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October was a busy, but wonderfully energizing, month. The weekend after our Troy, New York, show, we were back at our home base, New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston for a taping that featured a diversity of kids who expressed all sorts of new ways of looking at things.

For instance, 18-year-old recorder aficionado Bryan Duerfeldt  proved without a doubt that the recorder wasn’t just an instrument for elementary school classrooms! He talked about the perceptions people have about the instrument, and not only performed a gorgeous baroque piece, but also a contemporary jazz piece. Something that didn’t make it into the show was that, in part of the jazz piece, Bryan played two recorders at the same time! It was totally unexpected and cool, and of course, I made sure to catch it on video. Make sure to check our website when the show goes live to see him in action.

Another young musician whose story struck me was William Su, a teenage baritone originally from Beijing. He talked about having been kicked out of his school choir in China because his loud, low voice didn’t blend well with the others. This experience, while initially crushing, eventually led him to attend Walnut Hill School for the Arts, where his outstanding voice is now being appreciated and nurtured.

15-year-old Pianist Vanessa Haynes gorgeously performed the third movement of Beethoven’s “Appasionata” Sonata and then entertainingly went head to head with Chris O’Riley in a game of identifying film scores, and 13-year-old Sebastian Stoger, with his wonderfully infectious smile, performed Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso.

At the close of the show we were introduced to perhaps the teeniest musician who we’ve ever featured – 9-year-old violinist Elizabeth Aioki who played Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantelle. She played it on a quarter-sized violin, but you would never know it by the huge sound!

Check out the sneak peek below, and make sure to tune in when this show is broadcast in mid-December.


1 year ago | |
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From the Top’s broadcast for Show 257 was taped at the Chautauqua Amphitheater of the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York on Friday July 20, 2012. We asked our performers to tell us about the music they performed on the show:

Laura Park, 18, violin
Waltz-Scherzo, Op.34
By: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I think that the Waltz-Scherzo is a very cute and enjoyable piece. The waltz aspect gives it lift and charm, while the scherzo aspect makes it entertaining and easy to listen to. The hardest thing about this piece would be that it needs to stay light. It’s easy to accidentally become heavy and sound like a march. Therefore, I have to always keep aware of the piece’s character.

Post-Show Reflection: My favorite memory is during the actual live show taping when all of us were upstairs in the dressing room just hanging out and having fun and supporting whoever left to perform and congratulating whoever came back in after performing. The show itself was so much fun because the audience was very warm, laughing at all of our jokes and giving standing ovations, and the staff members were all super chill and friendly. The time spent on stage seemed to just fly by.

I believe music has the power to bring a group of people together that otherwise might not meet each other.

Xavier Jara, 18, guitar
?Sonata in D Major, K.53
?By: Domenico Scarlatti

My favorite part is when the voices in the bass and treble are jumping back and forth while the haunting arpeggios play in the middle – it gets me every time.

Technically, this is by far the hardest piece I’ve every played. It’s got just about everything that guitarists fear. This is also a big reason why I play it – it really shows off just what the guitar is capable of doing.

Franz Zhao, 18, composer/piano
(performed with From the Top alum Alli Switala, 18, violin)
?By: Franz Zhao

My piece, “Ideas”, originally started out as several thoughts or emotions, each of them embodying its own musical fragment. Each of these fragments were embedded into the piece, allowing for each thought to be expressed to the audience – the opening, a slow introduction consisting of a question and answer-esque line can be seen as mysterious; the somewhat quicker main theme can be interpreted as or shocking, and the rapid-paced middle section can be described as rampaging. Personally, the part I enjoy playing the most in the piece would be the quick, main theme section in 4+3/4 time. Keeping communication and staying together between the musicians is always fun, exciting, and enjoyable.

The main thing that I would consider special about playing “Ideas” compared to other works I have played would be that it was one of my own works. Though I have written many works, I rarely get a chance to perform in them. Also, what made learning my own piece “special” was that I was able to interpret it any way I deemed proper or appropriate.

Post-Show Reflection: My favorite memory from the experience would probably have to be our time backstage during the show – the atmosphere was a perfect mix of nerves, tension, and excitement. Filming our introductions was also a very interesting memory – the endless giggling, face-palming and inability to keep a straight face made it quite the experience. Since it was my first experience with anything of the sort, I did not know at all what to expect from performing on the show; I have been listening to the show for several years, but the procedure was very new to me, nevertheless. In addition, I was not expecting an audience of nearly 5,000 people, and seeing the endless sea of spectators gave me quite the rush when I first walked out. Though my nerves did not affect me much during the actual performance of my piece, they returned to me when I walked up to the microphone for my “interview”. Thoughts such as “What line do I say now?” or “I hope my voice doesn’t sound too squeaky today” rushed through my head as the interview began.

I believe that music has the power to change people’s feelings and emotions. Listeners will often subject their emotions or feelings to match those which are coming from the music. For example, Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” can be described as yearning and nostalgic, and it is easy for someone to envelop these emotions while listening to it, while other works such as Tchaikovsky’s “Trepak” from “The Nutcracker” and be described as very upbeat and lively and have a much happier influence on a listener.

Emily Helenbrook, 18, soprano
?“O luce di quest’anima” from Linda di Chamounix
?By: Gaetano Donizetti

It is my favorite piece to sing. I think about the thing that makes me happiest at that given moment. So it changes, but what doesn’t change is the text and context of the aria in the opera – so I just think of whatever is most exciting, like going to Italy in August or something! I think of sunshine, good-looking men, and getting flowers when I sing this.

The best and most special thing about this piece is the fact that Renee Fleming suggested this piece for me. She told me that it would fit me well, so I learned it immediately! Also, I wrote all of my own embellishments, so it is always to show them off!

Post-Show Reflection: I loved spending time with the other performers, especially hearing them perform for the first time and then waiting backstage with them before the show. I also enjoyed being with the staff…they are all so fun and kind! I felt deeply honored to be on the same program as the other kids who were SOOOO talented. And, the audience was appreciative and responsive which was amazing!

I believe music can change people’s lives, as it does mine; especially in times of grief. I believe that if it can bring even a moment of peace or happiness, that music has all the power in the world.

Ho Joon Kim, 13, piano
Hungarian Rhapsody, No.12 in C-sharp minor
By: Franz Lizst

This piece seems to be the most dramatic work out of all the pieces I have played. For some reason, the Hungarian Rhapsody brings the impending feeling of war, and basically victory in the stretta. I can see the symphonic nature Lizst tried to imitate, and the capriciosso nature of the rhapsody resembles the gypsy-like theme.

This piece is, so far, the most challenging piece I have ever played. Not only does it demand technical virtuosity, but also profound thought on ways to play the piece. It sounds like a written-out improvisation, so making the piece sound “naturally improvisational” was difficult. Also, it was difficult to play every single note in the runs of the stretta.

1 year ago | |
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October is a busy month here in From the Top land. Last week we taped a show in Troy, New York; this past weekend we taped one in Boston; we’re off to Greensburg, Pennsylvania in a few days, and then we round out the month in Davis, California! But will I manage to post my blog in a timely manner during this mad rush of shows? That, my friends, remains to be seen.

Coolest cello case ever! It was hand-painted by cellist Miriam Liske-Doorandish.

But let’s start out on the right foot with a blog about our recent show in Troy! It was an all-cello extravaganza taped at the stunning Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. In addition to four phenomenal young cellists, we had the pleasure of featuring one of the master cellists of our time, Matt Haimovitz. He and Chris O’Riley are great friends and collaborators, and the two of them have been touring the country this year performing together. They also recently released an album called “Shuffle.Play.Listen.” which I encourage you to check out as it has quickly become one of my faves.

Like Chris, Matt is well known for stretching the boundaries of classical music, and he regularly performs in unexpected places to reach new audiences. In the spirit of that, we set up an impromptu performance at a local bookstore during lunch hour on the day of the show. Matt and the four young cellists surprised customers at Market Block Books with an electrifying performance of John McLaughlin’s “Open Country Joy” arranged for five cellos! We caught the whole thing on video, of course, and will post it when the show goes live. You definitely don’t want to miss it.

The taping that night was so exciting and full of truly remarkable cello playing, not to mention cello “drumming” (you’ll have to check out “Open Country Joy” to see exactly what I mean). Enjoy this week’s sneak peek – and don’t forget to tune in when the show airs the first week of December!


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From the Top alumni are doing amazing things! This summer, it seemed like every time we fired up the old internet-machine, we saw news of another From The Top alum making waves in the world of music and beyond. In the coming weeks, we’ll be updating you on a plethora of From the Top alumni. This week, we start out with our alumni who can be found on the piano bench:
Michael DavidmanMichael Davidman (Show 234, Virginia Beach, Virginia) was awarded the following awards over the summer:

Grand Prize in the LISMA Foundation 9th International Music Competition in the 17-23 year old category at 15 years  old.
First Prize in both Solo and Concerto in the Ithaca College School of Music Piano Competition and will be performing Saint-Saens Piano Concerto in G minor, No. 2, op. 22with the Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra, February, 2013.
And he was awarded the Chopin Foundation of the United States Piano Scholarship! Way to go Michael!

Pianist Umi Garrett (Show Umi Garrett211, Santa Barbara, California) recently won the 13th Osaka International Music Competition in Osaka, Japan and also won 1st prize in the Chopin International Piano competition in Budapest, Hungary.

She said of the competitive experience in Osaka: “I know that there was a lot I should have done better, but it meant a lot for me because it was my first competition in Japan, and lots of people helped me to get to this competition. I wanted to do well to show them my appreciation.” Well done, Umi!

Kimberly Hou (Show 232, College Park, Maryland) was awarded 1st Place in the 27th IYAPC (International Young Artist Piano Competition) as well as the Chinese Performance Prize. She was also chosen as a 2012 US Presidential Scholar in the Arts. She says of this wonderful opportunity: “Having the opportunity to collaborate with artists from all different disciplines for the Kennedy Center performance was so eye-opening and inspiring!”

Brian Ge (Show 187, Boston, Massachusetts) just won another concerto competition in Aspen on July 2, 2012. He performed the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467 with the American Academy of Conducting At Aspen Orchestra on July 10 at the music tent. Brian is one the concerto competition winners from last year and performed Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 with Aspen Concert Orchestra.

Congratulations to all of our outstanding alumni, and check back for more updates next week!

1 year ago | |
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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. 

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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!

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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! 

2 years 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!


2 years ago | |
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