Best Of Tucson®

Unfinished Symphony

Dennis and Anna Bourret, Tucson Junior Strings

Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" and 3,800--give or take a few hundred.

Those, respectively, are the piece of music most closely associated with Tucson Junior Strings and the number of kids, ages 8 to 18, that music director Dennis Bourret estimates have passed through the 35-year-old youth orchestra. To come up with the figure, he and his wife, Anna--who co-founded TJS in 1967 with string teacher Sandra Edwards--went back into their records, and, when the records were missing, relied on Anna's astounding memory for everything TJS.

That's not even all the Tucson kids who've come within the Bourrets' orbit. To get the true number, you'd also have to factor in Dennis' private students--between 50 and 70 at any given time--plus the non-TJS high school and college kids who've shown up over the years for Chamber Music on the Mountain, their week-long summer camp on Mount Lemmon. But the six-ensemble-strong orchestras--and now a satellite program on the Northwest side--account for most of the young Tucsonans who've poured through the couple's hectic lives and music-jammed eastside house.

As far as the Bourrets know, only two of those kids ended up in prison, one for embezzlement, one for burglary.

Most of the others have done OK. A kid with little English who showed up unable to read a note became a soloist in the choir of the New York Philharmonic. A girl who never touched an instrument before eighth grade is on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute. TJS kids have studied music instate and around the country at all the big-name schools: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indiana University, Juilliard, Manhattan, New England, Peabody, Sheppard, USC. Anna's elder daughter, Wynne Wong-Rife, went on to study at the Eastman School of Music. She now plays in the Tucson Symphony--as do 10 other TJS alumni, including Wynne's husband, David Rife. (Their daughters, Melissa and Molly Rife, are both in TJS.) Other graduates play in orchestras from Chicago to Houston to Toronto.

Many more have just plain made good, whether they've kept up their music or not. A kid who slept under the bleachers at Palo Verde High after being thrown out by his parents at 15 went to Harvard on scholarship, became a Rhodes Scholar, made a killing on Wall Street and then quit to write. He's won two Ernest Hemingway awards for short fiction. One former string player is a pioneer in the cancer hospice movement; another has a Tucson-based software business that keeps him in Russia much of the time.

Another alumna runs a widely admired music program for inner-city kids in Baltimore. She modeled it on TJS, which recruits from the public schools, keeps fees ridiculously low and doesn't turn any child away for financial reasons.

What is it about playing in a string orchestra that's so good for kids?

Everything, the Bourrets will tell you. There's the vivid social scene backstage, at camp and on the tour buses. There's the emotional power of music, and the discipline of practicing and rehearsing. There's the sheer pleasure of making something beautiful.

For kids from poor families, the orchestras are a way into a world they may not have realized is open to them--TJS is so diverse that they make contact with kids whose parents are wise to every opportunity out there.

And there's learning to lead and to follow. TJS ensembles perform without a conductor, and first chairs rotate, so that all players eventually take responsibility for leading their sections.

"That one aspect is so important. They learn how to work with a group of people to get something done,'" Dennis says.

There's just making it through adolescence, too.

"For some of these kids, music has been their salvation. We've seen a lot of tough home situations, and sometimes, for some of these players, music has been the only thing in their lives that made sense."

The Bourrets have helped kids' lives work out in more practical ways, matter-of-factly taking in any number of children over the years who've needed a place to sleep.

Music as something for the elite makes no sense to either of them. Dennis grew up in small-town Wyoming, where most of his lessons were with a school orchestra teacher. He got a master's in fine arts from the University of Wyoming before shipping out to Vietnam.

Anna's from Tucson. Her family lived downtown, at Meyer and Franklin, when she was born, then moved down near the rodeo grounds when Country Club Road was the eastern edge of the city. Her mother bought a $75 piano on the dollar-a-week plan after Anna started lessons at age eight with the girl next door. Later she took lessons at a now-vanished downtown music store where she practiced on an instrument in the window to attract attention in return for the instruction. She stopped playing at 13 and didn't touch the piano again for more than a decade. When her children started getting interested in music, she took it up again, studying at the UA until the money ran out. She accompanies all Dennis' students and the orchestras, when needed.

While its endurance and growth has been a sustained act of communal will, Tucson Junior Strings began almost by chance.

"Wynne started playing flute at school, and wanted me to buy her one. Money was short and I said, 'Look, there's that old violin in the corner'--a friend had picked it up at the swap meet for $10. I told her, 'If you want to play something, play that.' She did.

"Then there was no orchestra for young players, so Sandra and I started one. We had 15 kids the first semester."

Dennis, just back from the war, came to town to get his Ph.D. and play in the symphony with a cellist friend from Wyoming who "was doing this little youth orchestra thing on the side." They co-conducted TJS for a couple of years, for less than $200 a semester. Dennis became sole conductor in 1972.

He and Anna married in 1973, on a Friday night. The whole orchestra was invited to the wedding, and came. The next morning at 8, Dennis started Saturday rehearsal, as usual. "I'll never live it down," he says.

This year, more than 200 kids showed up week after week for rehearsal, each lugging an instrument, sheet music and the all-important pencil. Twenty-three kids in the senior orchestra, Chamber I, went to Toronto on tour. The whole 220-plus were onstage for the three-hour final concerts--one in December, one in May--the girls pleased and self-conscious in long dresses, the boys in every possible version of "nice" clothes. More than 200 Tucson kids got to play. The Bourrets made it happen one more time.

Tucson Junior Strings is starting an alumni organization. If you ever played, contact the Bourrets at The Web site is

Favorite CD: A yet-to-be-released recording of Chamber I in Toronto this May. "Those kids really played," says Dennis.