VanderVeen sisters help anchor regional youth orchestra

47_0179TALENTED SISTERS  — From the left, Conrad High School senior Katey VanderVeen on the flute and Erika VanderVeen, who plays violin, will both be playing this weekend with the Great Falls Youth Symphony in concert in Great Falls. Both musicians play first chair.  I-O Photo by Buck Traxler




On any given Sunday afternoon, the stage of the Civic Center Mansfield Theater is filled with high school students, concentrating intently, focused on the task at hand.

The 70 students on stage count, subdivide, follow directions, deal with phrasing and expression, and spend an hour and a half in this intense environment without a break. Sound a lot like school? Not even close.

The Great Falls Symphony’s Regional Youth Orchestra is a full symphony orchestra comprised of talented, focused musicians who voluntarily spend their Sunday afternoons rehearsing in preparation for their two concerts each season.

Each of the students have passed an audition to gain entrance to this elite ensemble, and everyone is expected to come prepared each week, practicing on their own and in their private lessons to learn the difficult music presented to them in this orchestra.

In addition to students from Great Falls High and CMR, many rural schools, home schools and private schools are represented in the orchestra.

Some students travel over 100 miles each way for rehearsals and performances. The group currently includes students from Conrad High School, Sunburst, Fort Benton, Big Sandy, Lewistown, Belt and Choteau.

Erika and Katey VanderVeen, both students at CHS, are members of the violin and flute sections of the orchestra.

Larry Thorsen, who recently retired, but has had the girls in his music classes tells The I-O, “Both girls are hard working and very talented.” He feels Katey has a big future in the musical world.

Katey, he noted, was also first chair with the flute in the CHS band and has received top ranking at state music festivals as a flutist and with trios.

Their families make a big commitment to travel the 120 miles round trip each Sunday for rehearsal. Added to this right now is that Erika, has an injured foot and is in a cast from her toes to just below her kneecap and hobbles around on crutches.

However, she tells The I-O that it doesn’t really interfere with her playing.

But, Katey who will graduate in May and Erika are able to play key roles in the orchestra, with Erika in the first violin section and Katey playing first chair in the flute section.

They are daughters of Reese and Yvonne VanderVeen of Conrad

The orchestra performs exciting music for full symphony orchestra. While all of the students participate in their school band or orchestra, those ensembles are divided into wind and string instruments.

The Great Falls Youth Orchestra offers a unique opportunity to perform in a full symphony orchestra with strings, winds, brass, percussion, harp and piano, and to be conducted by the director of the Great Falls Symphony, Maestro Gordon Johnson.

Their upcoming concert will include music by the great American composer Aaron Copland, an orchestral suite from the opera Carmen by George Bizet, and a piano concerto by Frederic Chopin featuring an outstanding young pianist, James Sanchez. James is the principal cellist in the Great Falls Youth Orchestra, but is also a gifted pianist.

The Youth Orchestra’s Young Artist Showcase offers one student the chance to perform as a soloist with the orchestra on their spring concert, and James will perform the finale to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The newest addition to the Great Falls Symphony’s Youth Orchestra program is the inclusion of student chamber ensembles.

Chamber music is any music written for a small group of instruments, performed without a conductor. It’s a challenge to communicate within the ensemble and be able to perform without a leader, and the experience offers the students a chance to develop leadership skills in addition to honing their musicianship.

The Youth Orchestra currently includes a string quartet, wind quintet and brass quintet and students play some of the great pieces of music written for these ensembles. These three ensembles will perform on the Youth Orchestra’s spring concert, highlighting a wide variety of music from the great Beethoven quartets to contemporary composer Valerie Coleman’s wind quintet music.

The Youth Orchestra will perform on March 21 at 2 p.m. in the Civic Center Mansfield Theater. Tickets are available through the Mansfield Box Office at (406) 455-8514 or online at

For more information about the Youth Orchestra contact the Great Falls Symphony at 406-453-4102, or visit