BROOKSVILLE — When conductor and musician Roland Hanneman watched an episode of 60 Minutes that showed how the lives of inmates in a Venezuelan prison had been changed for the better after they began to perform classical music, it inspired him.
Studies, he says, have shown that children who play instruments are less likely to be involved with smoking cigarettes, drinking and drug use. That's when he decided to shift the focus of his musical efforts to young people.
Before moving to Brooksville in 2006, Hanneman — known better locally by his stage name, John St. John — conducted the Rio Grande Charter School orchestra in Orlando. Upon his arrival in Hernando County, Hanneman was disheartened to learn there was not a youth orchestra in the community.
So a year later, in 2007, he and his friend, George Rupert, decided to create such an orchestra.
"We started out pretty small," said Hanneman. "We had two cellos, one viola, several violins, a flute and a trumpet."
Now in its seventh year and about 40 members strong, the Hernando Youth Orchestra will kick off its season of classical music concerts on Sunday at the Brooksville Woman's Club.
Musicians in the orchestra range in age from 5 to 21, and they play a variety of instruments — string, wind and percussion.
Concerts never include pop music — only classical pieces. Selections to be played Sunday will be by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Rossini and Haydn.
"Young people these days are not exposed to the classics," Hanneman said. "They find that they love it. … They'd much rather play Barber of Seville."
The purpose of the Hernando Youth Orchestra is not only to provide an outlet for youth to perform, but also to give them a chance to experience what it's like to play an instrument. The problem, Hanneman said, is that many students cannot afford instruments. For example, one of the young musicians in the youth orchestra plays tuba, which can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000. After an unsuccessful search to find an affordable used tuba, the orchestra instead is renting one for him to use.
"We're growing more now because of the cuts in the schools," Hanneman said. "Schools are cutting out bands and music programs to save money."
Hanneman has worked many years in the music industry, producing more than 240 classical music albums. Originally from London, he moved to the United States in 1968. He started out composing jingles, but has conducted orchestras, including the famed 101 Strings Orchestra.
The Hernando Youth Orchestra is a nonprofit organization, run strictly by volunteers. There is no cost for youth to join. Mentors, donations and new members are welcome. All donations, both monetary and instruments, are tax deductible.
The orchestra performs at least four concerts a year, Hanneman said. Another concert is planned for Oct. 26 at Timber Pines. There will also be a Christmas concert, and the group plans to perform at the Florida Blueberry Festival in downtown Brooksville in the spring.