Be Yourself: Musical Connections in Washington, DC

Backstage at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 8-year-old pianist Oscar Paz-Suaznabar has his head bent over a cell phone, launching angry birds at stubborn pigs, and From the Top alum Clifton Williams reaches over to show him a trick. Clifton has recently graduated college and moved to Los Angeles to build a career composing and playing piano, but this weekend he has become a superstar to young Oscar, who watched intently each time Clifton took his seat behind the piano. Around the corner in the dressing rooms, you can hear soft giggles as 15-year-old Kiarra Saito-Beckman and 17-year-old Taiga Ultan, who only met a few short days ago, recount their performances on the stage. Over the stage monitor beats the super cool rhythm of Christopher O’Riley’s break piece, a version of Aphex Twin’s produk 29 [101], which is being performed by Christopher, joined by alum Marcelina Suchocka and her all-girl percussion ensemble “Excelsis.” These From the Top musicians have had an amazing week in Washington, DC, filled with musician-to-musician interactions that are the start of new friendships.

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The recording of From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley, presented by Washington Performing Arts, was the final event in a week-long residency in Washington, DC, sponsored by The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The recording lauded the 15-year anniversary of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and celebrated our ten-year partnership – which has resulted in over $2 million in scholarships for amazing young musicians with financial need. All of the performers on this show received From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship to be used on instruments, lessons, travel, or other essentials needed to further their musical education.

The whole experience began at a middle school half an hour away from George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday, October 21. There, the performers met face-to-face for the first time in the auditorium at River Bend Middle School in Loudon County, Virginia. They gathered around From the Top’s education program staff to see videos of how some of From the Top’s alumni are taking their music beyond the concert hall. Inspired, they got down to business, planning and rehearsing an assembly that they would present to the seventh and eighth grade students the next morning. They practiced what they thought they might say to the young audience before turning to the school’s teachers for advice, who smiled and told them “Be yourself.” As they made their way back to Washington, DC, the performers were ready.

FromtheTopDC 76The next morning, the fresh-faced bunch performed their assembly to thunderous applause. The performers made their way into the audience to greet their new fans. High fives were given generously and grins adorned each performer’s face. As the last audience member made their way out the door, the young musicians peeled off into a row of classrooms where eighth grade music students would visit for mini-master classes with From the Top’s mini-masters.

FromtheTopDC 17In the band room, Marcelina selected kids to play the marimba, shakers, and wood blocks, while she laid down a groove on the congas. Next door, Clifton gave the kids a lesson in networking usually reserved for young professionals, “Be kind, be assertive, and be yourself” he told them. Kiarra used Bach to demonstrate how classical music employs repetition, as popular music does. And finally, Taiga and Oscar encouraged students to explore how the experience of listening to classical music changed when they were lying down, or facing the wall, or doing anything but sitting quietly in a normal concert hall.

This day of outreach was a huge learning opportunity for our performers. Asked to speak for a group of donors later on in the week, Kiarra told us that she wouldn’t have known how to tell her story prior to the education experience with From the Top.

But that was only the beginning. They still had to record an episode of the most popular weekly one-hour classical music program on public radio. Now that they had planned and presented such an involved program for such a discerning audience – middle-schoolers! – this team of performers had experience and confidence that would support them in their From the Top radio recording.

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You can hear their show the week of November 17, by listening on your local station, downloading the podcast, or streaming the show at www.fromthetop.org.

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

Exploring Arts Leadership with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA

On July 16, we recorded a show with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA (NYOUSA). Our friends at Carnegie Hall bring this orchestra of amazing young musicians together each summer, and the result is pretty incredible. (You can listen to the show here, if you’d like. We highly recommend it!) The next day, From the Top staff took the entire orchestra through our Arts Leadership Workshop, led by Director of Education & Community Partnerships, Linda Gerstle. We asked Linda to share some of her favorite moments.

PS: It’s worth noting that normally, a From the Top Arts Leadership Workshop has less than 20 young musicians involved. This time, there were a few more.

NYOUSA Arts Leadership Workshop July 2014
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REQUIEM! Classical Music is Dying in America!

120 members of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA debated this with conviction – from strongly agree to strongly disagree with shades of gray in between. A chorus of voices engaged with the big issues at play in their world – what it means to take it beyond the concert hall as 21st century musicians, how an orchestra can be a resource to a community – an apt illustration of the overall tone of the arts leadership workshop for Carnegie Hall’s NYOUSA.

Orchestra member (and From the Top alum) Audrey Chen summed it up best:

It was amazing seeing everyone speak out and voice their opinions. The whole orientation really went so far to show that all of us can not only play great music but can also communicate our ideas really well!

Exploring the ways music can transform lives – as individuals, small and large ensembles – was viewed from many perspectives, using an array of From the Top alumni examples. Whether raising dollars to benefit a rare blood disease like alum Stephanie Block, or mobilizing an entire community to address the gap in musical opportunities across a district’s schools like alum Thomas West, it was inspiring to watch pre-collegiate musicians tell their stories to empower others. Michael Dahlberg, an alum of the radio show and now a member of From the Top’s education team, narrated his personal journey, helping the audience to define their own version of success for themselves, envisioning the possibilities in their lives.

NYOUSA Arts Leaders at work

This workshop was just the beginning; with outreach opportunities built into the five week NYOUSA tour schedule, each participant was asked to take a question or thought from the orientation that they wanted to explore throughout the course of the tour. One of From the Top’s primary goals for the arts leadership workshop was to leave orchestra members feeling as excited and curious about the opportunities outside the concert hall as those that lie within. Many expressed an eagerness to take a next step – and we look forward to showcasing their leadership moments that we know will inspire current and future audiences.

In the meantime, check out the incredible array of thoughtful responses to a simple question:

“Music has the power to…?”

 

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In addition, here are some other quotes from the participants about the arts leadership workshop:

One of the highlights for me from the From the Top workshop was definitely the emphasis put on thinking outside the box… I think the whole workshop was very eye-opening for a lot of us.”
–Lily Honigberg

“I have always had the general idea that I wanted to use music to create positive change in the world, and the orientation helped bring focus to my ideas… A lot of what my colleagues said I had not considered yet, in examining the question, and I was glad to broaden my understanding of something so key in what I am choosing to do with my life… There was a lot of variation in how the material was presented, and we were all engaged.”
–Josephine Stockwell

[the orientation] really left a strong impression on me, and also got me thinking about what I could begin to do in college, and how I could build upon and put into action the big and small ideas I previously had on this topic of community engagement for artists.”
–Soyeong Park

 

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PS: Editor’s Note – It’s pretty clear that classical music is alive and well thanks to these young people.

Notes from Aspen

Well, there’s no doubt that being in a place as gorgeous as Aspen gets the creative juices flowing. I mean, really, how can you not feel inspired when this is your view?

Mountains, pond, Aspen

Tonight (8/3/14), we’ll record a show of From the Top with host Christopher O’Riley. We’ll feature a host of incredibly talented musicians who are here at the Aspen Music Festival and School. Seriously, these kids will blow you away with their talent, and we’ll tell you more about them later on.

But today, what strikes me the most about this experience is being poised on the edge of something, and I don’t mean all the cliffs around here. We are surrounded by young people, at the top of their musical game, who are experiencing the ultimate training and music-making experience. And we grown ups are smack in the middle of the swirl of energy and potential, pondering how best to help these incredible young people bring their talents and viewpoints to a larger audience.

The folks from the “What Would Beethoven Do?” documentary crew have been following us around, asking us all kinds of questions about why classical music is relevant, how we can bring more people to it..all those questions that those of us in the classical music field tackle on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, we’re finding that the young musicians have some incredible answers.

Just a few moments ago, we heard flute player and From the Top alum Anthony Trionfo talk to the documentary crew about his experiences as a young musician.

Anthony Trionfo interviewed

Anthony, age 19, already a teacher and a young philosopher who believes that “music is about healing”, is full of ideas and thoughts on how classical music can make life better. Here’s my favorite quote of his, when he was asked how musicians can help bring more people to classical music. “We can play in parks, anywhere,” he says. “The world is (our) concert hall.”

Right now, 16-year-old cellist Lucy Ticho is telling us of her love for movie soundtracks, and how, when she’s in an angsty mood, she likes to listen to Shostakovich; it lifts her up. “Imagine if everyone had that,” she says. “Imagine if they could use classical music to change their mood.”

For anyone who has doubts about the intelligence and compassion of young people today, I wish you could be here with us, listening to these kids. They are inspiring, energetic, and thoughtful. Luckily, you can hear them on the week of October 6 on the radio, on our website, or via our podcast.

Arts Leadership Plans from the Performers from Show 280, Wingate, North Carolina

Each of the performers on Show 280 attended an Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop, where they explored their own personal leadership pathways. Learn how they are taking their music beyond the concert hall in their own communities:

Hannah Wang is reigniting an idea that she tabled in the fall. She plans to bring together local musicians for a jam session and instrument petting zoo at a local park or school in the spring or summer.

Clara Gerdes wrote us an email about her plans to visit a local assisted living facility:

“For an arts outreach activity, I would like to organize some friends and acquaintances with whom I often sing and play instruments to do a few informal concerts at a nursing home early next month.  We would present a variety of different styles of music, from classical to folk, and include some familiar songs the residents could sing along to–this is something I’ve noticed elderly people often really respond to and enjoy.  Also, I would like to go in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s; many places seem to get a lot of attention before but not right after the holidays. ”

Qing Yu Chen will be organizing a visit to a retirement home in New York City in the springand she hopes to involve other From the Top Alumni. Currently in the initialn planning stages, she is thinking over the goals and gameplan for her project as well as brainstorming the resources she would need to make it happen.

Olivia Staton has jumped into her own arts leadership projects since the taping. Through the music honor society at her school, she began assisting with an after-school music program in a local elementary school. The program, called Bridges, provides group music lessons and ensemble rehearsals. Recently, she demonstrated flute and assisted with one of their band rehearsals, and she envisions extending the program to other area elementary schools.

She said of the experience: “Until From the Top I had not really realized the significance of promoting classical music, and I had not really thought about what I could do to help, but now I am so excited to be doing more arts leadership activities.  Especially since there are opportunities for me to do so in my neighborhood!”

Olivia also performed in a student recital at a retirement home and took the lead in initiating an engaging conversation after the performance when everyone was afraid to speak. Following the performance, she said, “the audience seemed very engaged and happy to speak with all of the musicians and then they asked if we would be able to come back to give another recital!”

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.

Alum Devon Naftzger’s Profound Musical Experience in Vietnam

Vietnam was the unlikely location where violist and Princeton Sophomore Devon Naftzger (Show 256) of Lincolnshire, IL had a profound musical experience brought about when she played her viola for a classroom of Vietnamese students. This past summer, Devon participated in a three-week program called Coach For College which brought her to southwestern Vietnam and the rural village of Hoa An located in the Mekong River Delta region.

Devon performs for students in Vietnam, modeling how hard work can pay off in the long run.

Devon performs for students in Vietnam, modeling how hard work can pay off in the long run.

Devon taught everything from English to volleyball at a Vietnamese summer day camp where kids studied academics and sports. At the end of the day she loved teaching what they called a “Life Skills” class.

“I loved incorporating playing my viola into my teaching,” Devon recalled. “The Vietnamese children had never heard any stringed instrument played live and they had never attended a music concert. A lot of children worked in the rice fields with their parents when they weren’t at school, so none of my students had the time or money to pursue hobbies like music. We had a rowdy group of kids who were getting to the fun age where they like to challenge authority, but everything changed the week I brought out my instrument. They were completely silent because they were so intrigued to hear me play, and I gained so much respect after I played for them.”

In her Life Skills class, Devon launched a discussion on the topic of “setting little goals to achieve big dreams.” They discussed the perseverance and dedication it takes to reach those goals, especially when you have setbacks. “ I thought this topics related perfectly to my experience with music, so I did a little demonstration. The older Vietnamese college students, fluent in English, translated.  “You can’t just pick up a violin for the first time and expect to play the toughest concerto right away,” I explained. “Instead you have to start with baby steps and pick up different techniques through easier pieces.”  To demonstrate she played the first piece she performed when she was 5 years old: ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.’

“I explained that I started learning classical music, but had to take it slowly. I played Bach’s Transcribed Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude. They ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’.  Next I played a movement that was a little faster, telling them that I had to learn all kinds of different bow strokes and finger patterns before I could learn a piece that incorporated many of them: Paganini’s La Campanella.  After playing them a showy passage from Preludium and Allegro (which I performed on From the Top Show 256) I told them that after you’ve put in all the hard work, then you can play things simply because they are fun.  I finished with a fiddle tune, which they danced to excitedly.”

Devon also described how many hours a day she spends practicing, and how many years she’s played without giving up. She told them about competitions she lost which crushed her. “I turned those losses into a positive motivator that made me want to practice harder,” Devon shared. “That resulted in winning some competitions, achieving my dream of performing at Carnegie Hall, and getting into Juilliard. And it was all because I started slowly all the way back at ‘Twinkle Twinkle’!”

Back at Princeton this fall, Devon plays in the Princeton University Orchestra and last year she participated in a string quartet as well.

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