formerly Mother Teresa School) stayed open after the regular school day to welcome YONA’s first 20 students to partake in this transformative program. For three hours every day, the students, in grades 2-6, stayed to play music and learn about community. They ate a healthy snack, received homework help, played outside, sang in choir, learned to play the violin, and developed meaningful relationships with each other and their teachers. Family members expressed gratitude for the program and were impressed by what their children were learning.

The year culminated in what became an annual year-end celebration on stage at the Winspear Centre. This performance has often been described as “the best day of my life” by students, and it is a major milestone for helping to promote pride amongst students, families, and the broader community. The YONA team received feedback that the program helped encourage school attendance, focus in class, and overall well-being. At the conclusion of YONA’s inaugural year, it was clear that YONA was becoming a vital component of the community fabric.

The size of the program doubled in the second year and almost doubled again in Year 4 when it moved over to St. Alphonsus School into classrooms designated exclusively for YONA’s use. Classes for viola, cello and bass were added in the second of YONA's three pilot years, allowing the creation of a full string orchestra. Percussion was added in the third year, showing YONA’s capacity to be flexible and responsive to student needs – in this case to move more with their bodies! Also during this period, YONA established its relationship with Edmonton Public Schools, welcoming students from Delton Public. The program also welcomed more volunteers into its operations, who are a crucial pillar supporting the overall success of the program. Finally, YONA’s senior level orchestra was named The La Bruyère Orchestra as an acknowledgement of Marc de la Bruyère’s ongoing and significant support of the program. With this, the pilot years came to successful completion with a well-established program in place.

The next few years marked the exciting addition of woodwind and brass instruments to the program’s instrumental classes, meaning YONA offered students opportunities to learn the flute, clarinet, trombone, and horn in addition to strings and percussion. Students who had started with the program back in 2013 were now in junior high, and in response to the changing needs of this age group, YONA began experimenting with elective classes, such as Chamber Music, Leadership, Musical Theatre, etc. In January 2018, a partnership with Kipohtakâw Education Centre was created in order to offer in-school violin programming to 50 students at Alexander First Nation. YONA served a total of 135 students (including 85 in the city) at two sites. YONA Year 5 was also the launch year of the ESO Ambassador Program; a program that pairs ESO Musicians with YONA classes on a volunteer basis. ESO Ambassadors continue to visit YONA to build relationships with students, offer instrument support, and help students feel welcomed at the Winspear Centre.

YONA experienced a major growth spurt in 2019-2020 when an additional site was launched in the City of Edmonton, which was a return to St. Teresa of Calcutta School. YONA served a total of 220 students including 110 in the city of Edmonton at two school sites and 110 students at Alexander First Nation. A year later, YONA expanded again, this time with a violin class at St. Catherine School. This site has since developed to include a beginner flute class as well.

Like everywhere else in the world, YONA was impacted dramatically by the pandemic. Starting in March 2020, YONA offered virtual programming that included general music classes, private lessons, and social hang outs. Home grocery deliveries were organized to ensure students were still given a healthy snack from YONA with additional nutrition support as needed. Eventually, as circumstances allowed, YONA offered hybrid in-person and virtual programming to students. Notably, the Winspear Centre became its own site, due to COVID restrictions and the need for distancing, specifically for wind and brass instruments.

During the pandemic, the YONA team undertook the major task of creating long-term social and music curriculum resources for the Teaching Artists. These materials formalized the efforts across YONA sites to utilize a wholistic approach to students’ personal and musical development in ways that would support their individual and performance goals. At the same time, YONA and other El Sistema-inspired organizations across Canada recognized the need to support each other and to share ideas for managing through the pandemic. Those meetings laid the groundwork for the Sistema Canada Network, which launched in 2022 and currently includes over a dozen Canadian member organizations. For more information about the Sistema Canada Network, please see sistemacanada.ca.

The year 2022-2023 marked the program’s tenth anniversary, which was highly celebrated in the community. YONA served 230 students across all five sites, offered levelled programming, and managed two student orchestras. Students in the community (intermediate) level orchestra were regularly bussed to a single site for “Tutti Rehearsals,” which provided the students the opportunity to play together, to socialize, and to feel connected to the wider YONA community. Alumni of the program began returning to volunteer with YONA and give back to their communities. These former students bond naturally with current students, and they give current students the chance to see the success of young adults who used to be just like them. This kind of interaction and relationship development has a tremendous impact on everyone involved in the program.

The opportunities that YONA students receive are about so much more than music; they are the foundation for confidence, for creative thinking and for positive community impact. YONA is excited for the future of the program and all that it holds – the new relationships and spaces that will help these students thrive in their own personal futures and in the lives of the communities they choose to belong to.