Inspiring People

Liza Grossman, Founding Music Director, Contemporary Youth Orchestra

Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Liza Grossman is the founding Music Director of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra. She is on the conducting faculty at the Interlochen Center for the Arts and is the co-founder of the Interlochen Arts Camp Junior String Institute. She is a private violin and viola instructor and as a freelance musician, has performed, recorded and toured with artists including Bernadette Peters, Kansas, Peobo Bryson, The Irish Tenors, Gerald LeVert, The Three Tenors and YES. STRAD magazine has noted her as "a master of tutelage..."

Grossman has conducted world premiere concertos with Cleveland Orchestra members and local musicians as well as conducting over 30 orchestral world premieres, all with the composers present.

She has collaborated with composers including Jaz Coleman, Robert Ward, Joan Tower and Bernard Rands. She has conducted world premiere orchestral rock performances with rock artists Ray Manzarek (DOORS), Jon Anderson (YES), Graham Nash (CSNY), Neil Giraldo, Pat Benatar and STYX.

Grossman began her professional studies as a student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, (Michigan), as a violinist. She holds degrees in music performance and music education. Grossman's conducting teachers include David Holland, Alexander Schneider, Marvin Rabin and Gerard Schwarz.

Grossman and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra have been finalists for the Governors Award for the Arts in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and are the recipients of the 2003 Northern Ohio Live Award of Achievement in the Classical Music/Opera category.


If I had to use only one word to describe what makes Liza Grossman special that word would most certainly be -


A title that might be used to describe Liza would be -


Liza is an orchestra conductor and someone who teaches music to children; some of the best musicians from around the world.

A phrase that would definitely describe her would be -

A truly gifted and generous woman, committed to encouraging the full self expression of children everywhere, by teaching them to discover their very own musical voice.

She's amazing.

Click here to listen to Liza and the Youth Orchestra
performing with Jon Anderson, lead singer of YES.

DR: Tell me about your life and about your work.

LG: Well, I started the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in 1995 because, although there is really great music education in the city of Cleveland for aspiring young musicians, the one thing that I thought was lacking was an education or exposure to -

new music.

I grew up in downtown Detroit and I am a product of the Detroit Public School System. In the mid-seventies when there was still money being spent on the arts and the arts were still prevalent and alive, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra actually came to my school and performed. They asked us, this group of babies essentially, these elementary school kids,

"Who wants to be a conductor?"

None of knew what that meant but we all raised our hands and I was chosen. I was seven.

So, I went home and I told my mother that I wanted to play the violin and the following week I was in the public school string class. That kind of thing is not as available anymore.

I grew up in a middle class family with my parents providing me with the things that I needed, including extra-curricular activities so I had a lot of exposure to the arts. I was very lucky that way. My parents would take me to the art museum with a sketch pad and we would talk and sit in front of a piece of art and draw it. So even though I had all of this exposure to all of these different art forms, I still couldn't figure out what exactly it was that I wanted to do with music although I did know that I wanted to do something. I found this really frustrating growing up because as much as I loved and was excited about being in an orchestra, I couldn't picture myself being in a professional orchestra. And, as I got older I just could not picture myself teaching in the public schools.

DR: Why couldn't you picture yourself in either of those roles?

LG: It didn't seem like enough. I don't know why but, it didn't seem like enough.

When I was eighteen I got my first teaching job teaching private violin and viola lessons to a group of inner-city kids at The Rainey Institute. That is right in the inner-city of Cleveland. I taught there for 15 years and I fell in love with teaching. I knew then that I was going to be a teacher but I also realized that I didn't want to teach in the public school system. I really loved the one on one contact and I liked the energy from kids that wanted to be there. That is the privilege of a teacher - to work with kids who are already motivated and who want to be there. That is luxurious!

I was good! It made me feel good to teach and I got good results but I was still a bit confused about what, exactly, I wanted to do.

I started working at a local music school and I started an orchestra there with about 35 kids. It was really small. Then it hit me that what I wanted to do was to be a youth orchestra conductor. But at that time those jobs didn't really exist. This was in the late 80's. I realized that I had to create my own situation.

When I was an undergraduate at Cleveland State University, they had a new music orchestra in residence there and the conductor was friends with a man named Bernard Rand who was the composer in residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra and he is one of the composition professors at Harvard. The Conductor invited Bernard Rand in to do a week long seminar on contemporary music. They needed a youth group to demonstrate that children could access contemporary music. So, because they knew that I had this small group of kids, they asked me to pull in my orchestra.

Rand worked with me on one of his pieces, this new piece of music. I mean I was fine with things that I was familiar with because that was safe. I could get it by listening to different recordings and develop my own interpretations based on other recordings but a new piece of music, something that had never been done before with new notations and ideas that I had to come up with on my own was daunting at first. But Bernard worked with me on it and after we were done with the session in front of all of these teachers from all over the city, he pulled me aside and said

"You have a natural ability to hear and teach this music and you should start an orchestra that does new music."

I think I laughed.

CYA rehearsal

The Award Winning Contemporary Youth Orchestra is a non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to the study and performance of contemporary orchestral literature. Founded in 1995 by Music Director Liza Grossman, CYO is the first and only youth orchestra of its kind in the country. Since its founding, the orchestra has expanded its membership to include representation from over 40 schools in Northeast Ohio and its surrounding regions.

The goal of CYO is to expose talented young musicians to the challenges of performing and appreciating new music. An educational process evolving from weekly rehearsals during the school year to three fully realized performances each season achieves this goal. CYO works with and performs the music of Pulitzer Prize winning composers, College Professors and Young and Emerging composers. Cleveland Orchestra Members and local musicians perform a world premiere concerto with CYO each year. Rock musicians join CYO each season as part of our Rock the Orchestra Festival. By the end of the 10th season, CYO will have performed 36 world premieres, all with the composers in attendance.

CYO hopes to develop in the professional musicians of tomorrow a sense of celebration of this music and the skills they will need to access the ever-evolving music of our present and future. By exposing young musicians to the infinite possibilities of contemporary orchestral music, we reaffirm its place in our music literature and offer an environment to encourage, explore, and expand the music of our future.

Your contributions would be welcome and greatly appreciated.

Please send your check to:
Contemporary Youth Orchestra
P.O.Box 181099
Cleveland Heights, OH 44118

If you have any questions, please call the CYO office at 216.321.3525, or email them at

"Yeah, I am going to start a contemporary group in Cleveland where the money is old and NOT liberal.


But I thought about it for a couple of years and then I decided in 1995 to start the Cleveland Youth Orchestra (CYA). I started with only 35 kids. I was 26 years old at the time and I pulled my life savings together which was maybe $900 and invested it all into this orchestra, plus some help from some of my private students' parents and got the orchestra off the ground. We got Cleveland State to give us some rehearsal space…

It was at that point that I realized what my mission was as an educator.

When people consider contemporary music, I still think that they have their blinders on. What I mean by that is that they think of contemporary music as contemporary orchestral music and, how I see it and how I teach it and approach it is, new music and that means every thing! So the mission is to let these kids know that there is so much more that they can do with their music!

I have a huge amount of respect for the teachers that teach in the public school system. I think that it takes a specific kind of soul to be able to do that. I don't think that teachers in general get enough acknowledgment and I hold them up on pedestals…but to show kids that there is more that they can do if they are not interested in doing that and if they are not interested in being in a standard orchestra. They can go play in pit orchestras, they can start a quartet, they can be composers, they can be music critics, they can be private teachers...

Hey! It is sexy now to hire orchestras instead of having canned. It is sexy for these rap artists to have a stage full of violins and cellists. They are in to it! The art form is coming back and it is being used in everything new today. So what we do at CYA is everything new. We do everything from playing jazz standards to commissioning pieces like a concerto for turn table and orchestra, incorporating African dancing as well as playing the standard repertoire from the 20th century because that is an important part of their education as well.

Once a year we bring in a rock artist or a rock group as part of our rock the orchestra series and that artist or group plays the entire concert with us but we orchestrate all of their music.

For example, in the past we have worked with Graham Nash, Ray Manzarek who is the keyboardist for The Doors, Jon Anderson who is the lead singer of the rock group Yes, Pat Benatar and this past May we worked with entire rock group STYX.

What it does for the kids is invaluable. You can not even begin to describe the satisfaction and the thrill that they get out of these performances…but it also gives something back to the artists that come to join us…I see what happens to them when they get up on that stage; I see how it physically changes them and it is so deep - for the kids and our guest artist - when that emotion hits them and they realize what is happening on stage. I see it physically change them. There is so much going on inside of them that they have no choice but to literally physically change.

This is a nice life without that but that is just…

DR: Frosting on an already great cake?

LG: Yeah!

It is just one of the most brilliant things to see.

I have to say that it is just as brilliant to see the face of a kid light up when they finally get something! It physically changes people when they accomplish something that was once difficult.

DR: What is your ultimate vision for work?

LG: It's hard for me to say. I hope that when it is time for me to step off the podium of this orchestra that it doesn't stop. It stops me in my tracks to think that the orchestra wouldn't continue after me. Right now, in my 30's, my life goal would be for this to never stop and for generations and generations of children and people to be positively effected by the benefits of self exploration and realization and music and art and I think that it makes us better people. It makes us more human. Playing and studying and listening and being exposed to this kind of music gives these children ownership of their art. They are the first ones to do it. They are not copying it. It strengthens their ability to become independent thinkers.

DR: You know I was watching the DVD Speaking in Strings about Najda Salerno Sonnenberg…

CYA rehearsal

LG: I am a big fan of hers…

DR: Well it was interesting for me to realize how strongly she was criticized for interpreting the music in the way that she does; for being an independent thinker. I love that you are encouraging the kids to think and to be self expressed and to be fearless about creating music - newly.

So, what is it that you have right now that you value the most?

LG: My independence as a teacher and as an artist.

I don't have to answer to anybody except the kids because I make the work a democracy. It is not a dictatorship. I am not standing up on the podium saying:

"We are going to play it this way!"

When I was an undergraduate preparing for my senior recital, I was playing a Beethoven sonata as one of the pieces in the program and I wanted to do something different with a phrase - one phrase! One phrase! One eight bar phrase - I wanted to play it differently than my teacher wanted me to do. I played it the way that I wanted to play it and he said

"You can't play it that way!"

And I said

"Why not?"

He said

"Because that is not what people expect to hear when they are listening to Beethoven."

And I said

"But I have already played it the way that you have taught me. I already know how to do that. You have trained me and you should trust me to be able to use my own interpretations on this one section"

He said

"If you play it the way that you ant to play it I will give you a 'B'".

I said

"O.K., I guess I'm takin' the 'B'."

I knew that that "B" was not going to change my life and I also knew that -

if I succumbed to the norm…

Listen, I wasn't talking about blasting Beethoven through speakers and adding electric bass and drum sets to it, although that would be pretty cool, (laughs), I was just talkin' about putting a little phrase line in there and he wasn't happy with it…

So, I definitely value the independence that I have and that I get to share with the kids that I get to work with.

DR: What do you think are the qualities that people most value in you?

LG: Well, I am honest with everybody…

DR: I have heard about how fun you are to have as a conductor; the nicknames and all of that…


LG: There is something that I do pride myself on is that I treat my students with respect. I am honest with everybody and I treat everyone that I work with, with respect.

DR: These days, where do you look to find inspiration?

LG: I think that inspiration comes from what is fun; what brings you pleasure.

We are doing an entire concert of cartoon music for instance. Cartoons are fun! If you think about all of the old school cartoons - The Jetsons? Flying things and robots - it just sets your imagination free and I think that anything that can do that is inspirational because it opens your mind up.

DR: What do you think would have to have happened in your life for you to be able to look back at the end of it all and declare that you have lived a life of no regrets?

LG: That I didn't question my emotions, that I listened to people's sentences completely and that I thought things through without being overly analytical - and just went immediately with the emotion that I felt.

I think that if you analyze things too much things change. First instincts are correct.

Yeah. That I was able to go with the emotions and the instincts that I had, fearlessly, and that I was honest with everyone including myself. I think that if you are not honest with yourself you can't be honest with anybody else. And that -

I gave love each day.

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

LG: For helping people to remember why music is an important part of their lives, for not being afraid to challenge the norm, and -

for smiling.

Thanks Liza!

Contemporary Youth Orchestra, Cleveland, OH

The award winning Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) is a nonprofit youth orchestra, based in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, and is in residence at Cleveland State University.

CYO is the first and only youth orchestra in the country dedicated exclusively to the study and performance of contemporary orchestral literature.

By the end of the 10th season, CYO will have performed 36 world premieres, all with the composers present.

CYO is the recipient of the prestigious Northern Ohio Live Award of Achievement: Classical Music/Opera Category

Click here to learn more about the CYA at their website,
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