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From the Top alumni are speaking out about the state of orchestras today, emphasizing the value that these cultural institutions offer to their communities.

For Jingxuan Zhang it is a personal issue affecting his hometown of Indianapolis, while Stanford Thomson takes a look at American orchestras and provides some thought-provoking solutions to some of the issues at hand. They both to speak to the power of music in touching people’s lives and contributing to making our communities vibrant places to live and work.

From the Top alum Jingxuan Zhang, who received From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, has been moved to support his hometown orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Through a passionate Facebook post he asked his network to take action in helping the orchestra at this critical time. He writes:

Two weeks ago, my friend Eric Lawler made a simple request, for the lovers of music to stand up and take action against what can be called a crime against the community. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has been the forefront of the Indiana classical music scene since its founding over eighty years ago. And now, it is facing a crisis unlike any the orchestra had faced in previous years. With impending cuts, the orchestra may lose its prestige as one of the 18 American orchestras to perform year round. Furthermore, they also face severe personnel cuts. If nothing is done, close to half of the orchestra will be rid of: The full orchestral sound people have taken for granted, capable of anything from Beethoven to Mahler to Bruckner, will be gone. And that is the exact word, “gone,” because there’s no euphemism to make it sound nicer or prettier. A bird cannot sing its mating song with just half a voice, just as fish cannot swim with one measly fin. Don’t hold onto the illusion that we will be able to get the caliber of programming we are used to with half the orchestra laid off, and the other half performing “part time,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

And need I mention or iterate the importance of music? In a society in which beauty is lost to practicality, let me tackle this question through a more pragmatic point of view: How does practicing music make one a better person?

First, music leads to creativity and imagination. The music we hear are written down note by note by the composer, yet it is amazing how each performer can vary their interpretation within this confining framework. In a society in which creativity is recognized as an exemplary quality in the workplace, we should promote one of its greatest teachers.

Second, music leads to passion. That is something hard to discover, but there is a certain intensity about moving together with close to a hundred other people, feeling the same emotions, that amplifies passion and love, making it so much easier to manifest within us. One can experience a whole gamut of emotions while playing music, inspiring within us the sad, happy, giddy, joyous, depressed, hopeless, desperate, frustrated, envious, and majestic. And one needs the capacity to feel in life. These things makes us human and drives us forward.

Third, music leads to more dedication to details. One must agonize over the smallest details, and become one’s best teacher. Just as Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, said that the Forms can only be reachable in the realm of intelligible, music lies first and foremost in the mind, and our physical faculties only aim at that ideal sound. And this chasing of the “perfect” sound is what makes musicians so dedicated in their pursuit, listening to every note with care and executing each precise movement with absolutely controlled movements. In a field in which precision and control makes or breaks a piece of music, we cannot help but mull over each detail, so that we approach the sound of our imaginations.

People might ask, why so long a dissertation on the values of music, for a cause that is already so obvious? Well, to put it bluntly, it was not obvious to the people. My friend Eric, whom I mentioned in the very first paragraph asked for a simple favor: One short letter addressed to the ISO board telling of how orchestra has had an impact on your lives, sent to him so that he may compile together a long list of what hopefully are powerful messages in support of the orchestra. And guess how many he has received? One. From me. As a musician and a frequent listener of the ISO, I had to write this post as a reminder of all that is good in music, all that is worth saving in music. The ISO represents all of the ideals represented above, and they strive to pass it on to another generation of musicians. Every time I listen to a concert, not only do I hear the result of their creativity, passion, and dedication, but also see their physical manifestations, by their moving together, a perfect team of one.

As is common on Facebook, we show our support by liking a post. I do not want a single like on this post. I want more than a half-hearted click to show your support to a group of people that has done so much for the city of Indianapolis. Please, send your letters, addressed to the ISO Board, to Eric Lawler at eric.j.lawler@gmail.com.

Stanford Thomson is a musician and educator who is passionate about using music for social innovation and serves as the CEO for the El Sistema-inspired program, Play On, Philly! A trumpeter, Stanford appeared on From the Top as a member of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra when he was a teenager. He writes:

I believe that there are people out there that would be willing to invest in orchestras taking a more aggressive stance on proving their impact. Tomorrow’s healthiest orchestras, literally tomorrow’s, will rest on the foundation of building sustainable societies. How many more stories of another struggling orchestra do we need to hear until we shift our focus from “we play so good” to “we demand that our art (all those good notes) be dignified with the mission of creating better human beings, stronger communities, and sustainable societies”? With that mission, could we find those to invest in our survival?”

We have 110 kids in Play On Philly. Social scientists here estimate that we will spend at least $23 million on them before they’re dead. Or we can invest $2.2 million in them over a ten-year period and drastically increase their chances of graduating from high school… which would generate $99 million of taxable income before they’re dead. What about the 70,000 living at/below the poverty line or the 110,000 of them that will drop out of high school? Another group of social scientist from the University of Pennsylvania think our 110 kids could cost up to $39 million before they’re all dead taking into consideration the economical challenges they now face. So what if you gave them a violin and taught them everyday for 3 hours? Want to guess how many of them, based on rigorous research, have a high chance of avoiding the “trap”? 71%. What impact could professional orchestras have by providing this opportunity to those children and communities? What if we helped 500 kids? 1,000? 5,000? I think when you save cities hundreds of millions and produce billions in taxable income, people might write the tens of millions we need every year to stay vibrant, flexible, and relevant.

Read more.


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(credit: Michele Stapleton)

“[Teaching] is one of the most important and gratifying professions, and I plan on continuing my new-found passion!”

When violinist Gloria Ferry-Brennan appeared on our show this past February (Brunswick 247), she took us on a magical spoken tour of her hometown: the colorful and picturesque Whidbey Island (off the coast of Washington state). She also spoke about her teacher Linda Good (pictured below) who co-founded the island’s Suzuki music program Island Strings. This past summer, Linda asked Gloria to join her in teaching two local violin students who were unable to afford lessons on their own. Gloria worked with the two boys over the summer, capturing her experiences and learning in a personal journal. Not only did she grow as a teacher, but also as a performer – she shares one of her journal entries below:

I walked into Linda’s cozy home and saw a newspaper clipping on the wall about my appearance on From The Top. Two young boys followed me in: one was about 7 years old and had deep, dark brown eyes. Immediately I knew there was something special about him and that he would be a pleasure to teach. The younger one was a small delicate boy with loads of energy. He was enthusiastic about music and I could tell that he was a natural performer. We all got out our instruments and I showed them how I set up the violin and bow. This might seem like an easy task, but it took a lot of concentration to make sure I showed them the perfect technique. It has become rather second nature for me to set up my instrument. However, thinking about it made me more aware of what I was doing and how I could improve. Linda asked the students to try to copy me, and together we set them up just right. We sang little songs to help us remember how to hold the bow; songs that I had sung more than 10 years ago in that very same house. It was amazing to see how much I still remembered. It made me a little nervous to be teaching in front of my former teacher but I got the hang of it quickly and the nerves turned into enthusiastic excitement over the boys’ progress. The older boy was using a violin that was too big for him. His mother asked me if I thought this was a problem and I expressed my concern. I explained that comfort was one of the most important aspects of playing the violin and discomfort could cause injury later on in his life. After the lesson Linda asked me to play a few songs for the boys. They were very impressed and when I left that day I felt like I had reached my goal of inspiring them to make beautiful music. Later I got an email from the oldest boy’s mom telling me how I had made such an impression on her son and she said that he keeps talking about how “really, really, really, really good that girl at Linda’s house was at the violin!”

Stay tuned as we continue to follow Gloria’s teaching experiences with Linda and Island Strings! 


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The From the Top crew at the Great Wall International Music Academy in Beijing

Never would I have imagined when I joined From the Top over a decade ago, that there would come a day when our crew would travel all the way to China to tape our radio show, but earlier this summer, we had the amazing opportunity to tape not one, but two episodes of our radio show in the incredible city of Beijing!

As exciting as it was for all of us, taping our show outside of the U.S. posed some unique challenges. For example, we wanted to make sure the shows featured several native Chinese musicians (why else go all the way to China after all?) yet still produce the program for an American broadcast audience. While some of the young musicians were very comfortable speaking English, others were less familiar, so it was especially important for us to take extra steps to make sure everyone understood what was happening and felt totally comfortable. We also performed our show using a reduced stage set and local electronic equipment because we were unable to ship some of our items abroad, and to complicate matters one step further, one of the key members of the sound team suffered an injury a day before we left and was unable to make the trip! Thankfully, he is doing just fine.

Despite the challenges, both tapings went off without a hitch and were very well received. Our host was the Great Wall International Music Academy founded by the violin pedagogue Kurt Sassmannshaus. All of the young performers featured were studying there this summer, and the artistry we witnessed was astonishing. I was especially taken with 13-year-old Beijing native Ji Bolin who played the traditional Chinese ehru with incredible expressiveness, and I also just loved 9 and 10 year old violinists Christina Nam and Skye Park from the Cincinnati area, who played Bach.

And did I mention the delicious food in China? Or the awesomeness of the Great Wall? Fantastic music-making and extraordinary scenery definitely made this trip one to remember!

Enjoy this sneak peek of both shows, and be sure to tune in when they hit the airwaves in November!

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On this week’s episode of From the Top, host Christopher O’Riley interviews Broadway and television star Audra McDonald, touching on her musical beginnings, training at Juilliard, and learning to follow her instincts into a career path she loved. McDonald is currently starring in Broadway’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

Listen to the interview.


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From the Top’s broadcast for Show 254 was taped in the Brown Theater at Wortham Center in Houston, Texas on Saturday May 12, 2012. We asked our performers to tell us about the music they performed on the show:

Houston Youth Symphony
Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72 from Fidelio
By: Ludwig van Beethoven

Meghan Faw

This piece reminds me that there is always hope. The music and the story of the opera are dark and mysterious, and sometimes appear to be hopeless. However, no matter how dark it gets, it always ends triumphantly.

Leonore Overture No.3 offers a very wide range of emotions. Beethoven’s harmonies allow it to go from light and happy to dark and almost cynical. For an overture, this piece is quite substantial not only in length but in depth.

Post-Show Reflection: I loved just hanging out with these amazing people. I am so in awe of all their talents – but then we got to just kick back and have fun and I saw what incredible people they are. Taking our bows, I felt like a celebrity! The performance was so much fun! From the Top made it as least stressful as possible. I felt really empowered on that stage.

I believe music has the power to transform people’s souls, as it has mine.

Gabriel Maffuz

Oh my gosh I absolutely love the Leonore Overture! It really has such an electric atmosphere! But it’s really hard as well. Since I like channeling characters within a piece, I feel like a hero once it’s over (especially after I hit every note on pages of endless black dots!)

Particularly, the Presto in the String section paints a picture: in my head, I see the first violins as bunnies, frolicking happily through a meadow! Then when the rest of the strings join in and it’s like 200 more joined in for the fun; then all the animals have a party and everyone’s invited!

Post-Show Reflection: My favorite part of the last three days was getting to know each performer better. These people are awesome! Normally, we elevate talented people onto a non-human velvet pillow of “oh-my-gosh” they are so good they can’t be real people, but From the Top really showed me how with music is a common denominator – we are all one! Performing on From the Top was an unforgettable experience! Most of all it was a blast working with such an energetic team and such incredible talent. My favorite aspect of the performance was the dose connection we made with the audience before the first down beat. The laughs were great too!

Music has the power to unite and transform people of all ages, cultures, backgrounds, and ultimately connect communities and generations. I think that music is the purest form of expression because it can reach everyone and anyone!

Jordan Brokken, 

Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3 is an absolutely magnificent piece of music. The introduction is particularly interesting because it symbolizes Fidelio, the main character, trapped in a dungeon. It is interesting to imagine this scene happening while playing it. Beethoven uses subtle imagery like this throughout the overture. My favorite part is the presto sections at the end (much to Meghan and Gabriel’s chagrin). This glorious section where the strings have red-hot technique is one of the most thrilling sections in the overture and in all classical music.

Leonore Overture No. 3 came from an opera named Fidelio written by Beethoven. He was such a perfectionist over this particular overture, it took him three tries to get it the way he absolutely wanted it. But by that point it was much too long to be played during the opera. So Beethoven wrote a fourth overture: the Fidelio Overture.

Post-Show Reflection: A favorite memory of mine was getting coffee with Meghan, Shelby, and Aaron after we performed. We were able to relax and unwind and just talk about the performance, our lives, etc. The concert was fantastic – the performance felt like it wasn’t about getting nervous, but truly just performing for fun.

Music can do anything, and I truly believe that. The power of musicians is their ability to inspire that which is found at the root of all desire. Desire is what pushes people to accomplish things and these accomplishments have power. Music = inspire = desire = accomplishments = power.

Charles Seo, cello, 16
Zigeunerweisen
By: Pablo de Sarasate

I think this is the hardest piece for me. I think about a lot of things while playing the piece. The one thing that really pops up in my head is that whenever I watch Korean dramas, they always have a tragic scene during which the first couple measures of this piece is played in the background! I always have to control myself and not laugh. My favorite part (and least favorite part) is the fast passages at the end of the piece. Why? Because it is simply exciting and lively after playing a bunch of /a~/a~ (makes facial expressions), but at the same time it is so challenging to play.

This piece is so challenging because of the fact that it was originally written for violin, but has since been transcribed for cello. This piece also has “sad” and “happy” parts. I think that’s the most important thing – to show the two contrasting emotions of the piece. The hardest thing to nail is, of course, all the technique and the 32nd notes while still achieving the phrasing and musicality. This piece, especially the ending, has a lot of left-hand pizzicato that are intense. Overall this piece has a completely different, gypsy style.

Post Show Reflection: Ironically, I was extremely nervous the day before the concert. However, at the concert, I actually had so much fun; that’s my favorite memory. Although I couldn’t really see the audience, I knew that there were lots and lots of people there, all cheering for me. For a moment I felt how professional musician would feel. After remembering that people had actually paid to watch us play, I was no longer nervous and was comfortable playing on stage – it was a great experience to be able to interact with them too.

I believe Music is an acronym of:
Music is the
Ultimate
Solution to
Interact and
Communicate with the audience

Music has the power to make people cry, laugh, and even smile. Trust looking at the piece I played, Zigeunerweisen, the part in the beginning is depressing and passionate, but the ending is energetic and can make people happy and smile.

Shelby Nugent, horn, 18
I. Massig bewegt from Sonata in F Major
By: Paul Hindemith

I like to think of this piece as having two distinct characters. The first character is hot steel. This “hot steel’ character has an underlying anger. Not an explosive anger, it’s more of a deep sustained anger; very fiery. The next character is “cool steel. This character exhibits stoic resilience; very even and sustained, and calm with no human emotion. I actually feel cold when I hear this piece. It is by no means a “happy” piece. Written in 1939, right before the breakout of WWII, Hindemith really embodied the troubled German population in this piece.

As a horn player I get to play a lot of huge romantic pieces. Sweeping ooey-gooey solos in orchestra and I get to wear my heart on my sleeve a lot. Working on the Hindemith is not only technically demanding, but it requires me to dig into a whole other set of emotions. I have to be cold and stoic. I have to almost mask my emotion. I want to make the audience feel cold. I want them to clearly see the two different characters as they pop in an out. And also, I want them to see the incredibly difficult piano part as an equal with the horn throughout sonata.

Post Show Reflection: My favorite memory was hanging out backstage with the other performers. It’s so nice to see that such talented people are so nice, diverse, and fun people to be around.It was an experience unlike any I’d ever had. It was still the energy of a live performance (which it was that night) but I still knew in the back of my mind that even more people would be listening in the fall.

I believe music has the power to make people happy. It seems simple, but not many things in the world make people happy. Music is an expressive form of communication that reminds people of the beauty in the world.

Aaron Bigeleisen, baritone, 17
“Kriegers Ahnung” from “Schwanengesang”: D. 957
By: Franz Schubert

When I perform this piece, I think of the forlorn solider returning from another battle, with only long-task love in his heart to keep him alive. My favorite part of the piece is the end of the fender section leading up to a very military sounding declaration. My least favorite part is spitting out “herre das der frost dich nicht verlassit” as fast as I possibly can. My grandfather was a solider in WWII. So I think of him and his difficulty during WWI.

I try to get a rose the shifting moods and the increasing desperation and hopelessness that become more and more prominent. The jumping high notes during and after the quickest section of the piece are quite difficult to do well. It is probably the most challenging and diverse piece in my repertoire.

Post Show Reflections: My favorite memories were going out for coffee with Jordan, Meghan and Shelby and then going to my cousin’s prom with Shelby! It was a wonderful opportunity to relax and connect with people more similar to me.The performance was like a dream; I can hardly remember performing, just feeling the music and sharing it with the audience. I only remembered that the audience was so large after I was finished.

Music can do anything. It can build a community, express love share and create bonds; music can save the world.

Esther Liao, piano, 15
“La Campanella” from Grandes etudes de Paganini, S. 141, No. 3 in G- sharp minor
By: Franz Liszt

I remember listening to La Campanella when I was little and my mom telling me about the little bells that formed the essence of the piece. It was so fascinating to hear how the bandying opening D-sharps sounded like the bells that the piece was named for. When I was ten, my mom bought me a Liszt Etude book so that I could play one of the concert etudes. However, while I was flipping through it one day, I was surprised to see notes that seemed just like the La Campanella theme. I eagerly stuck a post-it note on that page (the only remaining post-it in that book) and promised myself that one day I would learn it. Even though I was supposed to be practicing other pieces, I would manage to sneak a peek at the music and just imagine the little bells ringing. During Thanksgiving break that same year, I was finally granted permission to begin playing La Campanella. While learning it, I found it to be like one of those really challenging jigsaw puzzles that seem impossible to solve at first but get easier each time as pieces begin to fit together.

At the time, it was extremely difficult for me to reach the octaves, not to say making the wide jumps scattered across the piece. My favorite part was the super-speed chromatic scales since they were one of the few things that I could play up to tempo and accurately in the entire piece. Even so, La Campanella has been one of the very few pieces that has never left my memory after learning it. La Campanella is like a roller-coaster ride, starting with a comfortable ease before accelerating dynamically and ending with a grand finale. Every time I play this piece, I try to bring the audience to the same level of exhilaration as I do from La Campanella.

Post-Show Reflection: It was really enjoyable and neat to hang out with all the other performers backstage. Being able to work with the From the Top staff was a very eye-opening experience to see how involved everyone was in making sure that the show was the best it could be. Setting up, recording the performances, cleaning up, all in three days was just unbelievable! During the show, making the audience laugh was almost as rewarding as hearing them applaud because I had the satisfaction of knowing that at least someone in the audience was interested in what I had to say. Aside from being a part of this phenomenal show, participating in the leadership conference that followed was a great time to connect and discuss musical outreach with other very talented musicians because I was able to understand the importance of music at a whole new level.

Music definitely has the power to touch and change lives. It is such a relaxing and sweet entertainment that can bring people from low ends to a much better life.


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Performers, alums, and BFFs
Laura Park and Allie Switala

We have had an unusually busy summer here at From the Top. We were in China very recently (look out for a blog about that adventure next week!), but right before leaving the country we taped a show at the famous Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York. What a gorgeous place to spend the summer! It’s a lakeside village that comes alive each year with tons of arts and education programs. Several of our alumni were there studying music.

When we first arrived I immediately ran into alums Laura Park and Allie Switala, who would be participating in our taping. They are both so bubbly and fun, I loved reconnecting with them. I also ran in to another From the Top alum, sax player Justin Moser who was on our show a year and a half ago. He was working part-time at the Athenaeum Hotel and looking very official in his bellhop uniform.

We taped the show in the huge outdoor Amphitheater to one of the largest audiences we’ve ever had. What a thrill to look out into the crowd and see such a huge sea of faces. And the musicians certainly rose to the occasion; every one of the performances was top notch. I was particularly floored by 18-year-old soprano Emily Helenbrook. When she began to sing at our music rehearsal the night before, my jaw dropped.

I enjoyed this show so much I made an extra long sneak peek video for you! Check it out, and don’t forget to tune in when this show airs the week of October 22.


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After an appearance on From the Top in 2008 (Show 192), violinist Ren Martin-Doike (now studying viola at the Curtis Institute) has been all about making connections with others through music. We’ve shared a number of these connections on our blog over the years, including a demonstration on the similarities between a string quartet and a rock band  for an eager class of 1st graders,  and a letter offering advice to young musicians on ways to prepare for the dreaded “college audition”. We just heard from Ren about her most recent adventure with the program “Kalikolehua” – the Hawaiian branch of El Sistema USA. A talented writer as well as an inspiring musician, Ren shared this beautiful reflection on her experience:  

Dear From the Top,

It is with great excitement that I share my recent experience with Kalikolehua, the El Sistema program in my home state of Hawai‘i.  Kalikolehua draws its name from two Hawaiian words: kaliko for bud, symbolizing the children or keiki of Hawai‘i, and lehua for the the volcano goddess Pele’s flower, which is the first plant to break through new soil after volcanic eruption. Auspiciously christened with powerful imagery, Kalikolehua was founded in October 2010 and is a burgeoning program serving to inspire the children of Hawai‘i to harness music as a vehicle to rise above poverty toward excellence and to grow a stronger sense of community through music.

A kindergarten classroom with a clear view of the ocean is where the music, and the magic, happens in Kalikolehua’s first nucleo at Ka‘a‘awa Elementary School.  From the moment I stepped foot into that classroom I could see how Kalikolehua was already bringing the Ka‘a‘awa community together through music.  On any given day in Mrs. White’s classroom there were bound to be curious visitors of all sorts.  Parents, siblings and classmates served as willing audience members for end of class impromptu performances daily and even the school’s principal Jennifer Luke-Paine often picked up a violin or recorder and learned along with the class.

The bright-eyed young musicians shared what they were learning freely and generously, from reminding each other to keep good posture to teaching their frequent guests all of the words to their songs.  It was quickly evident to me that these children were already serving their classroom and community as peer mentors.

It was this spirit of musical sharing that met me in Ka‘a‘awa on my first day as a young teacher with Kalikolehua.  After singing songs of cheerful greetings together, the students were intrigued to learn what instrument I had brought and why it looked so big.  When they learned that I played the viola they squealed with delight and broke into song.  And not just any song, but a viola song, sung to the tune of B-I-N-G-O, which teaches counting, rhythm and spelling.  Before long we were all having a great time learning and making music together.

After a short break where the children ran around in the grassy schoolyard alongside local chickens against a picturesque backdrop of beautifully green and jagged mountains, it was time to reconvene indoors for the last portion of class.  The children displayed their concentration and memory by playing through some of the pieces they worked on earlier in class for a gathering small audience.  When they heard the proud applause of their family the little musicians bowed instinctively.  It was so cute to watch!  As a treat for their good behavior, I would share some music I was working on while they sat on the floor wiggly, yet riveted.

Before I performed for them, we talked a little about the piece I was about to play.  I asked the class if any of them had heard of a composer named “Bach” before. A few hands flew up.  Some of students wondered what a composer was.   A small boy volunteered to explain that a composer is somebody who writes music.  To remember Johann Sebastian, or Papa, Bach’s name we decided to find a mnemonic close by – the “bawk” of the neighborhood chickens!  As soon as the air had cleared of gleeful “bawk, Bach!” noises, I announced that I was about to play was a type of dance from the time of Mr. Bach and asked the children to guess what kind of dance they thought it was.  I then put up my viola and proceeded to play the courante from Bach’s sixth cello suite.

“Happy!” a number of them shouted out.  “Fast,” added another.  I agreed, continuing that the name of the movement, courante, came from the French word for running.  “Did anyone hear any parts that were not so happy?” I asked.  Quizzical looks now flashed across the faces looking up at me.  “What about this part,” I asked before playing a more melancholy excerpt from the second half of the movement.  “It sounds sad,” one of the children observed.  “But after that it was happy again,” followed another.  After a fun first day of musical sharing it was already time for the young musicians to join their families and go home, yet the continual raising of their small hands showed that they were still full of questions.  I fielded many of the staples of outreach performances such as “when did you begin playing your instrument?” before we were down to one last question.  A smiling girl raised her hand and asked “can you play for us again?” to echoes of agreement from her classmates.  “I would love to,” I replied.

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to become a part of this wonderful new musical community on my recent trip home.  Though I only had a few days to spend teaching, performing and learning with the little Lehua buds of Kalikolehua – El Sistema Hawai‘i this time, I look forward to playing as active a role as I possibly can with Kalikolehua in near future.  I cannot wait to visit the program again next year when it will have grown to include even more instruments and more keiki, or children, of Hawai‘i!

Aloha,
Ren Martin-Doike


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Being an arts leader to me means inspiring that “spark” in others so they can realize what they are capable of. It’s about empowering people to go after something they normally wouldn’t, or showing them a piece of their full potential and how easy it is to accomplish their goals. – Carson Marshall

When 17 year-old violinist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Carson Marshall appeared on From the Top (Show 245, Boston, Massachusetts), he gave a heartfelt account of his own difficulties with sight-reading music due to a learning disability. He never thought that his words and actions would have such a powerful impact, and quickly learned that sharing one’s experiences can empower others to realize their own potential.

An unexpected inspiration came through Classical South Florida’s Reach Out contest. Applicants to the contest were asked to write a letter to a recent From the Top performer, sharing what they loved about the performance and including three questions for that performer. Violinist Josiah Blanchette (also 17) was inspired by Carson’s story. He shared a similar struggle with sight-reading, and was encouraged to hear that there are other musicians out there like him. Moved by Josiah’s honesty and passion for music, Carson wrote the following letter in response:

A month later, Carson visited a class of middle school strings students from his hometown of Amherst, MA to help them realize their own potential. Seeing their engagement inspired Carson to talk more about his own struggles, and how determination and hard work helped him get to where he is today and envision a future in music. During the presentation, Carson focused on tone quality, demonstrating factors that can effect tone, such as bow speed and pressure, and how to apply these to actual music. He shares more on his goals for and learning from the experience below:

[I wanted] to teach younger children the basics and fundamentals of their instruments, and hopefully either inspire them to continue practicing or keep them from quitting. I also hoped to show these kids that even though it was hard for me to get to where I am today, I did have some fun along the way, and all they have to do is stick with it. My goal was to show these kids that they can be as good as they want to be, and there is nothing holding them back. I wanted to show them they can become great players with work, and that it’s possible (and quite simple) for them to make a good sound on their instrument. Overall, I felt like the kids responded well to the presentation, and I got a lot of great feedback. I think now that these kids know what is possible with their instruments, they will continue to seek that sound and become better players because for it.

About to start as a freshman at Rice University, Carson hopes to continue sharing his story to inspire and empower others. We can’t wait to see what he does next!


2 years ago | |
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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
General Martin Dempsey meeting our performers

A few weeks ago we were in Grapevine, Texas, where we taped an especially unique episode of the radio show featuring young musicians who’ve grown up in military families. Our show was part of the Military Child Education Coalition’s annual seminar, and our audience was full of the people who teach and support military kids.

Among the performers featured was a fantastic young clarinetist whose dream of playing in a military band was realized when he joined a quintet from the United States Army Band to perform a military march. The quintet featured a flutist who was herself a former From the Topper. We also met a 17-year-old harpist who played Gabriel Pierne, a 16-year-old pianist who introduced us to his large military family, and an 18-year-old violist who turned the tables on the violinists of the world by playing one of the flashiest pieces in their repertory – Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro.

After the show I met a family of From the Top fans from the island of Borneo (on the South China Sea). It was incredibly cool to learn that they listened to our podcast halfway across the world!

My favorite moment of all had to be at our dress rehearsal when we had the honor of meeting the highest-ranking military officer in the United States (i.e. the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and principal military adviser to the President) General Martin Dempsey, who sat in on our rehearsal. But not only did he watch it, General Dempsey, who is known among his colleagues for his love of singing, treated us to his rendition of “My Kind of Town” – and believe me when I tell you that the General has some serious stage presence! Of course I made sure we videotaped it for you, and you can check out a snippet at the end of this week’s Sneak Peek video. When the show airs though (the week of October 1) look out, because we’ll likely post the whole thing!


2 years ago | |
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I learned that it is extremely effective to have kids teach other kids. I think they were able to really connect with me in a way that you can’t connect with an adult teacher.

Pianist Arianna Korting (Show 145, Boston, Massachusetts; Show 241, Washington, DC) is passionate about showing younger kids how enjoyable and fun classical music can be. As a sophomore in high school, she founded the Animato Project – an interactive series of programs for 4th graders from the West Geauga school district. She specifically chose to work with this grade from the district given their annual field trip to see one of the Cleveland Orchestra concerts. Arianna saw this as a wonderful opportunity to further their exposure to the genre in a peer-to-peer setting. She chose to work with two elementary schools: Lindsey Elementary in Chester, Ohio and Westwood Elementary in Russell, Ohio. Each 45-minute program combined performance with a variety of activities, from expressing musical reactions through drawing to listing as many orchestral instruments and composers as possible.  She worked with the administration at West Geauga High School (her high school) to guarantee the program’s continuation as she prepares to leave for college in the fall.

”[My goal was] to promote classical music to a young audience. Animato means animated, lively. This project is all about showing that classical music can be as cool as pop, country, or rap music!”

We asked Arianna to share more about her experiences with the Animato Project…

FTT: What were some memorable moments from The Animato Project?     

Arianna: It was great just watching the kids’ faces as I was playing etudes and scales on the piano – they loved it when I was able to show how fast one can play. When I asked them to name off some classical composers, a few mentioned Michael Jackson! One girl came up to me after a visit and told me she would go home and play on the piano right away! Another girl really appreciated the project, and I later heard that she developed a great interest in this genre of music. All I would like this project to do is touch the heart of at least one student, and show him or her a new perspective on music.

FTT: How did you develop the program?

Arianna: I came up with activities that would keep the kids’ minds going and show them that listening to classical music is really cool! Having fourth graders actively listening is much more interesting then just passively listening. Most 9 to 10 year olds are very active, and I knew that if I just played music for them they would probably think it was pretty boring. This way they were able to be active and also use their imaginations.

FTT: Were there any unexpected moments or challenges?     

Arianna: There were times when I was worried about losing the interest of the fourth graders. I constantly tried to find new ways to grab their attention. After I visited a school, I reflected back on the session and planned for a much more enjoyable approach for the next. Trying to get new students [from my high school] to participate was also a bit of a challenge; but this project really only needs one or two students to carry on every year so I think it will keep going.

FTT: What did you learn from this experience?

Arianna: When I started this project I was only six years older than the fourth graders. For them to see someone close in age that can play an instrument well gives them the encouragement that they can do it too! It also shows them that classical music isn’t some boring music just for adults. It is amazing what I was able to accomplish during these 45-minute periods because the fourth graders were hooked on the subject and looked up to me. I also believe that interactive programming is crucial in creating a fun and enjoyable learning environment for the kids.

FTT: What are your future hopes for the Animato Project?

Arianna: I hope that this project will continue in the hands of the underclassmen who have already taken part in it, and that they pass on the love for classical music to others in the years to follow. I am going to encourage the school’s music department to put this into their curriculum.

FTT: What do you think it means to be an arts leader? 

Arianna: Being an arts leader is showing and sharing my love for classical music to all in the community. This also means reaching out to those who may not have the opportunity to appreciate classical music and giving them a taste of how much fun it is to listen to; keeping classical music alive by introducing it to the next and newest generation of listeners.


2 years ago | |
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