Colleen Sweetsir, executive director of the Youth Orchestra of Bucks County (YOBC) since 2009, has announced that she will retire in July 2020. Reflecting on her 28 years of involvement with the orchestra, she says, “The highest calling anybody can have is to reach out and help others in their life journey. It’s what makes me the happiest and what drew me to YOBC in the first place.”
One of six children, all of whom played a musical instrument according to their mother’s wishes,
Colleen studied piano first. Switching to the trumpet in school, she outplayed all the boys in her junior high band; the band director would allow her to stay in it only if she learned the French horn or baritone horn. The orchestra director generously gave her French horn lessons.
In 1992, when their oldest son, Dale, joined YOBC as a trumpet player, Colleen and her husband, Steven Sweetsir, became parent volunteers, along with all the other YOBC parents (their youngest son, Seth, was also a YOBC trumpet player, and their daughter Erin, a YOBC French horn alumna, currently teaches and conducts the Wind Symphony).
Colleen and Steve, both French horn players and college sweethearts, had traveled the country with the U.S. Coast Guard Band during the bicentennial.
In 1993, the third year of YOBC’s existence, board member Mark Benson, also chair of the Bucks County Community College (BCCC), hired Steve as a wind coach; today he is conductor of YOBC’s Fanfare Winds. Since there was so much student talent in the Bucks County region, Colleen was hired to lead a feeder program, an ensemble of younger students, the Wind Symphony. She has conducted that group for more than 15 years.
In 2009, when the YOBC board recognized the need for an executive director, board president Joe Hochreiter asked Colleen if she would serve on the search committee. Two weeks later he asked her, “Would you consider accepting the position?”
“What I loved about the organization is that it put the students’ needs first. The artistic staff individualized instruction to help each student meet his or her goals.” Colleen’s primary goal was to “preserve and build upon that, to build a community that supported one another in their musical growth, but also in their life growth, their life journey.”
With Colleen’s leadership, YOBC’s life journey saw exponential growth. Student enrollment increased from its original 100 to more than 250 students today, because she saw the need to service not only students in high school, but also those in middle and upper elementary grades. Thus YOBC grew from four large performance ensembles to eight, along with ten chamber music ensembles.
Always looking for opportunities to expand students’ exposure to great music, Colleen initiated a Master Class Series. Each year, artists from the Philadelphia Orchestra and other renown professional musicians have shared their career experiences and offered YOBC students suggestions for how to improve their own solo performances. “What is amazing is that you have these fine artists who have the heart of a teacher,” says Colleen. “They’re among the best musicians in the world; they come and share their talent with the kids, it is utterly inspiring.” Just recently, Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim videotaped a message for YOBC’s Zoom Senior Celebration. “We kept it a total surprise, you should have seen the students, their eyes were popping out!”
Colleen is equally proud of the six-year-old Students-in-Concert program (SIC). It provides free after-school music instruction to students in the Morrisville, Bristol Township and Bristol Borough school districts. With almost 100 students enrolled in this program, it is totally funded by grants and sponsors. “Musical talent is something you don’t want to see wasted. For some of our SIC students, it’s the biggest thing in their lives.”
Since 1991, BCCC “has been our most steadfast supporter.”
Every Sunday, when YOBC rehearses, it occupies BCCC’s music building and a large portion of the Rollins Center. BCCC has generously allowed YOBC students to use their percussion instruments and provided their security staff during rehearsals and concerts.
More recently, Delaware Valley University has shared its newly built Life Science Auditorium for YOBC senior ensemble concerts.
During this unusual year of 2020, it is hard to imagine that Colleen has decided to conclude her position as executive director. However, that does not mean she will step away from YOBC; in fact, she sees herself becoming more involved in fund-raising. “It’s the single most important thing I can do to make sure that YOBC continues to be a healthy organization.”
When I asked Colleen what she plans to do with her “free time,” she pointed out that she has been assistant conductor of the semi-professional Delaware Valley Symphony and will increase her involvement in that organization. Steven Sweetsir will continue as conductor of YOBC’s Fanfare Winds.
There are two young musicians who will guarantee Colleen and Steven’s attendance at YOBC concerts. Their granddaughters – 13-year-old flutist Novalee and 11-year-old French horn player Charlotte – are now YOBC members.
PHOTO CAP: Colleen and Steven Sweetsir in Germany, 2006