Soft Rains, Big Sounds

On a cool, crisp November day last fall, as the leaves completed their yearly makeover of the New England hills, painting them in swaths of red and orange, a rainstorm was brewing INSIDE of Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Some of the area’s best musicians had gathered on stage of the historic music venue along with From the Top’s Music Director Tom Vignieri to record a very special piece of music. Tom’s hauntingly beautiful piece “There Will Come Soft Rains” was commissioned by the Columbus Children’s Choir and by Deborah Price and the Chamber Music Connection – a music program in Ohio that has had many performers featured on our NPR show.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” was written using the text of Sara Teasdale’s poem (by the same name and written during World War I) about nature reclaiming a world devastated by war. In the video below, you can see many From the Top alumni and staff members, and hear them create a rainstorm with their voices and instruments. Enjoy!


From the Top Staff
Michael Dahlberg, cello
Shea Mavros, soprano
Erin Nolan, viola
Wendy Perrotta, soprano
Claire Shepro, alto

From the Top Alumni
Claire Bourg, violin
Jonah Ellsworth, cello
Brian Hong, violin
Anna Lee, violin
Laura Liu, violin
Taeguk Mun, cello
Clayton Penrose-Whitmore, violin
Haruno Sato, violin
Amelia Sie, violin
Kiyoe Wellington, double bass

What Would Beethoven Do?

We would like to think that if Beethoven arrived in the 21st century, hearing magically restored, he would see the performers on From the Top as a sign of the invigorated future for classical music, full of passion, humor, and music that defies labels. He’d see the music schools and programs that we visit around the country as we do, as pockets of concentrated energy surrounding classical music. For example, on our recent trip to the Aspen Music Festival and School, where hundreds of young musicians gather to learn and perform the music that they love so dearly, we imagined Beethoven strolling along past the quaint wooden practice rooms listening to the strains of piano, flute, violin and more filling the fresh mountain air. I have a hard time imagining in that setting that anyone would be concerned for the future of classical music.

Enter Here Comes Treble Productions, a documentary film crew that believes that there are many individuals and organizations out there doing great things to propel classical music forward. Their film, What Would Beethoven Do? shares the stories of people like Benjamin Zander, who is building the next generation of classical musicians in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra; Eric Whitacre, who is bringing classical music into the digital age with his Virtual Youth Choir; Bobby McFerrin, who is challenging audiences with performances filled with fun and humor; and many more people who are doing amazing things with classical music.

The film so closely relates to what From the Top is interested in that we had to see what these guys were all about. They followed us around on our taping in Aspen and talked with some of the performers on our show, as well as our host, Christopher O’Riley, who is at the forefront of bringing classical music to new audiences. Here’s hoping we might help make the film that much better!

Check out their trailer below and let us know what you think Beethoven would do in the 21st century!

What Would Beethoven Do? | New Documentary Teaser from What Would Beethoven Do on Vimeo.

Show 256: Listening Guide

From the Top’s broadcast for Show 256 was taped at the Palace Arts Center in Grapevine, Texas on Wednesday June 27, 2012 as part of the Military Child Education Coalition Conference. We asked our performers to tell us about the music they performed on the show:

William Hume, 16, piano
Rhapsody in B minor, Op.79, No.1
By: Johannes Brahms

I have enjoyed learning and interpreting the Brahms Rhapsody Op. 79 No. 1.  As I researched this piece, I was able to understand the music more and identify with the piece on a deeper level. I think that sometimes the vastness of the music stimulates certain feelings in the performer and the listeners that may be unfamiliar, such as anguish or longing for something special. I could imagine Brahms and the love and emotional conflict that he felt towards Clara Schumann, which I think is represented in this piece. I played this for several performances and competitions and each time I discovered new aspects of the piece. But the primary goal is to make the music sound as beautiful as possible when I play it, in hopes that the audience will appreciate it as much as I do. I love the dissonant harmonics in the bass at the very end of the piece.  The last few measures have a surreal quality and it is very exciting for me.  It is a real test of musicianship and professionalism for me to put as much enthusiasm and focus into each performance- making it a new and exciting experience each time.

The Rhapsody is a great piece because it is very expansive.  It includes contrasting themes and conflicting, varying emotions and characteristics in the different sections. It has everything that the audience loves to hear.  It is emotional, aggressive, lyrical, fast, loud, soft, strong, and sorrowful. This stimulates the performer and listeners to explore all of their own personal feelings.  It uses almost the entire keyboard with some of the lowest notes.  It is important to listen through the ends of the sections and phrases to transition into new ideas effectively.  For example, you cannot just jump into the softer lyrical section in the middle of the piece without listening very carefully to the end of the preceding phrase.  One of the more challenging aspects in the piece is maintaining the energy and pushing through to the fortissimos even as the chords are getting aggressive and physically demanding. You must maintain the tempo and build the energy through the climaxes of the phrases.  I also feel that it is important to understand what is behind the music you are playing, and what the composer intended. I think that giving a brief overview about this to the audience is helpful. Audiences seem to appreciate information about the background of the music that they will be hearing, and I think that this seems to promote a connection between the audience and performer.

Post Show Reflection: This was a great experience!  The cast and crew of From the Top were so kind and ready to help at all times.  They were very well organized.  The From the Top family enhanced my experience and enjoyment of the show and I felt very comfortable playing and speaking, and I was ready to give a great performance.  I was also finally able to get my program from Christopher O’Riley’s concert autographed by him!  I had heard him perform in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in November of 2010.  It was also great to have a family photo taken with General and Mrs. Dempsey.  And the other performers, Dominic, Clarissa, and Devon, along with the members of The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own”, were really wonderful.  It was great to meet people my age who share my passion for music.  It was a privilege to be a part of the first show featuring performers with military connections!

Music can unveil the initiative and action that is present in every human being. It is a timeless art that preserves the complex emotions of human beings for generations to come. 

Devon Naftzger, 18, viola
Praeludium and Allegro
By: Fritz Kreisler

My teacher suggested that I learn Praeludium and Allegro because it’s a fun, showy, and athletic piece that suits my personality well. It starts off boldly and stubbornly and then becomes playful and dramatic in the fast section. I love the last part because it has an epic ending that makes me want to hold the last note forever.

To me this piece is all about conveying contrast in character. The allegro molto section is very note-y and busy in the left hand, but it’s the articulation of the bow that gives this piece its spice. This piece has a lot of tough section all strung together so it’s important that I have the focus and stamina not to lose pizazz.

Post Show Reflection: I had so much fun dancing backstage to the military band’s Sousa march with the staff members and the other performers! It was such an honor to meet General Dempsey and perform for him sitting three feet away.There’s nothing like performing on stage with Christopher O’Riley and the From the Top “On the Air” sign behind you! Everyone was so supportive at From the Top, so it wasn’t scary to perform at all – it was really fun!

Music has the power to change people for the better. It builds relationships, emotes passion, and connects others.

Dominic Giardino, 18, clarinet
3 Pieces for Solo Clarinet
By: Igor Stravinsky

For me, this piece of music invokes a feeling of controlled chaos. When I first picked it up about a year ago, I remember feeling very confused and frustrated. This was a piece of music I couldn’t sing and I had such a hard time hearing it the way I wanted to. Because of this piece, though, I have learned to find melody where I once believed it did not exist. In fact, I have grown to believe that this is one of the most beautiful and exciting pieces in the repertoire. It brings about beauty with its tragic first movement, and then attracts the audience with its wild second and third movements; it’s an adventure.

I have learned more from the Stravinsky 3 Pieces than any other piece of music. It started as a piece that was so brutally painful to practice, and has grown to be one of my most favorite and publicly performed pieces. The fact that this is an unaccompanied piece has played a huge role in its facility as a part of my repertoire. As a musician it has forced me to be the entire piece of music. To this Day, I have not stopped looking for ways to further bring out the technical and musical motifs. Stravinsky so purposefully wrote, “It is most important to truly ‘perform’”.

Post-Show Reflections: My favorite memory from these past three days was talking with the “Pershing’s Own” Wind Quintet in the green room the night of the performance. The energy of the audience was spectacular – you  could really engage as a performer. On the other hand, I needed some time to get used to the “studio feel” of recording.

Music has the power to build relationships, and ultimately build community. It has the power of supplying unlimited opportunity.

Clarissa McLaren, 17, harp
Impromptu-Caprice, Op.9
By: Gabriel Pierné 

Impromptu Caprice reminds me of mini vanilla cakes covered in marzipan and chocolate, with a cream and jelly filling. I used those as a practice treat and motivator – they are delicious! My least favorite part of the piece is the page of bisbigliandos. It is a lot of control work and getting my fingers not to buzz against the strings.

This piece is special to me because I’ve always wanted to learn it. It was on the first CD of harp music I ever owned, and I immediately loved the moving melody and accompaniment, fancy glissandos, and overall showy-ness. The hardest bits are the powerful octaves and left-hand chords towards the end.

Post-Show Reflection: My favorite memories were partying and dancing backstage right after the performance, and meeting General Dempsey at the dress rehearsal the day before.  Performing wasn’t as terrifying as I imagined it to be, and the cast, crew, and musicians were fantastic! The opportunities to share my music and inspire others makes all of the practicing worth it.

Music can change people from the inside, and change society overall. It can inspire, create emotion, and give people a passion. 

‘Tis the Season…Audition Season, That Is!

January means college auditions, so this post features a great article written by From the Top alum and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Ren Martin-Doike. Ren shares tips and hints for preparing for those college auditions, as well as interesting links and ideas for practicing. We hope you enjoy, and good luck if you’re auditioning this year!

‘Tis the Season…Audition Season that is!
Here are a few things that helped me prepare.
By Ren Martin-Doike

You’ve been practicing for what seems like your whole life, and in a few months, you will give one of the most crucial performances of your career so far… your college audition. How is preparing for college auditions any different from, say, getting ready for a competition?

Ren Performs on From the Top in Indianapolis, Indiana in 2008

Auditions are actually the same thing as competitions. The only difference is that when you “win,” instead of getting a medal, money or concert opportunities, you get the chance to snag the best prize of all – a good education.

Since you’re planning to study music beyond high school, I have a feeling that you are already an experienced player, not looking for another article telling you to practice 8 hours a day or how you shouldn’t wear blue jeans for your audition. Of course, the standard rules do always apply – listen to your teacher, plan ahead and practice mindfully. But you already know these things, so I’m going to give you my experience-tested tips, from the wise to the wacky.

First and foremost – it’s all in your head. No matter how well you prepare, if you psych yourself out at the last minute, you may not play your best. Conversely, if you don’t believe in yourself from the start, you will limit yourself from playing as well as you can. I’ve always been fascinated with psychology and neurology, so as you read this article you will also find “mind-hacks” you can use to more deeply tap into your potential. Continue reading

Sage Po Thanks the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation

15-year-old harpist Sage Po is a recipient of From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award and recently performed at our El Paso taping on June 13 (airing nationally the week of October 19.) Below, Sage reports on her summer studies at the American Harp Society’s Summer Institute, made possible through her $10,000 Young Artist Award, and reflects on her experience performing on From the Top and describes her ideas for her cultural leadership project. She also thanks the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for making it all possible!

Sage Po

Sage Po

Let me tell you what I did today:

This morning, my Mom and I rushed out of the rooms we’re staying at in order to get to my practice room ASAP!  I tuned the gold-plated harp provided for me, sat down, and for the next hour and a half played and replayed my pieces – metronome ticking slowly and then faster, pedals moving sometimes three to a measure!

Skip an hour or two, and I’m intently listening to a fellow contestant in the American Harp Society (AHS)’s National Competition.  Another hour later, I’m talking with JoAnn Turovsky – harp teacher at the University of Southern CA – about her program, her students, and her philosophy.  At 4 o’clock, there’s a concert by the winners of a different competition!  (One of the pieces they used was, in fact, what I played for From the Top!  What an experience to get to hear a new interpretation of the work I have so much fun performing!) Continue reading

Caeli Smith Raises Funds for Philadelphia Music Program

Caeli Smith and Tim Ribchester will hold a benefit concert May 10

Caeli Smith and Tim Ribchester

“I think a lot about how, as a classical violinist, I spend so much of my energy honing my skills in a very narrow discipline. I want to find ways to use my skills to help make the world a better place.” — Caeli Smith

This Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 10 from 3-5 pm in the Ethical Society Building at Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, 17-year-old From the Top violinist Caeli Smith and pianist Tim Ribchester are holding a recital to benefit the Academy of Community Music‘s Crescendo Music Program. The recital will raise money towards a $10,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A reception will follow.

Suggested donation: $25 Adults, $15 Students and Seniors
Tickets are available in advance, by reservation, or at the door. View on Facebook.

Click the read more link below to learn more about the event and how Caeli put it all together. Continue reading

Patrick McGuire Makes Progress with Arusha Arts Initiative

We recently posted about 18-year-old cellist and From the Top alum Patrick McGuire and his arts outreach trip to Arusha, Tanzania. Since then, his group has made some great progress towards their goal with a grant from Julliard. Patrick sent us the following update:

Hi everyone!

It’s been awhile since we sent a Facebook update, so here’s the most recent news:

1) We were awarded the $5,000 that we applied for from the Juilliard Summer Grants Program! This is AWESOME news and we are all so excited about it!!

2) This brings our total up to $11,025! Thank you so much to everyone who has contributed so far! However, that still leaves us with $3,975 to go! PLEASE, if you are able, any amount that you can contribute will go a long way! Even $5 or $10 adds up!

3) WE ARE LEAVING IN THREE WEEKS! May 15th is the day!

4) Be sure to check out our new “Umoja Student Profiles” on our blog! They will be posted every three days until we leave, and include information about individual students at Umoja, such as their age, tribe, favorite food, favorite hobbies, and their experience at Umoja! Check out our first student profile: Debora!

-Everyone from AAI

To learn more about the Arusha Arts Initiative or contribute to the cause, visit Patrick’s blog at

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