In Brighton, MA, Teen Leaders Make Chamber Music Personal

For the past three years, From the Top has enjoyed a partnership with Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, Massachusetts. Conservatory Lab is the only music-infused public elementary school in the state and provides all students free vocal and instrumental instruction. However, the students at Conservatory Lab don’t have access to playing in small ensembles, so for the past two years, young musicians from our Center for the Development of Arts Leaders (CDAL) have conducted chamber music residencies at Conservatory Lab. CDAL is From the Top’s arts leadership program in Boston, with trains young musicians to be active leaders in their communities.

The most recent week-long residency paired a CDAL arts leader with a Conservatory Lab student, with whom they worked exclusively. Aside from learning an entire piece — The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, Contrapunctus I, by J. S. Bach — the CDAL arts leaders and Conservatory Lab students explored the unique lessons that chamber music can teach: leadership, teamwork, and focus. Gabriel, a young clarinetist, explains: “I learned that you don’t have to rely on a conductor, but that you have to listen to every one else when you are playing chamber music.”

While the lessons on dynamics and cueing were valuable, Kat Jara, the Conservatory Lab students’ teacher, says the one-on-one attention — having one mentor dedicated to each Conservatory Lab student, checking in on their bow holds and being a “musical friend” — makes all the difference. The effect on the Conservatory Lab students isn’t truly realized until a few weeks after the residency, she says, when their confidence grows and their self-esteem skyrockets.

 

 

The weeklong residency culminated in a side-by-side performance of their chamber work for their friends. After all their hard work, the students were all very nervous to perform, but they prevailed. Nora, a young cellist, said it best: “It was kind of scary, but in the end, when everybody clapped, it felt good!”

Congratulations to the performers from Conservatory Lab: 

Mira Mehta, violin — 6th grade

Gabriel Joachin, clarinet  — 4th grade

Nora Feeney, cello  — 6th grade

Tess Lepeska-True, cello — 4th grade

Antwanai Miller, viola — 6th grade

Angelo Beauvois, cello — 4th grade

And to their teachers from the CDAL Boston program: 

Lilia Chang, violin

Nicholas Gallitano, viola

Changyoung (Calvin) Kim, clarinet

Leland Ko, cello

Ju Hyun Lee, cello

How Music Heals

The healing power of music.

This is a phrase we hear a lot these days. Throughout history, music has been a source of inspiration, comfort, and support in many circumstances.

We are always amazed at the poise and achievement of our young performers on From the Top. The dedication, hard work, and passion that they share gives us hope for the future. Yet even these high-achieving young people deal with hard times, and many of our musicians share stories about how music has helped them (and others) heal. Sometimes we share those stories on air, and sometimes we choose not to.

In our recent taping recorded at Jordan Hall in Boston and aired the week of March 10 on NPR stations nationwide, the young ladies of Quartet Noce opened up to our host and live audience about the challenges they have faced in their lives so far, and how music has helped them through those challenges. They felt it was important to share this part of their story, and the response to their courage has been remarkable so far.

Quartet NoceWhen we interviewed them before they appeared on the show, the quartet struck us as a tight-knit group, with the girls operating as a group of best friends rather than only musical accomplices. They are very encouraging towards one another, and are comfortable discussing serious topics as well as lapsing into giggles when they remember a funny moment from rehearsal. Each of the girls has used music to help them cope with some tough situations in their young lives, which they shared with us on the radio show.

17-year-old violist Sloane Wesloh is a passionate advocate for people with Type 1 Diabetes, an autoimmune disease that she was diagnosed with at age 12 after playing classical music  for seven years. She says, when she received the diagnosis, that she wanted to quit playing. “I felt like it was pointless to be playing an instrument and focusing on passion and music when I was simply trying to stay alive,” she says, “then I came back to it about a year later when I realized that when I play music I don’t feel the needles or think about diabetes, so it’s really the only time when diabetes isn’t the main focus in my life.”

When 18-year-old cellist Drake Driscoll’s father passed away, she was only 2 years old. While she may have already had some Obsessive-Compulsive tendencies, she explains that when she was in second grade, they noticed symptoms of severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She explains, “I was worried about my mom, and going to check on her at least 10 times a night – I was worried for her safety.” At that point, she entered therapy, but she credits music as one of the things that helped her. She says that music is a way for her to escape what she’s feeling and achieve some control over her OCD.

17-year-old violinist Rose Moerschel and her twin sister have both struggled with anorexia in their young lives. While Rose has been able to get her disease under control, it can be really difficult for her to watch her twin sister, who is still struggling. She says that music has helped; “It lets me escape from that whole lifestyle.”

When 18-year-old violinist Joy Kuo came to Walnut Hill School for the Arts last year, she really missed home. While many of the boarding students at Walnut Hill can contact their parents and family quite easily, Joy’s family is in Taiwan where the time difference makes it difficult to find a good time to connect. While she misses her family very much, she says she uses practice time to help her take her mind off of it. She says, “I just go to practice and I think that if I play well or do great, they are proud of me, that my family can be proud of me.”

We would like to hear from you about this. How has music helped you get through a tough time?

Get to Know Host Christopher O’Riley

ChristopherORiley_MamuyaWhat do you think audiences enjoy the most about From the Top?

The kids on From the Top are inspirational musicians who share wonderful performances and they also share their passions for all kinds of pursuits that make them outstanding human beings. That is very captivating for listeners across the country.

How did you first get involved with From the Top? 

When Co-Founders Gerald Slavet and Jennifer Hurley-Wales were first putting From the Top together as a radio show, they caught a CBS Sunday Morning interview with me in which I was talking about rap group Run-DMC. They realized that we shared a passion for the future of classical music and a connection to New England Conservatory (I am a graduate), and that I was someone who could relate to the young guests on the show.

I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this project – I had noticed a decline in attendance in classical concerts across the spectrum of American cities and all venues, orchestral and otherwise, and I additionally noted the scattershot way that lots of arts organizations were seeking to revitalize interest in classical music, particularly with young listeners. My expectation of the show at that time was that it could be a vital and potentially transformative force in the music world, and after more than a decade on the air that expectation has been and continues to be soundly fulfilled.

Why do you continue to be part of From the Top after so many years?ChristopherORiley_Ellsworth

There’s an energy and excitement to playing with kids who are this fresh and excited about music. I find the collaborations with each of the young performers on our show to be some of my most rewarding performance opportunities.

In addition, over the last several years, From the Top has evolved to become more than a radio show. At each tour location, the performers on our show take part in an Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop where they explore their leadership pathways. They then put those new skills to the test in outreach events for audiences as varied as elementary school children and senior citizens, in venues from Boys & Girls Clubs to assisted living facilities. It is invigorating to be part of an organization that is always working to bring music to more people.

How do these talented young musicians inspire you?

It’s inspiring to be around the next generation of great musicians. From the young violinist living on a ranch in South Dakota, to the teenage soprano from upstate New York, there’s an extraordinary level of musicianship and musical training in every corner of this country. It’s exciting to see what the cohort of performers on each new show has to offer.

I’m also impressed by the performers’ dedication to promote classical music in their own communities. After they appear on the show and take part in the workshop, many of them are inspired to create their own way of using music to help others. Performers have created summer music programs, fundraised for tsunami victims, and played for retirement communities and senior centers.

What is the most surprising moment you have experienced while taping a From the Top performance?

That would have to be in preparing for a performance of a very difficult work by Paul Schoenfield with 13-year-old violinist, Bella Hristova, and noting that not only had she mastered and memorized the piece, but she could start at any measure number I could name. That’s scary (powerful) stuff.

How would you compare your own experience of being a young musician with the performers featured on From the Top?

I look back on my childhood and think, man, I wish From the Top was around when I was growing up! I didn’t have these kinds of performance opportunities, or the contact with my peer musicians. I was playing classical piano, and although music was something that I wanted to do all the time, I had to shift a little bit, so in sixth grade I started a rock band – I thought maybe the girls would like me better. It didn’t help.

Music can be a solitary pursuit – you toil away in practice rooms and go to lessons and rehearsals. Many kids feel that they can’t talk to their friends about what they are doing. From the Top creates a needed community for these kids. They get to share their thoughts about putting this music together, why they think it’s great, why they think that other kids should enjoy this kind of music, and why it’s made such a difference in their lives.

How do you spend your time when you are not on the road with From the Top?

ORiley_TermineI spend a great deal of time on the road. Earlier this year, I performed at Yoshi’s in San Francisco in support of my latest release on Oxingale Records, O’Riley’s Liszt. The concert promoter brought in several From the Top alumni who surprised me with a performance. It was very touching!

I really enjoy the collaborative process and spend much of my time working with musicians around the country whom I respect. Cellist Matt Haimovitz and I collaborated to record Shuffle. Play. Listen. and toured extensively in support of that album. I’m looking forward to working with him again when we will return to the National Music Museum in Vermillion (where we taped From the Top in September) to record the Beethoven Cello Sonatas on some of their period instruments.

When I do have some downtime at home, I love spending time with my fiancé and our many cats. Each of my cats has a very distinct personality, and I find my time with them both relaxing and energizing.

If you could describe your experience with From the Top’s young artists in three words, what would they be?

Thanks for everything.

Listening Guide: Show 276, Vermillion, South Dakota

 135Maya Buchanan, 13 , violin
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major
Op. 24, “Spring”
By Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The 1st and 4th movements are my favorites. I worked on this piece this summer while at Aspen Music Festival and playing it there reminds me a lot of Aspen’s natural setting. When I play this piece, I think of the flowing water and the shimmering Aspen trees. Beethoven is really big on dynamics, so there’s lots of subito pianos so that makes it challenging.  In the opening, it is very lyrical, calm and simple and other times becomes dramatic.  The dynamics are probably the hardest part – it crescendos up to a really big forte and then suddenly you have to be really soft.  I love Beethoven’s music!

 A favorite memory or highlight:
Having a tour of the National Music Museum in my home state with the FTT crew and fellow musicians.  There were really amazing, cool, unexpected instruments inside.  The Nickelodeon was my favorite. I also enjoyed spending time in he warm-up room getting acquainted with all the other musicians.

What do you believe music has the power to do?

People of all cultures and ages express themselves through music. This form of communication can be understood all over the world and inspires and positively changes the way we feel about each other.  And it happens like “POW!”  I don’t know of any other other “language” that affects people this way.   That’s the power of music.

Evan Lee, 15, piano 157
Trancendental Etude No. 4, “Mazeppa”
By Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Any time my teacher gives me Liszt, I’m happy.  I like this piece.  She said, “why don’t you play this?”  And I’m like, “this is cool!”  There is a story behind it- I believe it’s about this prince that gets strapped to a horse and the horse is left to run free- it was because he did something, I’m not sure what it was, but the prince was being punished.  He almost dies but then returns victorious and becomes king.  Liszt tries to make the sound of a horse galloping throughout the piece.  First, I try to focus on hitting the right stuff.  Liszt is a programmatic composer, he puts titles to things and his own story.  There’s no alternative story that I have in mind.  This piece is always in motion so it’s hard to put together and not make it sound like a bunch of noise.  It’s easy to do that considering the technique is pretty hard.  The final variations are pretty large jumps, and it’s hard to get them light.

A favorite memory or highlight:
Trying all the harpsichords/old keyboard instruments at the Music Museum.

What do you believe music has the power to do?
I think music has the power to bring people together, start conversations, and make people happy.

 221Jon Corin, 18, saxophone
Fantasia for Saxophone
I. Animé
By Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)

I’ll be playing the first movement of Fantasia by Heitor Villa-Lobos. It’s a piece that I’ve been playing for a long time; something that I’ve come back to numerous times.  I love the melody and the evocative contrast that occurs over the short span of this movement. When I first put this piece together with piano, it gained a whole new meaning for me. It came to life right before my eyes, like an old friend who just revealed something brand new about himself (thankfully it was something good). Since then, every time I play the piece I try to take something new from it, hopefully giving something new to the listener.

A favorite memory or highlight:
Playing the gamelan with the whole group of kids. Finally hearing everyone play.

What do you believe music has the power to do?
I believe it can bring people together, forming amazing relationships. Music can empower people to help others.

Henry Johnston, 16, guitar 187
Sonata No. 3
III. Allegro non troppo
By Manuel Ponce (1882-1948)

I’m playing the Ponce piece on the show. I’ve been playing it for a pretty long time. I learned the second movement first about three years ago, my dad suggested the piece for me and I took to it immediately. I learned the third movement about two years ago. I’m working on the first movement now. I really like the movement I’m playing. In the context of the piece, it seems like a pretty triumphant movement. It’s got a recurring theme, a real big strummed chord. Sometimes you expect it and sometimes you don’t, so it manages to keep an audience guessing. It’s got a beautiful middle section full of moving chords, which is fun as a guitar player to get to play because it really forces you to make decisions about the voicing of the chords, which notes you want at the forefront and which ones you want to lay back a little bit more. Pianists spend all sorts of time thinking about that, emphasis within a chord, but with a lot of guitar players it goes unnoticed.

A favorite memory or highlight:
Visiting the National Music Museum, the setting of the show really enriched the whole experience for me and created some great new connections within the music world.

What do you believe music has the power to do?
It’s got the power to bring people together and expose you to new things.

 121The Luna String Quartet

Anna Humphrey, 17, violin I

A favorite memory or highlight:
The actual performance was a lot of fun. Where the dress rehearsal seemed stressful and serious, the performance was light hearted and exciting.

What do you believe music has the power to do?
I believe music has the power to promote peace around the world. It brings people together as a universal language.

Emma Richman, 15, violin II

A favorite memory or highlight:
Spending time with the other musicians and getting to know them better was one of my favorite parts. We got along extremely well and I feel like I’ve known them for much longer than three days. It was also amazing to meet more talented musicians from all over the country.

What do you believe music has the power to do?
Music has the power to bring people together. People from all different backgrounds can get along simply because they all speak the same language of music.

Alexandra Sophocleus, 18, viola

A favorite memory or highlight:
Getting to know the other musicians on our episode was a huge highlight. It is always so awesome to meet other people our age with our interests from other parts of the country.

What do you believe music has the power to do?
Music has the power to help people express what words cannot. It gives people something to relate to and helps people make connections to others. My strongest friendships are the ones based around musical experiences.

Nora Doyle, 17, cello

A favorite memory or highlight:
Playing the gamelan! Seeing the museum and the experimental instruments. Also the pizza party and meeting everyone.

What do you believe music has the power to do?
Music can give people confidence and a sense of self-worth, connect people from different cultures.

Infusing New Vibrancy into the Oldies: Introducing Conrad Tao

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Conrad Tao
Photo by Lauren Farmer

by Jingxuan Zhang

Jack of all trades, yet master of all, 19-year-old From the Top alumnus Conrad Tao – pianist, violinist, and composer – can be pithily summed up as a thinker. “Thinker” is not the most titillating of words; however, it fits Conrad perfectly because he uses his artistry in the humblest way to do the biggest things. On the contrary, “intellectual” is too pompous for someone so plainspoken, and “visionary” too grandiose.  One can get a quick taste of what Conrad ruminates about by visiting the website for the UNPLAY Festival, a three-night event he organized using his Avery Fisher Career Grant and Gilmore Young Artist Award. In the WHY page, readers are assaulted by the question “What space does the musician occupy today?” Yeah, that is what he “thinks” about, dire problems faced by classical music.

It takes some real guts to ask that question, since it is such a sore spot in the classical music community. Attendance to classical concerts is becoming increasingly scarce, while Justin Bieber fills up sports stadiums to the brim with prepubescent youngsters without breaking a sweat. Conrad is fighting against the decline of classical music through his unique and thought-provoking concert programming. He said, “A concert is something more than just having a good time. I want to engage the audience and challenge them to change their thinking.” That statement underlies Conrad’s vision of a more passionately involved audience who reacts to the social commentary music can provide.

His goals were brilliantly articulated on the final night of his festival, themed Hi/r/stories. In his own words, Hi/r/stories “questions how history allows classical music to exert its power. Why is there currently a narrow conception of what classical music is for, among not only audiences, but also musicians and presenters?” His question is right on point. Classical music thrived in the 18th century, with giants like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all patronized by emperors and dukes. These powerful men had nothing to do other than wage war, walk in elegant gardens, and be dedicatees for historic compositions. But look at the modern industrialized society: On any Friday evening, in addition to that concert at Lincoln Center, one can go clubbing, see a Yankees game, watch Game of Thrones, or do homework (God forbid). Maybe the poor guy is too tired after eight hours of work to care!

Conrad is rethinking music’s role as a passive form of entertainment. Music has to evolve with society by being attuned to the fickle tastes of the modern audience, and he’s had those ideas since he was 10, on his appearance on From the Top’s 107th show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: “I remember saying, ‘It’s 2004. We have cellphones and computers already, so we need some new music to go with that.’ I played my own composition on that show, and the support I got from the audience, in addition to From the Top doing such effective outreach, really inspired me to forge my own path and reach a wider audience.” He has come a long way since then. For UNPLAY, he compiled a very compelling narrative which heavily features the works of living composers, with guest artists who specialize in electronic and experimental music. In the program one can easily see the socially relevant compositions just by titles such as “Private Time,” “Violence,” “Endurance Test,” and “… like kites with no strings.

The first day of UNPLAY also ushered in Conrad’s debut album Voyages with EMI, which features works by Monk, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Tao himself. This album is a microcosm of his journey as a musician, and he hopes listeners can derive their own journeys by listening. The inspiration for this album conforms to his unique perspective as an artist: “The process of travel is oftentimes seen as linear, from A to B. For me, it is not about the beginning and the end, but the space in between; the process itself is meaningful.” At only 19, Conrad has only started his “voyage,” but it has already been riddled with milestones. With a bar so high, it is time for him to “think” about what he can possibly accomplish next.

To check out selections from his festival and debut CD, visit http://www.youtube.com/conradtao. For more information on Voyages, visit http://www.smarturl.it/ConradTaoVoyages.

But I Don’t Like to Write!

By Jingxuan Zhang

Since this is my first blog post upon the esteemed pages of the Green Room Blog, I thought it fitting to write about, well, writing. I hated it. There you go, the end… except not really: That was just a hook. I learned that particular technique in an SAT class, in addition to discovering my love for writing – who said love cannot be cultivated?

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Jingxuan Zhang
Show 199: El Paso, Texas

To know Jing the writer, it is of utmost importance to know Jing the musician. My parents asked what instrument I wanted to play when I was five with the accordion in mind, in order to speed along the development of my intellect. To their financial despair, I stubbornly insisted on one of the two instruments I knew, “Piano!” So buy one they did, and thus started the lessons. I have come a long way from my first teacher in China who slapped my hand every time she found its position distasteful to my current professor at Juilliard. But no one wants to hear about such steadfast love. Where’s the Hollywood drama? In my case, maybe Bollywood would be more appropriate.

Compared to my deep obsession with music, my relationship with writing was like a lukewarm arranged marriage. It all started in ninth grade, when the SATs loomed overhead for all students diligent, Asian, or otherwise. For a Chinese student like me, one can safely assume that the parents would meddle copiously in the SATs. As a burgeoning pianist who studied with a much sought-after professor at Jacobs School of Music in Indiana University’s precollege program, I did not even consider an academic career path. That was particularly difficult when fantastic visions of performing in Carnegie Hall thrashing about like Lang Lang played through one’s thoughts like a film reel. My parents, though, were more realistic, for they knew that the combination of skill and serendipity necessary for breakthrough is too risky without a backup, which defaulted to academics excellence. Do not think for one single moment that I was a slouch in high school. To list all my accomplishments would be impossibly futile; however, a quick synopsis is manageable: I graduated sixteenth in a class of over a thousand students, a record that can almost guarantee placement in any college I wanted when combined with the slew of honors under my belt as a musician.

My dear parents just wanted to secure my place at the top, so when they heard from an acquaintance at the end of ninth grade that a certain Dr. Zhang who taught a weekly SAT class helped his daughter get into Duke University, they suffered through oceans of fire and various other hardships to get me signed up. I was not too pleased with the arrangement, since the weekend classes took precious time away from the keyboard. Furthermore, this awkward ménage a trois I caught myself in between music and writing was not exactly morally upright.

As expected, Dr. Zhang loved me. I was almost legendary in the Asian community, with my accolades disseminated like wildfire among parents as the paragon of excellence. But that did not stop him from abhorring my writing. I still remember his utter condemnation, “This is childish.” I could not say I was particularly distraught, as I did not care much about writing, but that he found in me some imperfection irked me to no end. Dr. Zhang was no fool. He knew I did not care about writing; however, he also knew my weakness: music. Under his guidance, I insidiously began to realize the parallels between the arts of writing and music. The correlation was so blatant that it shamed me to not have noticed earlier. Words and sentences are like the notes and phrases of music. The theme of an essay is like the harmonies that holds the music together. Finally, the same meticulous attention to detail a writer must practice, all the while without losing sight of the “whole picture,” ignited my love for this art.

I was exposed to From the Top when I played on Show 199 in El Paso, Texas, as a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist the summer after ninth grade. Ironically, fate has brought things full circle. Having discovered this show and writing concurrently, with love and hate respectively, I am now honored to unite them as the new Summer Contributor to the Green Room. Ultimately, I have derived an important life lesson from this journey: a relationship with both music and writing is not necessarily a ménage a trois.

From the Top Receives NEA Grants to Support Radio and Outreach

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Acting Chairman Joan Shigekawa announced that From the Top is one of 817 nonprofit organizations nationwide to receive an NEA Art Works grant. From the Top is recommended for two grants totaling $105,000 to support production of From the Top’s weekly radio show and From the Top’s education and outreach programs.

Acting Chairman Shigekawa said, “The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support these exciting and diverse arts projects that will take place throughout the United States. Whether it is through a focus on education, engagement, or innovation, these projects all contribute to vibrant communities and memorable opportunities for the public to engage with the arts.”

In August 2012, the NEA received 1,547 eligible applications for Art Works grants requesting more than $80 million in funding. Art Works grants support the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and the strengthening of communities through the arts. The 817 recommended NEA grants total $26.3 million and span 13 artistic disciplines and fields. Applications were reviewed by panels of outside experts convened by NEA staff, and each project was judged on its artistic excellence and artistic merit.

For a complete listing of projects recommended for Art Works grant support, please visit the NEA website at arts.gov.

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