It’s 7:30 AM on a Monday morning at the Columbia Campus of Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Kids grades K-8 have filed into the gymnasium for their usual morning meeting. Sitting in rows with backpacks and coats still on, they suddenly hear a saxophone above them play, “Oh When the Saints, Go Marching In…” The song continues with violin, melodica, cello, and voice as four teenagers come on stage to join the saxophonist above them in the crow’s nest.
Surprise concert at the Columbia Campus. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham
This was the kick-off to From the Top’s residency at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, an elementary school located on multiple campuses in the Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods of the City of Boston. The residency was comprised of a series of assemblies and concerts at three of the school’s four campuses, bringing the power of music to 1,000 kids.
Chad Lilley kicks off the assembly. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham
Thanks to a grant provided by the Free for All Concert Fund, From the Top was thrilled to visit this school in our hometown, especially since the school is so committed to music education. 600 Pope John Paul II students participate in an after-school string program. From the Top’s visit with five performers from our October 6 radio taping at NEC’s Jordan Hall served to inspire this school full of budding musicians to embrace music and keep practicing.
Mary Swanton, Music Director at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, opened the assemblies by telling her students that the From the Top performers left her speechless!
Performers following their radio show taping at NEC’s Jordan Hall on October 6.
The interactive assemblies drew inspiration from the stories and talents of our From the Top performers – 17-year-old saxophonist Chad Lilley from Olney, Maryland; 17-year-old cellist Lev Mamuya from Newton Highlands, Massachusetts; 16-year-old pianist Niu Niu from China but now living in Natick, Massachusetts; 17-year-old mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosio from San Francisco, California; and 16-year-old violinist Yuki Beppu from Lexington, Massachusetts.
Students imagined what colors and images they heard in Lev’s performance of a Debussy Cello Sonata – purple, black, red, and rainbows.
What do you imagine? Photo by Caitlin Cunningham
They chose sound effects for Chad to play on the saxophone from a long striped hat – such as circular breathing, playing two notes at once, and slap tongue. Watch the game here:
Yuki shared her dream of making more kids listen to classical music and after an intense performance of Ysaÿe, she played her violin along with a track of Lady Gaga’s “Applause” to the delight of the dancing and cheering audience.
Singing along with Lady Gaga. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham
Olivia joined a middle school chorus from Pope John Paul II’s Mattapan campus in a performance of Beyonce’s “Halo” and then led the entire audience in a round of vocal exercises.
Niu Niu shared how hard it was to move to the United States from China and then had jaws dropping as he played Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude.
Niu Niu commented that “Watching all these kids in schools laughing and screaming and their happy facial expressions when listening to the music was amazing.”
Photo by Caitlin Cunningham
Check out how some of the students got into the music here:
The day long residency was every bit a learning experience for our From the Top performers as it was for the students at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy and provided a very real set of challenges and opportunities for their Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop.
“One of our main goals at our experience at PJPII was to inspire the students with music and share our love for it. I think all of us were really looking forward to seeing how they would react to our assemblies, and what they took away from the whole experience,” says Yuki. “However, something I took away from the outreach was confidence and to embrace spontaneity. When we got there, we were all forced to be somewhat spontaneous and throw ourselves out there like a pebble into a pond, and just watch the ripples forming. This applied to both the musical portion and the speaking portion as well. But with the energy of the kids and their enthusiasm, my hesitation and worries completely disappeared. So all in all, I think not only did the kids benefit from what we did, but we as performers benefited greatly as well. This was a very mutual experience, and something I will never forget.”
You can hear Chad, Lev, Yuki, Niu Niu, and Olivia in their From the Top radio episode the week of November 18.
From the Top performers with PJPII leaders.
Learn more about the Free for All Concert Fund.
Check out our photo gallery.
Our alumni didn’t spend their summer vacations catching rays on beaches, they were far too busy making waves of their own. From major awards to music videos, here is what our alumni did on summer break:
Pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, who appeared on Show 240 in Boston, Massachusetts, joins a number of other distinguished From the Top alums such as Conrad Tao, George Li, and Charlie Albright to receive a Gilmore Young Artist Award.
“The Gilmore Young Artist Award is presented every two years to single out the most promising of the new generation of U.S. pianists, age 22 and younger. Nominations are made by music professionals from around the world, and an anonymous selection committee evaluates the nominees over a period of time. Candidates for the Award are unaware that they are under consideration. Each Gilmore Young Artist receives a $15,000 stipend to further their musical career and educational development, as well as $10,000 to commission a new piano composition for which the artist will have exclusive performance rights for one year. ” Read more about the award here.
From the Top alumni made an impressive showing in the concerto competitions at Aspen Music Festival and School this summer. William Hagen (Show 194, Buffalo, New York) won the Dorothy DeLay Fellowship; Hannah Cho (Show 209, Waimea, Hawaii) won the Violin Concerto Competition; Qi Kong (Show 218, Ames, Iowa) took top prize in the Piano Concerto Competition; Austin Huntington (Show 239, Ocean City, New Jersey) won the Low Strings Concerto Competition; and Fabiola Kim (Show 158, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) received top prize in the AACA Violin Concerto Competition, while Tengku Irfan (Show 267, Boston, Massachusetts) won the AACA Piano Concerto Competition.
Eleven From the Top alumni joined Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra in its inaugural year and performed in Washington, D.C., Moscow, St. Petersburg, and London. They are: Erika Gray (Show 262, Greensburg, Pennsylvania), Nora Doyle (Show 270, Athens, Georgia), Amy Semes (Show 239, Ocean City, New Jersey; Show 246, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Annie Wu (Show 263, Davis, California), Eric Goldberg (Show 206, Dallas, Texas; Show 244, Kalamazoo, Michigan; Show 271, New Albany, Ohio), Annika Jenkins (Show 234, Virginia Beach, Virginia), Demi Fang (Show 239, Ocean City, New Jersey), Sean Byrne (Show 252, Chattanooga, Tennessee), Elizabeth Sperry (Show 240, Boston, Massachusetts), Jacob Mezera (Show 214, Iowa City, Iowa; Show 238, Chicago, Illinois), and Tanner Jackson (Show 214, Iowa City, Iowa). Demi Fang even blogged about her experience, check out her post here.
Annie Wu (who provided the photo to the right) said of the experience: “NYO was completely incredible down to the last details,. They took such great care of us, giving us the best training from principal members of major orchestras, planning our whole trip, and giving us the time of our lives. Playing under Maestro Valery Gergiev was unbelievable. To be under such mastery, musical originality, and energy really gave our new orchestra the vitality it needed. Also, playing principal flute on the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 was something I’ll never forget. All of my fellow musicians were so talented and supportive and each concert kept getting better and better until our final one at the BBC Proms in Royal Albert Hall, which seated around 7,000!”
Austen Yueh (Show 269, Mesa, Arizona) spent the summer at Google’s Computer Science Summer Institute at Mountain View, California. Her team worked on a small web application which allows you to record music or lecture notes or other audio directly in the browser, then play back, download, or share. This fall, she’ll begin her freshman year at MIT, where she plans to continue studying and performing clarinet.
Wickliffe Simmons (Show 270, Athens, Georgia) spent the summer making this amazing music video with a group of contemporary dancers. He recorded every sound in the video with his cello, including percussion and bass lines. He says, “A lot of the inspiration to do this definitely stemmed from the Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop I did with From the Top – I started working on this almost immediately after being on From the Top.”
By Jingxuan Zhang
On Show 132 in Boston, Neara Russell wowed the From the Top audience with her amazing versatility. During the taping, she accompanied at the piano a piece she composed for voice, “Lemonade Pie.” At 17, Neara was already showing mastery over not only the infinite possibilities associated with the keyboard, but also the ethereal qualities of the human voice. Thus, it did not come as a shock when Christopher O’Riley interviewed her and found out that she also plays bass clarinet, xylophone, and sings… and that she has a penchant for popular music. From the Top cemented Neara’s conversion from classical to popular by setting her up to study with famous composer John Corigliano, who encouraged her to combine her classical and contemporary styles.
Now 25 and a rising pop artist in Los Angeles, Neara divulged to me her secret: “Having a diverse set of skills has made my success as a musician.” After I pondered upon the full implications of that statement, I realized that it’s not only her diverse set of skills that became the foundation of success, but the flexibility and adaptability that inevitably develops with it. Being a musician is hard, especially in LA, where everyone is competing tooth and nail for a piece of the market, the proverbial pie. And Neara has her foot in the door, drawing upon her eclectic background to improve her own music.
She started out as a session musician as a member of the Backliners. If you don’t know what session musicians do, they are the often-ignored musicians at the back of the stage, supporting the star at the front, except for recording sessions. The under-appreciated always reminds me of an insight by the acclaimed physicist Richard Feynman:
I have a friend who’s an artist. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘I can see how beautiful this is, and you as a scientist take it all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.’ Although I’m not quite as aesthetically refined as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions, which also has a beauty. It’s not just beauty at one dimension; there’s also beauty at a smaller dimension…. Science and knowledge only adds to the excitement, mystery, and awe of a flower – it only adds! I don’t understand how it subtracts.
Humble yet neglected, Neara nevertheless internalized all the ensemble spontaneity required of session musicians. They need to be flexible to the demands of the main artist and attentive to the sound they produce, in order to blend or “camouflage” themselves to the unique style of the artist. This is a classic example of the product being greater than the sum of its parts. Many think that melody is king; however, Neara quickly learned that “No one is ahead or subservient to the other. The flower is truly breathtaking, even more so because of its cells and processes.”
Armed with diversity, Neara experimented with the holistic recording process by producing, engineering, composing, playing, and singing – by herself – an original album called Noise and Silence. One can hear a seamless amalgamation of different compositional techniques, from her strong background in piano to electronic elements. As her first album, one can definitely see that her style is not at full maturity; however, her potential and talent shine through tracks like “Look for Something” and the eponymous “Noise and Silence.”
Check out the tracks I mentioned on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/noise-and-silence/id432545894. Look forward to a second album, in the planning, with this teaser song, “Get Happy.”
As the thunder subsided and the rainclouds parted high above the Aspen Music Festival grounds on August 4, a phenomenal double rainbow appeared over Harris Concert Hall, just as the last ticket-buyers were hurrying in to the hall to see From the Top’s live taping.
Thanks to generous support from the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, From the Top took up residency at the Aspen Music Festival and School earlier this month with a whirlwind of activities, including auditions, an alumni picnic, a live radio taping, an arts leadership orientation workshop and outreach event, and special events for our donors and board members. Every summer, hundreds of serious young musicians from across the United States, including approximately 60 From the Top alumni, come to Aspen to immerse themselves in their musical studies, making a natural setting for our continued collaborations with Aspen Music Festival.
Shortly after arriving in the beautiful mountain village, our recruitment team immediately set up for a full day of auditions. We saw some of the stars of tomorrow’s From the Top episodes!
Later that day, we met up with the performers who would be appearing on our taping on Sunday for a pizza party and music rehearsal. This show featured eight performers, including four alumni who have graced From the Top stages before – which made for a particularly rousing and fun music rehearsal and pizza party on Saturday night. Adria Ye’s mom Rui Wang even noted that this was her third pizza party with us!
Left, Sterling Elliott (Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist), 14, rehearses the third movement, Introduction: Andante – Allegro Vivace from the Cello Concerto in D minor by Édouard Lalo.
More than 50 From the Top alumni, parents, board members, and supporters gathered for a picnic lunch on Sunday, including soprano Lauren Criddle, now age 30, who was featured on our very first show, taped at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1999, as well as 13-year-old violinist Maya Buchanan who will appear on our next taping in Vermillion, South Dakota. It was our third time hosting an alumni gathering while in Aspen.
Above, alumni pose for a picture at the picnic.
Then it was time to rehearse and tape our radio show in Aspen Music Festival’s Harris Hall. This was our third show in Aspen in six years and we were thrilled when the enthusiastic audience erupted in thunderous applause for each of the performances.
Left, Colton Peltier performs “Feux Follets” from Transcendental Etude No.5 in B-flat major by Franz Liszt.
The next day, the show performers took part in an Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop, conducted by our Education and Outreach department. The kids were led through a variety of exercises to help them discover the myriad leadership pathways open to them as artists.
Above, performer Jiacheng Xiong’s Leadership Portrait from the Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop.
Later that day, they had a chance to put what they had learned into action when they performed a surprise pop-up performance at the playground of the Yellow Brick School for the students at the Early Learning Center.
Left, Sterling Elliott, Austin Huntington, and Haruno Sato with the kids from the Early Learning Center in Aspen.
That evening, a reception in support of From the Top was held at the Aspen home of Lynda and Doug Weiser, who hosted along with Cathy and Peter Halstead and From the Top Director Elaine LeBuhn and her husband Robert. More than 50 of our friends and donors enjoyed performances by alumni 12-year-old pianist Avery Gagliano, 19-year-old cellist Nathan Chan, 20-year-old violinist Nora Scheller, and host Christopher O’Riley. Guests included From the Top Overseer Kate Bermingham, Tom and Vivian Waldeck, and 19-year-old alum Colton Peltier.
Right, hosts Lynda & Doug Weiser, Elaine LeBuhn, and Peter & Cathy Halstead at the reception.
See more pictures from the weekend here.
Be sure to tune in to hear the Aspen episode the week of September 16!
“…being an arts leader means teaching some of what you have learned as an arts student, so that the passion for learning about the arts is ignited and to show that education in the arts has a reason to continue.”
After appearing on our now-famous Boston blizzard taping this past February, soprano and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Tatum Robertson, 17, shared her passion for opera with kids in her hometown of New Orleans, LA. Read about her experience below:
Why did you choose this project?
For my outreach project I decided to teach solfege, and to show how the lyrics to opera are very similar to the lyrics of many popular songs. I presented my outreach project to the kids of Camp Impact, which is my church’s summer camp…because I wanted to introduce opera and aspects of classical music to children who never had the opportunity to learn about this.
What did you include in your presentation?
I presented my project in two 10-minute segments. The first segment, I introduced myself as a classical vocalist, and that I would be teaching them solfege. I taught them that solfege is used to help musicians sight read and that sight-reading helps musicians to be able to pick up any piece of music and play it rather quickly. Next, I went through the solfege syllables with them as they repeated after me. Then I showed them the hand signs that corresponded with the solfege syllables. To finish off the first segment we sung a “D “major scale together.
For the second segment of the presentation, I talked to the older children of the group. I began that segment of my presentation by asking them what type of music they listened to, and what the music they listened to was about. They gave responses like gospel, R & B, Hip-Hop, and Pop.
I explained to them that I would be showing them a favorite Italian opera song called “Libiamo” from an opera called La Traviata. After showing them a video of Anna Netreko singing “Libiamo” I showed them the English translation to “Libiamo”. I then explained to the children that classical music talks about all the same things as the music they listen to – that opera has love songs and party songs. And since some of them mentioned they liked Rihanna I told them that “Libiamo” is a party song like the party songs Rihanna makes. Lastly, I told them that now they can enjoy opera the way they enjoy their favorite music, and that all they have to do is look up the translation of the opera song they want to listen to
as they watch or listen to the song. To close the presentation, I asked if any of them had questions, and they asked to see a video of me singing. I showed them a video, but they wanted more and asked me to sing “in person”. Before I sang, “Give me Jesus,” I told them that there are songs about Jesus in classical music as well.
What impact do you think this had on the students?
After I finished my presentation the kids all returned to their classes separated by age. I was happy to hear the children excitedly departing trying to sing opera. As the parents started to come in to pick up the children many of the children kept pointing at me saying “Mommy she taught us opera today!” Also, the next day one of the teachers at the camp was teaching the children a gospel song, and the kids asked her if she could teach them opera. I was very pleased with the children’s responses and reception to my presentation as I got them excited to learn more about classical music -opera in particular.
What did you learn from this experience?
Through my presentation, I learned that children are extremely impressionable and that when you enthusiastically present something to them, they respond with enthusiasm. I also learned that if you relate something children enjoy to the information you are teaching, the children are more likely to pay attention and be captivated.
What does being an arts leader mean to you?
The children’s response to my presentation really showed me what it means to be an arts leader. They showed me that being an arts leader means sharing what you do with others in the community, and displaying what has inspired you to do what you do because the community cares and is excited by exposure and opportunities. Lastly, they showed me that being an arts leader means teaching some of what you have learned as an arts student, so that the passion for learning about the arts is ignited and to show that education in the arts has a reason to continue.
Conrad TaoPhoto 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.
Nathan Chan, 19
by Jingxuan Zhang, From the Top Alumni Correspondent
Talking with Nathan Chan is a jarring reminder that I can still have hope in humanity – all I hear about is love, acceptance, and community. And String Theory, a five-cello student ensemble Nathan founded in the autumn of 2011, is the fruit of that passion. An undergraduate studying in the prestigious joint program between Columbia University and The Juilliard School, 19-year-old Nathan Chan made his appearance on From the Top on Show 207 in Stanford, California in 2009. There are very few classical musicians willing to venture into the world of popular music, but in an age which has witnessed classical music’s losing steam to the mainstream, Nathan decided to reach a wider audience with String Theory’s innovative arrangements of hits such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Viva la Vida.”
Because String Theory performs works newly arranged by members of the group, the pieces do not find their final form from the start. Thus, all rehearsals demand creativity, flexibility, and teamwork, or as Nathan puts it, “verbal rearrangement.” To ensure the quality of music, they carefully engage with it by polishing the texture and refining musical layers during the run through, working and editing along the way. And the group’s commitment to the caliber of output is just a microcosm of its mission to engage more people and share their passion for music. Nathan says, “Playing [in String Theory] has taught me to be an open thinker in terms of being a musician. I’m beginning to understand what modern audiences are looking for and enhance classical music with that knowledge.”
Nathan embraces what are now perceived as different categories of music, transcending the boundaries between classical and popular: “We make it so that all kinds of music are accessible to as many people as possible, so that music becomes less exclusive, and more community-oriented.” And isn’t the exclusivity of classical music why popular music is, well, popular? Behind the formidable fence of concert halls and suited attires, the younger generation has been estranged from centuries of tradition. Nathan is actively trying to break down barriers and invite the modern audience into his world of music without losing musical integrity. On his YouTube page, one can see Bach cello suites juxtaposed to Coldplay or The Swan neighboring Libertango. This diversity allows the audiences who enjoy mainstream to expose themselves to classical and vice versa. For Nathan, his YouTube channel’s contents are not merely video recordings, but continuations of live performances, for they continue to give music and spread joy to those who want it, anytime. As he phrases it, “Social media is a key way to reaching out to as many people as possible.”
He has learned a lot in this journey, which in a way started with his appearance on From the Top: “What impressed me most is how From the Top emphasized that music is really a community, and one has to foster it.” And foster he has. Quickly becoming one of the most popular student ensembles at Columbia University, String Theory established itself as one of the best and most popular ensembles on campus, being invited to collaborate with various campus organizations and student composers. Nathan Chan and String Theory surely have earned their name as “Columbia University’s Premiere Cello Ensemble.”
For more information on Nathan, visit nathanchancello.com. Listen to his musical journey at youtube.com/nathanchancello. And finally, follow him at twitter.com/nathanchancello.
Update: Nathan recently performed on behalf of From the Top at two events in Aspen: an event hosted by From the Top radio sponsor U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management at the Aspen Ideas Festival; and a From the Top soiree in conjunction with a radio taping at the Aspen Music Festival and School.
“As a young artist and leader, I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to inspire and connect with the public through classical music.”
After appearing on Show 263 in Davis, California, with The Angeles Trio, 19-year-old violinist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Kristina Zlatereva created a powerful musical experience for students at the St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Monica, California. Read her beautifully written account of the experience below:
Music — the Gateway to Eternity
by Kristina Zlatareva
Albert Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” As a young artist and leader, I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to inspire and connect with the public through classical music. Art is a universal language, whose impact endorses every individual’s ideas, regardless of their cultural background, socioeconomic status, age or personal beliefs. Art abolishes class and race, and in its essence is hidden the idea of universal validation of every human’s imagination, no matter how different and unconventional it may seem in the eyes of society. Inspired by Einstein’s words, I decided to dedicate my Arts Leadership Project to working with children, and that led me to the music students of the St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Monica, California.
A K-8 school, St. Anne consists of more than 200 students from which the majority come from low-income families, who cannot afford to make art their children’s priority. The 40 music students whom I met with are so-called “lucky,” because they are permitted by the school and their parents to participate in the music program. Although they have an advantage to have music classes at their school, I found out that for them sitting in a classroom with eight to ten other kids for one-hour music sessions deprives them of individual attention which is needed to unlock their talent and potential. For many of the St. Anne students, learning an instrument seems like another ordinary activity at school.
Witnessing this, I decided to organize an informal event, where the children did not have to feel obliged to sit quietly and listen to music which they cannot understand, but where they could have their voices heard and opinions valued. Together with three of my musician friends, I performed a concert, including pieces for violin, piano, and cello from different classical periods.
Before each performance we talked about the different composers and history of every piece and at the end we opened a discussion, where the students had the opportunity to share their individual comments — what they liked or disliked about the music, how it made them feel or what it made them think about. Lupita, a violin student, shared her honest opinion about the beginning of Chopin’s Prelude No. 15, Op. 28: “It’s like I could see a million bubbles floating in the sky. However, I liked it only until the loud part started in the middle. It should have been quieter all the way through, don’t you think?” How funny, I thought, that Chopin gave “Raindrop” as the title to the Prelude and Lupita imagined flying bubbles; and it was not coincidental, because music inspired a connection between a child’s imagination and an adult’s artistic vision. Despite the different eras they lived in and the differences in age and knowledge, I think Lupita felt the music the same way Chopin did. So, here is a proof that art is timeless — be it a painting, a poem, or a musical piece, it carries an eternal message that never alters throughout the ages.
I learned from the St. Anne students more than I could have ever imagined. They inspired me to see music in a simpler way, in a purer form, based solely upon human feelings. They reminded me that music is not always meant to be theoretically analyzed and critically evaluated, but its main purpose is to bring joy and emotional freedom to people. The main idea behind my project was not to teach dates or facts about composers and pieces, but to show that music and its power to give freedom can be trusted. I hope that the children will use it in the future as a tool for discovering inspiration and expanding their imagination. I truly hope that they will use music as their ally where words are powerless to resist the circumstances.
I have learned that in this material world, so fragile and filled with uncertainties, there is nothing more comforting than to know that music exists for the purpose of giving abundance to one’s soul and lifting one’s spirit. I have learned that music gives wings to the human imagination, thus breaking the boundaries of reality and allowing one’s dreams and ideas to flourish and come to life.
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?
Jingxuan ZhangShow 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 Show 273 was taped at the historic Plaza Theater in El Paso, Texas in June 2013. Learn what the performers have to say about their musical performances and the experience of being on From the Top.
Lucy Sotak, 11, harp
Impromptu, Op.35, No.9 by Reinhold Glière
This piece was written by the Russian composer Reinhold Gliere. The Russian style of the piece brings images to my mind that relate to Russia. For example, the opening chords, which repeat later, sound like the entrance of the Czar and Czarina. I think one section sounds like Cossack dancers and another part sounds like pirouetting ballet dancers. One tranquil section reminds me of a gliding swan and soaring hawk. Before the recap, the piece builds in excitement, and I imagine a scene where the hawk is pursuing a pigeon and he finally overtakes his prey. This is my favorite part.
This is the most challenging piece I have learned so far. It is a required piece for the American Harp Society National Competition. There is a lot to think about while I am performing this piece; keeping it clean, getting the numerous pedal changes (in one place there are 13 pedal changes within two measures) and the dynamics. I hope the audience enjoys this piece as much as I enjoy playing it.
Post-Show Reflection: It was so fun to be a part of a From the Top show! I really enjoyed meeting the other musicians, all of the encouraging and helpful staff, and Christopher O’Riley. Seeing how the show was put together behind the scenes and on stage was a new and exciting experience for me. I was very nervous backstage before I performed, but once my interview began, I felt more relaxed.
Music has the power to change lives and bring people together.
David M. von Behren, 19, organ
Toccata from Suite Gothique, Op.25 by Léon Boëllmann
I love French organ music. The Toccata from Suite Gothique by Léon Boëllmann is special because of the imagery it invokes while I play this piece. I imagine Lake Michigan on a stormy day. Something is brewing in the horizon, a sea monster arises. Near the end of the piece, Chuck Norris comes out of NOWHERE and slays the savage sea monster and all peace is returned. The whole scene turns “triumphant” as the sun comes out on the last chord of the piece.
I absolutely love this piece because of what it offers to the listener. It is a piece that keeps you at the edge of your seat. One of the things I enjoy most about the piece are the dynamic contrasts, and the ending chord progressions are just so much fun. It is a very fun piece for the performer.
Andrew Moses, 13, clarinet
Concertino, Op.26 by Carl Maria von Weber
Of the entire clarinet repertoire, Weber’s Concertino has a special place in my heart. From the age of eight years old, I would listen to recordings of Stanley Drucker and the New York Philharmonic (under Zublin Mehta) performing this piece. This simple YouTube recording was something that helped fuel my passion for the clarinet at the time. It was only several years later when I began learning the piece.
Weber is a composer known for his outstanding operatic compositions. I feel that the slow introduction of the Concertino so greatly resembles the human voice. Its written in what many would agree is the most singing register of the clarinet. The piece begins in a minor key that cries out the emotions of longing despair. Only in the end of the introduction is this pain quietly set aside. The harmonic structure of this introduction, though, isn’t the only musical content that translates into emotions. The rhythmic layout is remarkable in its syllabic and almost linguistically comprehensive quality that it is quite sing-able. Often times, I put words to phrases in this beautiful and remarkable opening.
The piece continues with a theme, of which I imagine as a delightfully simple children’s song. The tune is so simple in its melodic phrasing that the proceeding variations fall so naturally in place. These variations really show off a lot of what the clarinet can do. Weber uses over three octaves of the instrument (the modern clarinet can almost hit four) in which he also marks in exhilarating staccato and trills. The piece, though, hits a turning point after the third variation. As you may remember, the somber mood of the introduction was never completely resolved. It was as if Weber swept it under the carpet only to be rediscovered in a section marked “Largo”. The largo section is written in the lowest register of the clarinet in which the music yet again moans with emotion, reiterating the pain (not literal!) of the introduction, though with even heavier content. All of this pain is finally resolved with a major chord in the ending of the Largo. Weber follows this success with a joyful and celebratory Allegro. This Allegro marks the final section of the piece, which finishes in an acrobatic, joyful, and declarative manner. Everything finally comes to a close through raging arpeggios and flying scales. I hope, as the performer, that the piece ends satisfyingly and the listener has been taken through an exciting and exhilarating journey.
When I perform this piece, I try to bring the listener through a journey (as I mentioned before). I hope to communicate the utmost emotional content of the introduction while, later, being able to play the variations with grace and joy. Most of all, I want to touch the listener. I hope that my performance of the piece will bring them inspiration, excitement, and passion. The difficult parts of this piece for me are the intonation in the introduction as the clarinet always tends to go flat in its bottom/lowest notes, and maintaining and even staccato in the variations. This piece hasn’t yet failed on bringing me, the performer, through a remarkable journey. This piece is especially unique in that it has both a beautiful introduction and acrobatic allegros and is still able to manage to come together as a whole. For this performance, we’ve cut the Largo and several variations due to time constraints.
Post-Show Reflection: I’ve watched and listened to From the Top my entire life, and listening to the show has always been such an amazing source of inspiration for me. It was almost unreal actually performing on From the Top alongside Mr. O’Riley. A total dream come true… and it was a blast!
I believe music has the power to immensely inspire our minds and bring joy to our hearts. Music brings people together regardless of their backgrounds and encourages passionate creativity. It’s a language we can all speak and create, and is something that can even break down barriers.
Wesley Yu, 16, violin
Polonaise Brillante No.1 in D major, Op.4 by Henryk Wieniawski
The thought that goes through my mind when I’m playing this piece is a sort of wild dance that gets crazier and crazier. I love this part towards the end that’s like a pumped up version of the original theme, and I get chills every single time I play it. I can’t really find any part in this piece that I don’t like, including the middle section with a slow theme, despite my strong desire for faster passages; perhaps the piano at this point keeps my adrenaline rush going. Speaking of dance, I once played this piece for a school play in fourth grade, where the scene was a medieval party. They were all dancing in circles with everything going according to the script and suddenly my violin went completely out of tune. Even now, when I see their reactions on the video of the play, I still think it’s hilarious.
This is a fast and energetic dance and definitely one of the most entertaining pieces in my repertoire as I am able to express myself freely by playing together with piano in such a varying tempo range. Compared to other pieces that I have played, this song allows for a lot more freedom to express my individuality. The most difficult thing is playing everything precisely while still maintaining the festive mood especially in the later parts of the piece. It is really easy to get carried away technically and then end up tearing through the whole thing. Making sure that this piece sounds and feels like a dance is the most important thing to remember, and in the end, all I do is just enjoy it!
Post-Show Reflection: My favorite experience during the weekend was the Arts Leadership Orientation. I still remember clearly how we all sat in a squared “U” at the conference table listening and interacting with each other about just what an Arts Leader is. At that moment I realized I was sitting in a room with some of the most amazing young musicians I had ever met. It was a surreal experience to be able to talk with all the other performers and discover that we are all similar at heart though we express ourselves in contrasting ways. The time we got to spend with each other was very inspirational, and I wish to meet many others like them in the future.
Getting to perform on From the Top with Christopher O’Riley was one of the greatest experiences ever, knowing that I had performed on that stage before, and now doing it again for a completely different event. Through the piece I went into my own little world of the Polonaise Brilliante, a joyful dance that I could not help but smile to. It took a while for my mind to catch up to reality, and by the time I was bowing I suddenly realized I was performing for the world. Knowing that this performance was going to be heard by over 700,000 people had greatly motivated me to do my best. I wanted it to be a performance of a lifetime, and it turned out to be much more as I had a giant grin on my face when I walked off stage.
In the past years, my exposure to music has taught me that music has the power to heal, to convey ideas, to connect with others and bring people together. Everyone has differing ideas and opinions about music, but usually we can find consolation in our favorite songs or a great performance that we see. Recently, I have discovered that it can also heal groups of people, it can unite beings from vastly different places and lifestyles. Music is the universal language that people can either listen to, or make, or both! Through the activities at From the Top, I realize that as musicians our job is to share what we know with others for the well-being of humanity itself. Many From the Top alumni have used their musical talents to go beyond the concert hall, to go the extra mile in music, and I hope everyone can do so as well.
Vuthithorn Chinthammit, 17, piano
Variations on a Theme by Paganini for Two Pianos by Witold Lutoslawski
When listening to this piece, I suggest listening to the Theme and see how it gets developed. It’s a Theme and Variations piece. There are many different characters in this piece. For example, the first variation has a character of violin-like. It reminds me of my friend who played this piece for me so many times.
The unique thing of this transcription is the way the composer uses the harmony. It’s very dissonant, interesting, and unique. This creates lots of new sound for performers like me to explore.
Julian Jenson, 17, piano
It’s a very tumultuous, chaotic onslaught of harmonic tension that is delineated by a profound lyrical break. I think of the artillery shells and Luftwaffe bomb strikes that the Germans used in their invasion of Poland in 1939, two years before this piece was written, whenever I play it. I think my favorite part is the Poco Lento middle section that breaks us away from the “battlezone” and allows the dust to clear with its contrary triads.
The most unique aspect of this music is I think the relationship between the accompanying lines and the melodic ideas. Lutoslawski retains the basic melodies of Paganini’s original capriccio, but spices them up with rhythmic and harmonic ideas that alone aren’t too revolutionary, but together are quite extraordinary. Not many pieces accomplish this as well as Lutoslawski’s arrangement.
Post show reflection: Certainly the flight to El Paso was a favorite memory of mine. It was my first flight ever, and it was an exhilarating experience. I recall looking out the window, like the dork I am, during that initial acceleration. It was one of the most mind-blowing things I’d ever seen. The funny thing to me is how others on the same flight—even my “twin,” In, —took for granted something I thought was incredible.
As I was introducing the piece In and I were about to play, I thought to myself, “this is an immense blessing.” When we walked to our pianos, I wasted no time in ensuring my seat was in order, and my hands had assumed the position. I patiently awaited In to look me in the eye, and once he did, we both knew that it was time to get the show on the road. Both of us had enough experience performing separately and together that it was a breeze. I know I certainly had fun; I imagine In did too. We had our rough spots, but we muscled through it and acted like nothing went wrong at all. Even as we had to fight our pianos in some places, we just let the adrenaline take its hold on us and the audience alike, seeing where we would go. As I pounded that last chord, I thought, “we done good.” It was the most fun I’d ever had onstage.
Music has the power to ignite passions in others. We saw this during the counter-culture of the 60s, where rock was an important medium through which ideas were spread, especially those of cultural and social change. I know that in me it ignites the passion to do something good for others, for the community, for the world. I want to use music in some way to make this a better place for all of us, if I can. I believe music also has the power to heal. I can speak again from my own personal experience that its influence in my life has helped me muscle through difficult financial, emotional, or spiritual times over the course of my days on Earth.
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