Aiming for growth

ECCO couple starting fourth season of youth musical ensemble

EAST HARRIET — The crowd of retired couples and young parents with children might have happily listened to anything when they took their seats at the Lake Harriet Band Shell on a warm August evening.

On this particular night, the couple on stage was the Uptown Duet — Paul and Caren Umbarger on the guitar and violin, respectively — accompanied by a bassist. The early evening sun cast an orange glow on stage as they began a set of jazz standards, gypsy jazz, folk and classic rock tunes, and a few youngsters ran up front to dance.

“I bet you haven’t really heard Beatles songs arranged for the guitar and violin before, but we have a fun time doing it,” Caren Umbarger told an audience munching on popcorn and ice cream from a nearby concession stand.

“Yeah, we’re the Fab Two,” her husband quipped just before launching into the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”

After the final verse, Paul Umbarger, who is  laid-back and unafraid to use the word “groovy” in conversation, continued his gently funny stage banter.

“If there are any sitar players in the audience, you can come up here and we’ll try it again,” he said.

Sitting beside him, Caren Umbarger seemed slightly more reserved, if only in comparison to her very outgoing husband. But it was apparent both of them love to play for a crowd.

It’s a passion they instill in the young members of Artistic Youth Ensembles of Minnesota (AYEM, pronounced “aim”), their nonprofit performance group founded in 2005.

AYEM begins its fourth season in September and the Umbargers are eager to see the performance group grow this year.

“We keep it low key,” Paul Umbarger said. “[Practice is] only twice a month; it’s not every week.”

Caren Umbarger added, “That puts a certain amount of pressure on us to work towards a really fine performance in eight rehearsals.”

Kathy Rygh of St. Louis Park, whose son Charlie, a senior, has played violin in AYEM since it started, said the Umbargers coax great performances out of their students in a very small amount of time.

“I think because of Caren and Paul’s talents, you’re not practicing five times a week but they still produce a good product,” Rygh said.

How do they do it?

It may be the homemade baked goods Caren Umbarger prepares for every rehearsal. (They are also advertised prominently on AYEM recruitment materials.)

Before gushing over the Rice Krispie bars, 16-year-old Allie Fan of Lowry Hill described her AYEM guitar ensemble as much different, and a complement to, the formality of high school concert band.
“We’ve played Led Zeppelin ‘Over the Hills and Far Away,’ we played ‘Classical Gas,’ we played ‘Wipeout’ — which was really weird,” Fan said. “There’s always some classical songs, too.”

“Everything we do is fun,” she added. “We play music that’s fun, and we all want to be there.”

Through AYEM, the Umbargers run three string chamber orchestras and two guitar ensembles. At its largest, AYEM had 42 players, a number that declined a bit last season when several members went off to college.

Both Umbargers said they could comfortably double the number of AYEM players.

Many of the AYEM players were recruited from the Umbargers’ students. Both run practice studios out of their ECCO neighborhood home.

AYEM rehearsals, held every other weekend during the fall and spring semesters, take place at the Center for Performing Arts in Kingfield.

Although deeply committed to their nonprofit, the Umbargers admitted the project has been more work than they ever expected.

It was a former music teacher who urged Caren Umbarger to start a nonprofit. The conductor Jonathan May, who she studied under at Hamlin University, started the Florida Young Artists Orchestra in Orlando, and made it all sound so easy.

“Little did she know what she was getting into,” Paul Umbarger said.

Despite a few bouts with “buyer’s remorse,” as he put it, the Umbargers are slowly learning the nitty-gritty of running a nonprofit, like asking for donations, a task neither enjoys.

Still, Caren Umbarger, who grew tired musician’s inflated egos during years of study on the violin, said AYEM has fulfilled her dream of creating a comfortable, “noncompetitive” musical environment.

“I wanted it to be socially, spiritually, musically and intellectually nourishing,” she said.

Paul Umbarger, a Presbyterian minister’s son who taught himself to play “Amazing Grace” on the guitar for church sing-alongs, said he shares that vision.

Amy Finch plays with the Umbargers in The Blue Daddies, a local blues and rock band, and enrolled her son Max Finch-Raymond, 11, in AYEM last year.

“I think what’s really unique about AYEM is the emphasis on having fun and appreciating music,” Finch said.

She said of the Umbargers: “You can tell that they love music.”

Artistic Youth Ensembles of Minnesota (AYEM) begins its fourth season Sept. 13–14 and is recruiting members for its two guitar and three string ensembles. For more information, visit or call 823-2953.