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[Music] is such an underrated resource, yet people use music every day. We have it in our cars, on our phones, in the grocery store – it is everywhere we go and it is used to alter or encourage our own moods. My hope is that people will be able to recognize music not only as an art form, but as a tool to help others overcome obstacles in their life.

Having seen music’s restorative power through her own experiences, bassoonist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Alexandra Nelson (Show 243) wanted to explore ways that music can inspire others beyond the concert hall setting. She decided to connect with several music therapists from her hometown, and wrote the following essay to share her experiences:

What Music Can Do 

It was once said that music is what feelings sound like. For the average person, we would all agree that music can transform our attitudes, change our perspectives, set a mood, help us from feeling alone… the list goes on. But how does music affect someone who has mental or physical disabilities?

This has been something that I have been more interested in as I have grown older. Given my own difficult family situation, I used music as an escape. Practicing became a way to disappear out of the discomfort in my household and focus on something beautiful. What about people who are uncomfortable in their own body or their own mind? I soon began to question if music would have the same effect on people other than me, other than just musicians.

Music therapy embodies this very idea. On the website for the American Music Therapists Association, it is defined as, “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” These goals can be anything from opening oneself up emotionally to distracting someone from intense pain to encouraging verbal communication. Therapeutically, the benefits are endless. I have quickly learned that, not only is music enjoyable and mood altering, but it is a growing resource for therapists dealing with people who suffer from any type of disability or disorder.

When I sought out the music therapist, Eve Montague, at the South Shore Conservatory in Duxbury, I was just looking to have her shed a little light on this topic. She was able to share many stories with me: a patient with serious physical problems regaining use of her fingers and toes, a premature infant’s heart and breathing rate stabilizing immediately after birth, a burn victim becoming seemingly immune to the pain while having his dead skin removed – all through music therapy. It seemed unreal. I knew that music was powerful, but could it really have that much of an effect on people? I’ve experienced it myself, but never to this degree.

In my excitement, I began to participate in an adult chorus with Eve at the Conservatory, working with mentally delayed adults to sing and make music once a week. It was a place where people could socialize, learn about music, and most importantly, grow as a person. There was a woman who was nonverbal but still able to make sounds. Throughout the year, I soon realized that she was mouthing the words and actually quietly singing along. A young boy who shyly kept to himself before chorus was a new person when it came time to sing – yelling the words, jumping for joy at the climax of a song. This was all through music.

Another therapist who works with Eve, named Kari O’Brient, travels to several locations offsite for her therapy sessions. When I asked to observe her at a local elementary school, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted to see music therapy first hand, in all of its glory, to better understand how it really works in an everyday setting.

I traveled to the Hatherly School, an elementary school in Scituate, one afternoon with Kari to work with two special education classes. We arrived, signed in at the office, and headed down the hall, our arms full of drums and scarves, with a guitar on Kari’s back and a bag filled with who-knows-what hanging off of my shoulder.

When Kari walked into the room ahead of me, the room erupted. The kids could no longer focus on their math or reading – it was music time! We headed into one corner of the small room with a bright colored rug, bulletin boards creating a space around us, and a chair for each of the students, Kari, and me. I sat down anxiously and waited for the therapy to begin.

Instead, Kari quietly took the guitar case from off of her back while asking the kids how their vacation was. However, after a soft bitter mumble from the few kids around us, Kari laughed off their negative reaction and started to strum. Soon, her chatty words turned to song, “Why hello there, you guys! I know I’m happy to be here. Hmm mmm, hello, hello!” The energy in the room suddenly shifted back to excitement. We all sang the hello song, each of us having a chance to say our own name and say hello to the rest of the class. Not only was this song encouraging friendly greetings, but it was teaching the kids to say their name and “hello” loudly and clearly. For anyone with a social disorder, such as autism, even saying hello to someone can be a challenge. Kari, though, with her bright smile and upbeat guitar playing, had everyone doing this with ease. The next song was a variation on “Head-Shoulders-Knees-and Toes,” with Kari’s own musical spin. The students stood, did the dance moves, and some even took a turn leading the song.

I really noticed at that point that, despite the necessary therapeutic value these songs had for these kids, they really enjoyed this! It was a break from their school day. Especially for someone with disabilities, even the simplest of tasks can seem daunting and overwhelming. Music therapy was a care free and light hearted time set aside where they could simply be themselves, but still be absorbing necessary lessons like verbal skills and physical coordination.

The lessons continued – more songs, more dancing, more swaying back and forth, more singing – the fun went on, and so did the therapy. The next class was more of the same – excited children, each eager to listen and play while still taking part in the therapy. I left the school feeling excited, rejuvenated, and encouraged at the idea that music had such an impact on these kids. Not only did they have a great time playing and singing with Kari, but they were reclaiming themselves as fun-loving children, able to let go of whatever troubles they were having in school earlier that day, and just enjoy the therapy for all that it was.

Despite all of my wonderful exposure to music therapy, there is just one problem that I always come across when I leave the conservatory atmosphere: no one I know seems to respect music as a valid source of therapy. I learned quickly that this was because they didn’t understand it, but that’s no reason to dismiss it.

This is why I am writing this piece today: through my own experiences, I have learned and will continue to learn more about music therapy so that I can share it with my peers. It is such an underrated resource, yet people use music every day. We have it in our cars, on our phones, in the grocery store – it is everywhere we go and it is used to alter or encourage our own moods. My hope is that people will be able to recognize music not only as an art form, but as a tool to help others overcome obstacles in their life. As the author Berthold Auerbach said, “music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” no matter what that dust may be.

Alex is currently pursuing a dual degree in Bassoon Performance and Music Education at Northwestern University.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 year ago | |
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In this week’s episode of From the Top, we teamed up with the Military Child Education Coalition to celebrate the talented and hardworking children of America’s service men and women. These fantastic performers shared the ups and downs of military life, from living on US bases in Germany and Belgium to dealing with a parent in combat. We also got to reconnect with From the Top alum Elizabeth (Diener) McGinniss who has chosen a wonderful career in music and the military as a Staff Sergent in the Pershing’s Own United States Army Band.

What’s more…while taping this episode in Grapevine, Texas in June, we met the Honorable General Martin E Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“In June, I had the pleasure of meeting some very talented young musicians, the sons and daughters of U.S. service members, as well as some members of ‘Pershing’s Own’ Army Band — one of whom is a ‘From the Top’ alum,” said Gen. Dempsey. ”We watched them rehearse for a concert, and boy, are they gifted!  Music is such a powerful  tool, and it’s been a big part of my life since I was a kid.”

After greeting cast and crew, the General treated us to a fabulous performance of Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town”.

Check it out:

Meet one of this week’s performers: Dominic Giardino, an 18-year-old clarinet player, whose father is a recently retired Navy helicopter pilot and has a brother in the Marines. Dominic shared with us his passion for military musical reenactment and military bands!

Don’t miss this episode!

1 year ago | |
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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

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.

1 year ago | |
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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! 

1 year ago | |
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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!


1 year ago | |
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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.

1 year ago | |
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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
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
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.

1 year ago | |
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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.

2 years ago | |
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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!

Ren Martin-Doike

2 years ago | |
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