Yang Kun Song founded the Greater Toledo International Youth Orchestra (GTiYO) out of a desire to return a favor to his American host family. Mr. Song, a cellist and native of Beijing, China, had been sponsored by the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma to study music at the University of Toledo.
“In Chinese culture”, he explains, “we always return a favor to the people who help you.” His host family encouraged him to help others instead of giving them a favor. “That’s a big thing that I learned from the United States — the idea of returning a favor by helping others.”
The Idea – Starting a Youth Orchestra
In 2000, with this idea of helping others, he brought a small group of students together to provide concerts locally in small venues. By 2007, Mr. Song had coordinated the first international trip to Qinhuangdao, China — a sister city of Toledo — and formalized the organization as the Toledo International Youth Orchestra. As the orchestra continued to grow through word of mouth, young musicians from outside the city of Toledo joined the orchestra, including as far away as Bowling Green and Southern Michigan. As a result, in 2013, the organization’s name officially changed to Greater Toledo International Youth Orchestra, or GTiYO.
GTiYO is a string orchestra that performs traditional and modern Chinese music, as well as Western compositions. Young musicians from 7th to 12th grade learn under the direction of Mr. Song and perform local concerts, as well as traveling to play internationally. By partnering with the University of Toledo, this 100 percent volunteer organization has access to rehearsal and performing space at UT’s Center for Performing Arts and the UT Doermann Theater. Since 2007, the orchestra has traveled to Germany, Canada, Tanzania, East Africa, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Spain, and Peru, each time staying in a sister city of Toledo arranged by one of the Orchestra’s partners, Toledo Sister Cities International.
Cultural diversity through music
Mr. Song is clear that the orchestra’s priority is more than simply learning music skills. His desire is to help young people become better human beings. “We are a music organization, but the music is not that important. Music is a tool to help us to travel. We are using the universal language of music to build friendships with other cultures.”
Youth musicians learn about the culture of the country they will be visiting by having speakers from the community who are knowledgeable prepare them. Once there, they meet with the mayor of the city and visit cultural and historical sites. In China, there is a saying, says Mr. Song, “To learn, you can read 1,000 books, but you walk 1,000 miles to see the world; they are of equal importance… It is just amazing the difference when you travel, what the children learn.”
The orchestra has a student council that takes the lead in fundraising for their own travel as well as to assist others. The youth musicians have raised money to fund several causes including a music room in a city they visited in Tanzania, children in Toledo affected by COVID, and for hurricane relief.
How to get involved
GTiYO is actively recruiting more youth to join the orchestra and increase the number of musicians participating to pre-pandemic levels. Rehearsals take place on Sunday afternoons. Scholarships for those in need of financial assistance are available, and community members and companies are encouraged to donate to the scholarship fund. Register, learn more, or donate at gtiyo.com.