It’s not everyday that you see Janet Jackson. But this wasn’t an average day for the kids from the Joyous String Ensemble.
The ensemble consists of a dozen students, each of whom started learning the art of music from ages of 3 or 4 years old. Ever since, Syosset’s Joyous Music School has taught them the skills they need in order to pursue a life full of culture and sound.
“When most of the members were 5 or 6 years old, we decided to form a string ensemble,” Julian Yu, music director at the Joyous Music School, said. “It’s for them to have play time, play music together and have fun.”
The school opened less than a decade ago and has expanded to feature one of the most well-known ensembles in America. As the kids meet celebrities across the country, it’s no surprise that they’ve made lasting relationships along the way.
One of them is with Janet Jackson, the famous singer-songwriter and actress. Yu’s son Justin previously met Jackson in England. The 13-year-old, who’s the ensemble’s lead cellist, reached out to Jackson, inviting the star to come see where the magic happens.
Jackson, who’s in New York to promote her Black Diamond Tour, gladly headed over to the Joyous Music School’s campus in Flushing, Queens.
“Justin reached out to invite her to come to our school, so we arranged a concert for her,” the elder Yu said. “It was about an hour concert. The group has played quite a few hits from Michael Jackson’s repertoire.”
Among the songs performed were “Smooth Criminal” and “Bad.” Additionally, they also played Katy Perry’s “Fireworks,” Shawn Mendes’ “Señorita,” as well as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Violin Concerto.
Jackson stayed for the entirety of the hour-long concert, even posing for pictures after the concert.
“I was a big fan of his [Jackson’s]when I was in school, so I used some of his music for our team, and that was before we even knew Janet,” Yu said. “It was very exciting for the kids. It was a special moment for me personally. She’s a very kind person and she was so nice to the children.”
But this isn’t the ensemble’s first interaction with a celebrity.
Since its inception, the ensemble has performed on The Tonight Show, The View, Ellen, Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots, Good Morning America, Sesame Street and more. One of their biggest accomplishments, though, is performing for not one, but two United States presidents.
The ensemble met President Barack Obama, performing at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in 2015 at the White House. And in 2014, they performed for President George W. Bush and his Points of Light charity.
“It’s such an honor and it was a surprise to us,” Yu said. “They were blessed at such a young age to receive this honor. I built a piece for the performance and it was quite the experience.”
But how did the Joyous Music School get to this point? The school, located at 55 Ira Rd. in Syosset, trains pianists, composers, instrumentalists and others who have made an indelible mark on cultural life in the community. Rather than using traditional teaching methods, the staff makes learning classical music fun for their students.
“We have a creative way to teach to success,” Yu said. “The traditional way of teaching classical instruments tends to be boring and repetitive. The repertoire to choose from is usually very limited. Usually, it’s a classical repertoire and they’re young, so they might not understand Bach or Mozart right away. They can play, but they can’t understand it at that age. It’s important to have creative material. I started working on children’s music for these children so they feel it’s much more fun to learn music that they know. It’s pop music that they hear and I arranged for them on their instruments.”
Most of the children in the program start when they are toddlers, working their way through the program to become first-class musicians. Yu combines classical music with modern-day songs, providing a unique and interactive learning experience.
“If you learn a major classical work, you need to play the same piece for maybe a month or two months,” he said. “Sometimes, it requires daily repetition of the same piece. My concept is what if we break down the technique in that piece down into three or four segments and have them learn the techniques in different songs? Instead of taking on one large piece at one time, we study smaller elements and break them down into different parts.
“Once they acquire the skills from different pieces, we go back to the major work and it takes half the time to finish it. The typical way is to just keep going at it until it’s perfect. Sometimes, it’s difficult for young children. I don’t want them to practice too much at home because I want them to have fun, play sports and enjoy all the things they want to enjoy. Classical music being classical music still requires you to practice repetitions to get it perfect. I came up with the middle point of combining some repetitions but also introducing new, smaller pieces to learn new elements.”
All 12 members from the Joyous String Ensemble are students of Joyous Music School in Syosset. Despite their youthful age, the group is a model of mature and brilliant musicianship.
Currently, the ensemble performs nearly 40 concerts each year. And with their growing relationship with Jackson, they’ve been invited to her concert at Madison Square Garden on July 14.