The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lyn McLain, founder of D.C. Youth Orchestra Program, dies at 95

He brought classical music into the lives of tens of thousands of young people and was credited with diversifying the ranks of symphony orchestras across the United States

Lyn McLain, founder of the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program, rehearses with students in 2001. (Michael DiBari Jr. for The Washington Post)
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Lyn McLain, who brought classical music into the lives of tens of thousands of young people as founder of the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program, an initiative that has risen over six decades to international renown and was credited with diversifying the ranks of symphony orchestras across the United States, died Oct. 25 at his home in Washington. He was 95.

The cause was end-stage renal disease, said his wife, Sally McLain.

Trained as a clarinetist, Mr. McLain began his career as a union musician before realizing in his mid-20s that he wanted “something else,” he said — something other than the nightclubs, weddings and other gigs where he had made his living to that point.

He gave up his itinerant life and settled in Washington, where he was hired in 1956 as a music teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School. Four years later, on the request of the D.C. public schools system, he founded what became the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program (DCYOP).

From an initial cohort of 60 members who met at Coolidge High, DCYOP has grown over 63 years to enroll a total of more than 50,000 students from the District, Maryland and Virginia, many of them minorities, and many of whom might not otherwise have had the opportunity to learn to play an instrument.

DCYOP, which now meets at Takoma Elementary School in Northwest Washington, provides group classes for children as young as 4½ and beginning, intermediate and advanced training through elementary, middle and high school. Rather than subjecting interested students to auditions for his ensembles, Mr. McLain accepted everyone who applied.

“The door’s open,” he told The Washington Post in 2001. “Anyone who wants to come in, comes in.”

But once they came in, Mr. McLain demanded from his students excellence and discipline, with rehearsals on school nights and Saturdays and long hours of practice in the summer.

“He was a no-nonsense guy, and that’s what set the trajectory for me in music today,” John Wineglass, an Emmy Award-winning composer who played with DCYOP, principally as a violist, from age 6 until his graduation from the District’s Banneker High School in 1990.

The DCYOP operated on what a Post reporter once described as “a budget thinner than a violin string,” with funding from D.C. Public Schools, foundation grants and other donations. During its most difficult periods, costs outstripped revenue.

But through relentless fundraising, Mr. McLain managed to take his ensembles to the Kennedy Center, the White House and on tours around the world — to Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Soviet Union and Africa.

“It changed the lives of so many students,” said Kenneth Whitley, who played cello with DCYOP while a student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., in the late 1970s and later became a conductor with the group. “It gave students in this area access to something that was not available to them prior.”

Beyond changing the lives of students, Mr. McLain was credited with helping, slowly, to change the largely White world of classical music. In 1990, Post music critic Joseph McLellan reported that DCYOP had trained a quarter of minority musicians working in American orchestras at the time.

“Major orchestras are not going to have what would be considered a reasonable representation with minorities,” said Mr. McLain, “until the educational process makes these things available.”

Evaluating the work of DCYOP, McLellan wrote that while “others may be more prestigious, and some are certainly more affluent,” there is “no musical institution in the District of Columbia … more important than the Youth Symphony Orchestra.”

Linwood Gerald McLain was born in Binghamton, N.Y., on April 17, 1928. His parents, both amateur musicians, worked for a shoe manufacturer, his father in the warehouse and his mother as a seamstress.

Mr. McLain studied music from an early age, learning to play instruments including the piano in addition to the clarinet. As a teenager, he played in a local orchestra. He continued his music studies at Ithaca College in New York, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a master’s degree in 1958.

Mr. McLain was based for a period in New York City while he traveled around the country working gigs. “I was a regular union musician,” he told The Post. “I played in New Jersey, I played ’em in Brooklyn, played ’em in upper Manhattan … in the Catskills.”

He was on a stop in Moline, Ill., when he encountered a tenor saxophone player three decades his senior. After speaking with the man, Mr. McLain recalled, he thought to himself, “Geez, you know, here I’m about 24 or 25, and [I realize] I may very well look at this same scene when I’m 56, just like he is, and I don’t really want to do that.”

Mr. McLain moved to Washington to study music at Catholic University. He was soon hired at Coolidge High School and retired from DCYOP in 2006, after nearly half a century with the program.

DCYOP alumni include John McLaughlin Williams and the late Michael Morgan, both conductors; Daniel Foster, principal violist with the National Symphony Orchestra; Timothy Butler, a cellist with the NSO; the saxophonist Marshall Keys; and trumpet player and composer Chris Royal.

Alumni outside professional music include D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who played the flute.

Mr. McLain’s marriages to Phyllis Long and Sandra Brignole ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 39 years, the former Sally Stout, a violinist, of Washington; a son from his second marriage, Kevin McLain of Wilmington, N.C.; three children from his third marriage, Patrick McLain and Sean McLain, both of Washington, and Kathleen McLain of El Cerrito, Calif.; and a sister.

“Once you accomplish something, that can become a habit,” Mr. McLain told The Post, reflecting on his hopes — and his expectations — for his young musicians. “Just as not accomplishing something can become a habit. … Kids will really do something if you give them something that they consider worth it.”