The National Youth Orchestra =
The Summer of a Lifetime
for Two Merit Students

This summer, two Merit Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory students had the experience of a lifetime.

After completing a rigorous application process, Irene Castillo, violin, and Rafael Noriega, bass trombone, were invited by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute to join the National Youth Orchestra of the United States (NYO). The program brings together the brightest young American instrumentalists for intensive training and performances on some of the world’s greatest stages.

Irene was accepted into NYO-USA whose tour kicked off with concerts at Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall featuring Isabel Leonard, followed by a performance in Berlin with Magdalena Kožená, and continuing with concerts in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany alongside Joyce DiDonato.

Rafael spent his time with NYO2, where he studied in Miami Beach with conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto through a partnership with the New World Symphony and performed at the New World Center and Carnegie Hall featuring pianist Gabriela Montero.

The two musicians sat down with us recently to share what this experience meant to them.


Tell us a little bit about yourselves.


irene castillo

IRENE: I’m a violinist from Lisle, IL. I graduated from the Merit School of Music and Naperville North High School this past spring. I now study violin at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where I’m also pursuing studies in biology. Outside of music, I love doing crafts! I like knitting, crocheting, making kirigami, origami, and friendship bracelets.



rafael noriega

RAFAEL: I’m a bass trombonist from Chicago, IL. I’m now a junior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy. Outside of music, I like to spend time with my friends and family and I also love playing sports — mostly soccer.





Being a member of NYO is a tremendous honor. What does it mean to you to have this opportunity?

IRENE: Being selected for NYO-USA is one of my proudest achievements, and I feel incredibly honored to have been chosen for the orchestra.

When I was twelve, my mom received a newsletter from Merit about two trombonists who had been members of NYO-USA. Intrigued, I found a video on YouTube of the orchestra’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at the BBC Proms and quickly decided that NYO-USA was my new life goal. I was immediately captivated by the music, the beautiful concert halls, and, of course, the striking red pants and Converse [sneakers] every musician wore on stage.

Six years later, I found myself performing at the BBC Proms in red pants and Converse of my very own, and I’ll never forget how special it was to be standing on the same stage featured in the video that started it all. I was given the opportunity to explore Europe and play extraordinary music with some of the most talented and wonderful people this country has to offer, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

RAFAEL: Being in NYO2 really meant a lot to me. Not only did I play with such a high-level orchestra, but I got to make amazing new friendships with a lot of people that will last a lifetime. I also got to work with amazing faculty during orchestra rehearsals and sectionals and I definitely learned a lot from them.


national youth orchestra

national youth orchestra

What was your favorite part of the experience?

IRENE: The three days we spent in Edinburgh. Because we were playing Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony (which depicts a hiker’s tumultuous journey up and down a mountain), my friends and I thought it would be a good idea to hike up the extinct volcano to see the sunrise. About ¾ of the way up, after hauling myself up some incredibly steep rocks wondering how I was ever going to get back down, it started raining. My roommate and I decided we had fulfilled our Alpine Symphony experience, were satisfied with the beautiful view we had reached, and we immediately started back down before the weather got worse. I spent about an hour afterward trying to dry my clothes and shoes with a hairdryer before rehearsal. It was truly an adventure, and it’s one of my favorite memories from the entire tour!

RAFAEL: There were many experiences that I enjoyed, but one of my favorites was stepping inside Carnegie Hall. At that point, I realized that I truly worked very hard to be at the point where I was going to perform in such a prestigious venue. So far, Carnegie Hall has been the best place I’ve performed in my entire life, and, to this day, I can still relive that moment.

How did Merit help you prepare for being a member of NYO?

IRENE: My seven years at Merit were absolutely essential to my acceptance and success at NYO-USA. Because Merit Philharmonic orchestra rehearsals were often long and required a lot of focus, they prepared me extremely well for some six-hour rehearsal days during the NYO-USA residency where work was extremely detailed and everything was expected to be done at the highest possible level regardless of how tired you were.

During my time at Merit, I was able to participate in events that involved speaking with donors or being interviewed on WFMT radio broadcasts. Because I already had prior experience in those situations, I felt more comfortable participating in activities as intensive as a BBC Arts Hour podcast featuring a conversation with our conductor, Maestro Pappano.

RAFAEL: Merit, without a doubt, played a huge roll in helping me prepare for NYO2. Merit has amazing faculty and staff. Each and every one of them has something that you can learn from. There’s no way I would have made it into NYO2 if I wasn’t a student at Merit — not at all. Merit is what I consider the “root” because this is where I started in the 6th grade. I’ve grown a lot over these past five years because of being at Merit.


national youth orchestra

national youth orchestra


Anyone you want to thank for making this experience possible?

IRENE: I would like to thank my family, my violin teacher Jasmine Lin, and all the Merit faculty and administration who have supported me and shared their love of music with me during my time at Merit. To name a few, Mr. Bolter, Mr. Fukumura, Mr. Williams, Mr. Beach, Ms. Lugo, Mr. Gildow, Mr. Grode, Ms. Adelson, all my music theory teachers, and so many others. Thank you for all your guidance throughout my musical studies at Merit. Tears filled my eyes while standing on stage after every concert because of how overwhelmed with gratitude I was for all the people who had helped me achieve my dream. I’ll always be thankful for all that you have done for me.

RAFAEL: I would like to thank my family and all of my friends that have supported me over these past few years. I don’t know what I would be like today without them. But, most importantly, I would like to thank my teacher, Mr. Tim Riordan. Not only has he helped me grow tremendously as a musician, but as a better person as well. In his teaching, he truly knows everything that he’s saying and he’s never wrong. Whenever I’ve had rough moments in life, Mr. Riordan is always there for me and he offers the best advice for literally anything. I would also like to thank him for making this amazing experience possible because he was the main person to help me prepare and record my audition for NYO2 and he would always tell me whenever it was amazing, or if it had to be redone.

Any advice for young musicians who dream of being in NYO?

IRENE: To any Merit students who are thinking about applying for NYO-USA, go for it! Make sure you carefully prepare your excerpts with the help of your teacher far in advance of the deadline and be sure to put equal effort into every part of your application, from the excerpts to the written and video essay. It can be tempting to assume that since it’s an orchestral application, presenting excellent excerpts is more important than submitting an excellent essay, but it’s crucial to consider each part of the application as being equally important.

Even if the year you become eligible to apply to NYO-USA is a long way away, it’s never too early to start preparing. Pay attention in orchestra, and really challenge yourself to come prepared to every rehearsal. It’s a lot of work, but it builds up a sense of discipline that will always serve you well regardless of what you do, especially if you want to study music beyond high school. By the time you’re old enough to start applying for summer programs and festivals, you’ll be more than prepared for the fun that awaits you! Lastly, always dream big, and never underestimate what you’re capable of achieving. You never know until you try. 🙂

RAFAEL: My advice would be to just go for it. When preparing/applying for NYO2 or NYO, just do your absolute best. This is a chance for you to demonstrate everything you know and the best of your abilities. This is a perfect opportunity for you to see the value of all of your hard work.

Definitely do not wait until a few days before the deadline to start recording your solo and excerpts! You want to allow yourself more than enough time to focus on getting an amazing recording. Record an excerpt or solo per day, rather than cramming them all in one recording day. The last thing you want to happen is to stress yourself out while trying to get everything perfect in one day…that just won’t happen.

Once you have selected what you’re going to prepare for your audition and once you get your excerpts, don’t wait until the last minute to work on them. I highly recommend working on them as soon as you are certain of what you’re going to play. Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.