When Benjamin Shwartz got his first flute at the age of 8, he slept with it for the next two weeks.
Benjamin no longer cuddles with the instrument--the 12-year-old even sometimes resists practicing--but his passion and talent for music have propelled him into an unusual youth orchestra and weeklong music camp that begins today in West Los Angeles.
The Beverly Hills boy is one of 65 gifted youngsters who make up the recently formed Disney Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra, a collaborative project of The Disney Channel, Los Angeles-based Young Musicians Foundation, Yamaha Music Corp. and Smith-Hemion Productions.
The orchestra is unusual not only in its youthful composition--the musicians are ages 8 to 12, whereas members of most youth symphonies are 16 and older--but in the level of nationwide exposure it will receive.
At 8 p.m. Sept. 15, the Disney Channel will air a one-hour program on the orchestra that will include footage from its Aug. 2 concert, profiles of the children and the summer camp, including sessions with composers Henry Mancini and John Williams.
To be held though Saturday at Mount St. Mary's College in West Los Angeles, the tuition-free camp will combine four hours of orchestral and sectional rehearsals a day with visits by famous musicians and recreational activities such as swimming and games.
For many of the children, this will be their first summer camp experience. And some come from families with modest incomes and might not otherwise be able to attend a camp, said Gail Purse of Smith-Hemion, who is producing the Disney special.
The camp also takes on added significance at a time when many public schools are cutting arts programs. Purse said studies have shown that students who study the arts do better academically than those who don't.
"The goal of this program is to show children that music is a valuable aspect of life," said Disney Channel President John Cooke. "We want kids to see that playing an instrument and developing an appreciation for classical music can enrich their lives."
Rooted in the rich Disney tradition of musical production--more in the spirit of the classical music of "Fantasia" than the popular music of such films as "Beauty and the Beast"--the yearlong effort to put together such a young orchestra initially was met with skepticism.
"Everyone tried to discourage us from this age group," Purse said. "We were told, 'You're not going to get a decent orchestra.' "
But, she said, the skeptics were wrong.
Auditions held in early May drew about 300 children from throughout California. And it was not easy to select the 65--most from Southern California--who would make up the orchestra.
"I was very pleasantly surprised, almost shocked, by their intellect, musicianship and attitudes," said Daniel Hege, orchestra conductor.
But--with the exception of one or two--these children are no prodigies. There are, parents insist, no "Little Man Tates" in this group.
Parents say that labeling their children prodigies detracts from their many hours of practice and hard work.
"That's an extreme term," said Michelle Shwartz, Benjamin's mother. "It singles out a kid who's extraordinary. My son's not extraordinary."
Allison Allport, a freckle-faced 10-year-old from North Hollywood, has spent four to six hours each Saturday for the past 1 1/2 years studying harp at the Saturday Conservatory of Music at Cal State Los Angeles. And that does not include her two hours of practice at home each day.
Richard Cacioppo Jr., an 11-year-old violinist from Woodland Hills, squeezes in an hour of practice every day after getting home from the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks between the three hours of homework he says he does to maintain straight A's.
Is the pressure too much for the children?
Sometimes, confesses Richard, an outgoing and articulate boy with blond hair and blue eyes, he would like to take a break.
"But then I think how many years I've put into this, and I don't want to waste it," he said.
His mother, Sandra, who studied viola at the High School of Performing Arts (the "Fame" school) in New York, said: "I think it's doing him a world of good. Devoting yourself to music teaches you to devote yourself to anything."
The boy's father, Richard Cacioppo, admits he sometimes worries about his son.
"I'm constantly getting into mini-battles with my wife, and I say, 'Back off a little,' because she's so intense," said Cacioppo, an attorney.
"My wife's usually right, though," he added with a laugh, "because after sticking up for him, my son will tell me that he likes practicing."
The parents are quick to point out that their children have lots of interests besides music.
Allison, a sixth-grader at Dixie Canyon Elementary School in Sherman Oaks, says she likes science, painting and dressing up her 10 cats.
Richard and Benjamin enjoy science and sports, and Benjamin's passion for music has extended to the technical end. He holds a Saturday job as a sound technician at the Westside Jewish Community Center, and has set up a little recording studio in his room.
The children seemed to have a psychic connection with the music when they were very young, even though some of them did not come from musically inclined families. Indeed, Pamela Allport jokes that the only instrument her architect husband, Bruce, plays is the radio, and Allison remarks mischievously: "My father can't carry a tune in a bucket."
Michelle Shwartz recalls that as a toddler her son enjoyed plucking on his toy plastic guitar. But it was in the second grade that he became enchanted by the flute.
At a "Meet the Instruments" program at his school, he told his mother he "wanted to play the shiny one."
Richard started playing the violin when he was 3. "He had a good time with recitals and used to bow after them," his mother, Sandra, said.
Allison started piano lessons about two years ago, but switched to harp. "I didn't like my piano teacher," she said, "so I was looking for other instruments and saw the harp and bass, and my mom said, 'I'm not going to lug a bass around.' "
What thrills the children most is the chance to work with award-winning composers Mancini and Williams. Mancini wrote music for such films as "The Pink Panther" and "Victor/Victoria"; Williams has scored dozens of films including "JFK," "Hook" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Williams already has conducted the string section of the orchestra in rehearsal. "Working with them is enormously rewarding, and it's wonderfully inspiring," he said at a recent news conference. "They're at that wonderful age . . . where kids haven't reached the age of reality . . . and they have this fantastic imagination."
The work and rehearsals in the camp will culminate in a private concert Aug. 2 at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.
Mancini will lead the orchestra in the concert's opening number, Aaron Copland's "Hoedown." The program will include pieces by Beethoven, Dvorak, Gershwin and Mozart.
Purse said the music camp was considered critical to the success of the concert because it gives the children the opportunity to bond more effectively than if they went home every night. Parents will not be allowed to visit their children, she added.
Disney officials say they hope the one-hour television special will bring classical music to a mass audience, much as "Fantasia" did when it was released 52 years ago.
"It's not only exciting from an educational point of view," Williams said, "but it can be brilliant entertainment."