The Australian Youth Orchestra is AYO’s flagship ensemble, bringing together the most advanced young musicians under the age of 25 from across the country. This ensemble performs two seasons a year with world-renowned conductors and embarks on an international tour every three years.

To get into the orchestra on one instrument is a remarkable achievement; the accumulated result of countless hours of practice over many years. But what about those who audition on not one, but two instruments? How do these young musicians manage to maintain their proficiency and discipline across two instruments, and in some cases, repeatedly be offered places in AYO programs on both?

We sat down to speak with two of the multi-instrumentalists performing in the AYO’s upcoming season in Canberra and Sydney to get to the bottom of this unique situation.

Applications for AYO’s 2024 programs are now open. Find out more here

A split image with two photos side by side. On the left, violist and violinist Olivia Spyrou performs on an instrument, and on the right, violist and pianist Sebastian Coyne smiles while holding a viola.
Olivia Spyrou (left), credit Leo Spyrou, EXP media. Sebastian Coyne (right), credit Pia Johnson.

Olivia Spyrou’s AYO story began back in 2018 when she auditioned for AYO National Music Camp on viola. After that, there was no turning back: ‘My first experience at camp had such a strong impact on me as a musician. I discovered my passion for orchestral performance and the following year I began auditioning on both violin and viola for all of AYO’s programs.’

The AYO’s upcoming season will mark Olivia’s ninth AYO program. ‘The scary part comes when audition results come out because I have to choose! I usually alternate playing violin or viola for AYO National Music Camp each year. Then I will go with my gut for the rest of the programs that year.

‘Playing in an orchestra is my biggest passion and I enjoy playing in AYO’s orchestras no matter what section I’m playing in. However, sometimes repertoire is released in advance for seasons and I will pick violin or viola based on that repertoire. In 2021, I knew that we would be playing Alpine Symphony and Firebird which caught the attention of my viola brain. So I chose to play both seasons on viola.

‘I have adopted the thought process that all opportunities to play in an orchestra like AYO can be beneficial to my growth and learning as a musician. I will continue auditioning on both my instruments so that I can gain new experiences and push myself further as a double instrumentalist.’

AYO musician Olivia Spyrou performs in the Australian Youth Orchestra on viola.
Olivia performing on viola during the Australian Youth Orchestra’s July 2022 season. Credit: Robert Catto
AYO musician Olivia Spyrou performs during AYO Young Symphonists 2022 on violin.
Olivia performing on violin during AYO Young Symphonists 2022.

Sebastian Coyne is another familiar face in the viola section during AYO programs in recent years. While he is currently studying viola at ANAM in Melbourne, Seb is also an experienced pianist who was one of two musicians to take part in AYO National Music Camp this year on piano.

We asked Seb what draws him to these two instruments, which each target distinct musical muscles. ‘Despite the characteristics of the viola and piano being so different, they do share many qualities. I feel that my capacity for musical expression is broadened from having the individualistic qualities of both instruments available to me. Of course I enjoy the contrasting sound worlds that the individual instruments create. The piano can create much larger textures and have control over more voices than a viola ever could.

‘That being said, the piano doesn’t have the expressive capabilities and tonal variety of the viola, which is able to emulate the natural crescendos and diminuendos of the human voice with the bow. I also enjoy exploring the role that both the viola and the piano play in collaborative settings. Both these instruments are often given intricate accompanying figurations and harmonies as well as the countermelodies that bring the music to life, which for me is the essence of what I enjoy most about playing music.’

For Olivia, both instruments have a strong place in her heart: ‘I have always loved playing lush melodies and being able to create a vibrant tone in the bright upper register of the violin. I love the feeling of being such a small part of such a large section and still being able to make an impact. I enjoy being able to move with the melodies of the orchestra and sitting on top of the orchestra’s sound as a section.

‘Alternatively, I find myself pulled towards the warmth of the viola. The lower strings and bigger body are able to create darker tones that the violin can’t. I also love being in the middle of an orchestra’s sound, physically and in terms of within the music. There is something about it that brings me so much joy. Viola sections in the orchestra get to create such important harmonies and as much as people say we don’t… we get melodies (very pretty melodies)!’

Both musicians note that there’s no perfect formula to successfully balancing both instruments. Olivia notes that her focus shifts depending on the events in her calendar: ‘There are times when managing both becomes very difficult for me. Sometimes I am pulled toward one more than the other, based on concerts and instrumental assessments at uni, chamber music opportunities, upcoming auditions and sometimes based solely on how I’m feeling. However, my passion for both my instruments always keeps me motivated and I make sure to balance out my practice schedule during the week to ensure I stay fit on both.

‘Even though I am studying violin at uni currently, I always ask for opportunities to play viola in orchestra concerts and organise chamber music that I can play with my friends. Occasionally, I have viola lessons at the conservatorium too which helps me to keep on track with learning viola rep in addition to work I’m doing on violin.’

AYO musician Sebastian Coyne performs on piano during AYO National Music Camp 2023.
Seb performing on piano in the chamber music concert at AYO National Music Camp 2023. Credit: Claudio Raschella
AYO musician Sebastian Coyne performs on viola during AYO Chamber Players 2023.
Seb performing on viola during AYO Chamber Players 2023. Credit: Fabrizio Evans

Seb agrees that it can feel like there is an ‘endless amount of work and improvement to do’.  But he’s found slow and steady consistency is key: ‘As long as I can practice both instruments every day, I feel as though I am able to keep improving on both. Of course there are times where it is necessary to prioritise one instrument over the other, like when there is an upcoming performance.’

For anyone considering applying for AYO’s 2024 programs on more than one instrument, the two have some tips: ‘I try not to focus on this idea of the ‘perfect’ take.’ Olivia reflects. ‘My strategy with recording in the past has been to get my own choice repertoire recorded and out of the way first so I could focus on my excerpts. So I focus on creating a take I am happy with, something that I think portrays my skills and strong suits and shows what type of musician I am. As excerpts come out towards the later half of the year, it is easier to focus on these recordings when half of your workload is already done and dusted.’

Seb lays the groundwork with his study of the audition material. ‘When I start my audition preparation, I make a Spotify playlist of all the excerpts, as well as do some score study so that I am familiar with the context of each piece.

‘A strategy that worked well for me was breaking up the recording process into smaller, more manageable tasks. Knowing that I would have four videos to record (two excerpt and two own choice work videos), I was able to space these tasks out, so that I wouldn’t be left to cram all the recording into the last week before the deadline. I found that spreading the recording process out also allowed me to give my full attention to each individual video, rather than having to divide my focus between so many tasks.’

So what brings these experienced musicians back to AYO programs, year after year?

‘I love that AYO introduces me to new people, new places, repertoire, conductors and tutors every year.’ Olivia reflects. ‘Since my first year, I have created so many friendships with musicians all over Australia, I have learnt more about myself, continued to grow and gained a deeper understanding of where I want to go in the future. My passion for music has only grown over my years of working with AYO and I would recommend it to anyone who shares the same passion as me. I am immensely grateful for AYO and honestly, wouldn’t be where I am today without them.’

Seb points to the diversity of training opportunities offered by AYO: ‘AYO programs allow young musicians to learn and develop at all stages of the development process, from AYO Young Symphonists, which is targeted at younger musicians, up to the fellowship programs that set musicians up for their transition to working with a professional orchestra. There are also opportunities to explore numerous other music industry specific roles, through the sound engineering, words about music, and composition programs at AYO National Music Camp.’

You can hear Olivia and Seb in the Australian Youth Orchestra’s upcoming performance of Ngapa William Cooper in Canberra and Sydney

Applications for the Australian Youth Orchestra and the full suite of AYO’s 2024 programs are now open. Find out more here