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For a quarter of a century, the Southtowns Youth Orchestra has been molding Western New York's budding musicians into well-rounded individuals with a keen musical flare.

Twenty-five years ago, while conducting an All-County orchestra, founding and current conductor William Staebell ran into a friend, Ellen Buxton, who was in search of a challenging orchestral outlet for the students of her private violin studio. Together, Staebell and Buxton embarked on a mission to found the Southtowns Youth Orchestra. Since its beginning, Staebell has watched the orchestra expand from its initial 46 members to its current 80 to 90 members.

For Staebell, the chief reason he continues to come back year after year is to offer students challenging musical venues as well as an amicable social atmosphere.

"I hope the students gain friendship, musical knowledge of repertoire and enjoyment of playing their instrument forever," Staebell says.

The orchestra's value today, with a tight fiscal climate at area school districts, is priceless because music and the arts often are among the first programs to be cut.

"Because music, as a whole, is getting less and less attention and funding, this [orchestra] has got to show longevity as an outlet for students to play, and educate and pursue music in one way or another," says Staebell.

He also places a large emphasis on repertoire. Incorporating a variety of pieces, Staebell tends to stays away from obscure pieces and instead includes a mixture of music from George Gershwin to Antonin Dvorak.

For many, the orchestra has done its job in challenging its student members and inspiring them to higher achievements. Patricia Kaminski, the current Southtowns Youth Orchestra manager and an area music teacher, was a member of the orchestra in the 1990s.

"It was an opportunity for me to be with a friendly group of middle school and high school musicians who were just like me," Kaminski said. "I couldn't get enough of playing cello and I loved the chance to learn more challenging music that was not possible in my school orchestra."

Since seventh grade, Kaminski knew she wanted to follow in the footsteps of Staebell and Buxton as a music educator. After returning from college, Kaminski bumped into Staebell and almost as if it were fate, was offered the position as the orchestra's manager. Elated, Kaminski didn't think twice about saying yes. Aside from her time spent at college, the Southtowns Youth Orchestra has been a part of Kaminski's life since her school days, and she couldn't imagine Wednesday nights without SYO rehearsal.

"Seeing the dedicated students week after week at rehearsal assures me that orchestra is providing something positive for them to do, nurturing their musical abilities and a love for music for a lifetime," says Kaminski, summarizing why she stays active with the orchestra.

Samantha Godus, a sophomore at West Seneca West High School, is finishing out her second season as a cellist with the orchestra. For Samantha, in order to pursue her dream of majoring in music, she feels it is pertinent to devote time to her instrument. SYO is the perfect place to do so.

When asked what she likes most about SYO, Samantha, without hesitation, said "meeting new people and improving her technique" are what keep her coming back. Like Kaminski, Samantha views SYO as a place to put her skills learned through weekly private lessons to the test.

In addition to its spring concert at 3 p.m. Sunday in Orchard Park Middle School, the orchestra, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, is holding a guest artist concert featuring jazz trumpeter Rick Braun. Titled "Rick Braun Sings with Strings," the concert is scheduled for April 21. Braun released his first album in 1993 and has backed notables such as Rod Stewart and Sade with not only trumpet but also vocals.

"I think it will be a professional experience at a higher level and in a jazz setting rather than just an orchestral setting," Staebell says.

The Braun concert will be different than the orchestra's usual side-by-side program with the Orchard Park Symphony and will offer an entirely new perspective on music to orchestra members. It marks the first time the orchestra has performed a concert with such a renowned artist.

"I am excited to have someone of that level professionally to be willing to come in and work with the orchestra," Staebell said. "The CD we are performing is the one recorded with the London Symphony Strings. We are going to fulfill the position of the London Symphony Strings.

Lindsay Robinson is a junior at Eden Junior Senior High School.

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Concert information:

*Southtowns Youth Orchestra spring concert

3 p.m. Sunday

Orchard Park Middle School Auditorium

Lincoln Avenue, Orchard Park

Tickets can be purchased at the door: $5 for students and seniors; $7 for adults

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*Rick Braun Sings with Strings

7:30 p.m. April 21

Orchard Park High School Auditorium

4040 Baker Road, Orchard Park

Tickets are $35 general admission, $40 at the door

For information, email styotickets@gmail.com or call 208-6953