Taking Over Classical Music, One Competition at a Time

From Austin, Texas, to Detroit, Michigan, From the Top alumni have been excelling in major competitions all over the United States. We’re thrilled to share the good news from concert halls across the country.

Menuhin Competition, Austin, Texas

StephenWaarts

© 2012 Ranjith Jim Box

Several From the Top alumni appeared as part of the esteemed biennial Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists held recently in February. Violinists 17-year-old Stephen Waarts, pictured left, (Show 207, Stanford, California) of Los Altos, California, and 18-year-old Stephen Kim (Show 193, Mobile, Alabama) of Cupertino, California, both competed in the Senior Final Round. We are thrilled to share the news that Stephen Waarts won first prize and Stephen Kim took fourth prize! Alex Zhou (Show 263, Davis, California) placed fourth in the Junior Finals competition, the highest-ranking American student in that category.  Also on hand was Ariel Horowitz (Show 262, Greensburg, Pennsylvania) who performed in the “Passing of the Bow” ceremony, a Menuhin tradition that communicates the power of music to share with other cultures.

Sphinx Competition, Detroit, Michigan

We are proud to announce that 15-year-old violist Mira Williams (Show 277, Bowling Green, Ohio) from Chicago, Illinois, 15-year-old violinist Tristan Flores, who will be appearing on Show 285 in Boston, Massachusetts, and 14-year-old cellist, and recipient of our Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, Sterling Elliott (Show 275, Aspen, Colorado) were 2014 Sphinx Competition Junior Division Semi-Finalists in the recent Sphinx Competition, held in Detroit, Michigan. Sterling Elliott, who will be appearing on our upcoming show in Norfolk, Virginia, won the title of First Place Laureate in the Junior Division Finals. We loved his recent posting on Facebook:

Sterling Facebook

Blount-Slawson Competition, Montgomery, Alabama

In Montgomery, Alabama, our friends at the Montgomery Symphony held the Blount-Slawson Young Artists Competition in late January. This year’s competition was especially poignant, as the leader of the competition and longtime friend of From the Top, Helen Steineker, passed away in December. We know she would have been pleased with the high level of competitors this year. From the Top alum Yaegy Park (Show 185, San Antonio, Texas), a violinist and recipient of our Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award from Pasadena, Texas, placed second with her performance of the first movement of the Prokofiev Second Violin concerto. First prize winner 14-year-old pianist Elisabeth Tsai is the younger sister of From the Top alum Eric Tsai (Show 227, Opelika, Alabama), and will be following in her big brother’s footsteps when she appears on the show on a date to be determined.

And more!

We’ve also heard from 15-year-old organist and pianist Michael Jon Bennett (Show 281, Costa Mesa, California) from New York City, who will be making his Carnegie Hall debut after receiving the gold medal in the International Young Gifted Musicians Festival – Passion of Music 2014, sponsored by the American Association of the Development of the Gifted and Talented and first prize in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition 2014.

Are you an alum with a recent competition win to your name? Keep us up to date on your activities by emailing Robin Allen LaPlante, Marketing & Communications Manager, at rlaplante@fromthetop.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alumni in Action: From Competition Wins to CD Releases

Our alumni are making waves all over the world! Here’s our latest round of alumni updates, keep them coming! You can submit your update to: alumni@fromthetop.org.

Alexi Kenney

Alexi Kenney (Show 200) was named a 2013 Concert Artist Guild winner in New York last week. The Concert Artists Guild provides management support “to a roster of talented artists during a critical and formative time: between completion of formal studies and the achievement of an established career.” Past From the Top alumni winners include Sebastian Baverstam and Steven Lin.

Soprano Nadine Sierra (Show 95, Show 213) won the XIII International Montserrat Caballé Singing Competition in Zaragoza, Spain, and the Neue Stimmen 2013 International Singing Competition in Gütersloh, Germany. Among other appearances, she will be singing Rigoletto in March with Boston Lyric Opera.

Violinist Anna Lee (Show 152, Show 204, TV Season 2) won the Bernhard and Mania Hahnloser Violin Prize this summer at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. She attended the Verbier Festival Academy, which is comprised of a select group of young artists (piano, violin, viola, cello, ensemble, voice). “The Verbier Festival Academy enables the best young soloists in the world to work under the watchful eye of great artists, following a rigorous selection process.  For three weeks, the stars of tomorrow benefit from a number of masterclasses, which are open to all, and have many occasions to demonstrate their talents.”

The U.S. representatives in each instrumental category were almost exclusively From the Top alumni. Piano: Alice Burla (Show 174, Show 224, TV Season 2); Violin: Chad Hoopes (Show 171, Show 189, TV Season 2), Sirena Huang (Show 188), Anna Lee (Show 152, Show 204, TV Season 2); Viola: Vicki Powell, Arianna Smith (Show 197, Show 228); Cello: Sarina Zhang (Show 112, Show 163, Show 236); Ensemble: The Calidore String Quartet, 2011 Fischoff Grand Prize winners and recently signed Opus 3 artists, featuring From the Top alumni Jeffrey Meyers and Ryan Meehan (Show 164)

Ibanda Ruhumbika is a member of Jon Batiste and Stay Human

Tubist Ibanda Ruhumbika (Show 155, Show 169, TV Season 2) released his first CD as a member of “Jon Batiste and Stay Human,” a modern jazz ensemble noted for their world-class music, high energy, and uplifting spirit. They performed at the From the Top Gala in May 2013 and are touring now in support of their “Social Music” album release.

Teddy Abrams (Show 69) has been named the new music director of the Louisville Orchestra.

Alum and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Umi Garrett (Show 211, Show 217) just performed eight community concerts in 17 days throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Virginia. She also performed Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu for the soundtrack of the Steve Jobs biopic “Jobs.” Read about Umi in the Huffington Post.

Michael Thurber (Show 125), one of the creative forces behind the popular YouTube channel CDZA and an accomplished composer in his own right, was in London this fall working on music for “Antony and Cleopatra,” a new production of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public Theater. The show debuts in Stratford-upon-Avon, England in November, before coming to Miami in January and New York City in February and March.  Michael is also part of the creative team behind “Goddess,” a new musical that was workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill Musical Theater Conference. Wearing his other hat, Michael will join his CDZA colleagues to perform at the first-ever YouTube Music Awards on November 3.

Charles Yang (Show 74, Show 160, Show 230, TV Season 1), a frequent collaborator of Michael Thurber’s and CDZA will also perform at the upcoming YouTube Music Awards. But don’t think he’s left the classical music world behind! Charles just performed Tchaikovsky and a premiere with the Peoria Symphony and will accompany American Ballet Theatre’s performance of Twyla Tharp’s “Bach Partita”  in New York (as featured in The Wall Street Journal).

“I am not a rock star” follows eight years of alum Marika Bournaki’s life.

A film following eight years of the life of alum Marika Bournaki (Show 181) entitled “I am not a rock star” is making the rounds at various film festivals. Her From the Top appearance in 2008 was filmed during the documentary project.

Violist Daniel Orsen (Show 246), from Pittsburgh and currently a sophomore at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, was one of only three finalists in the junior division for viola at the 2013 American String Teachers Association (ASTA) National Solo Competition in April at the Kaufman Center’s Merkin Hall in New York City. This past August, Daniel completed his fourth summer with the Perlman Music Program Summer Music School in East Hampton, New York on Shelter Island.

Chase Dobson

Composer Chase Dobson (Show 265) was named Composer in Residence at the Avante Chamber Ballet in his hometown of Dallas and was commissioned to write his first short ballet, “Faces of the Sun” for horn, violin, and piano. Chase spent his summer at Boston University Tanglewood Instiute and is currently a senior at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. To learn more about Chase Dobson, visit his website:  www.chasedobsonmusic.com.

Four From the Top alumni – Aaron Bigeleisen (Show 254), Peter Eom (Show 269), Hilda Huang (Show 180, TV Season 2), and Annika Jenkins (Show 234) – were among 20 high school seniors to receive the U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts in Washington, D.C. in June.

Aaron Bigeleisen also won first place in Classical Singer Magazine’s High School Vocal Competition and participated in Ottimavoce, a program in New York City run by Dr. Karen Parks of the Tisch School at New York University this summer. Aaron is a freshman at Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester in their double degree program for Vocal Performance and German.

After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007 with a double degree in Classical Guitar and English Literature, Jennifer McNeil (Show 50) became a managing editor at Thomas Nelson Publishing Company in Nashville, Tennessee. She decided she missed music and completed her Master’s in Music at New England Conservatory with teacher Eliot Fisk this past May.  Jenni is currently studying classical guitar performance under Antigoni Goni at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.

“Armed” with the Flexibility of an Octopus, even Camouflage!

By Jingxuan Zhang

On Show 132 in Boston, Neara Russell wowed the From the Top audience with her amazing versatility. During the taping, she accompanied at the piano a piece she composed for voice, “Lemonade Pie.” At 17, Neara was already showing mastery over not only the infinite possibilities associated with the keyboard, but also the ethereal qualities of the human voice. Thus, it did not come as a shock when Christopher O’Riley interviewed her and found out that she also plays bass clarinet, xylophone, and sings… and that she has a penchant for popular music. From the Top cemented Neara’s conversion from classical to popular by setting her up to study with famous composer John Corigliano, who encouraged her to combine her classical and contemporary styles.

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Neara Russell

Now 25 and a rising pop artist in Los Angeles, Neara divulged to me her secret: “Having a diverse set of skills has made my success as a musician.” After I pondered upon the full implications of that statement, I realized that it’s not only her diverse set of skills that became the foundation of success, but the flexibility and adaptability that inevitably develops with it. Being a musician is hard, especially in LA, where everyone is competing tooth and nail for a piece of the market, the proverbial pie. And Neara has her foot in the door, drawing upon her eclectic background to improve her own music.

She started out as a session musician as a member of the Backliners. If you don’t know what session musicians do, they are the often-ignored musicians at the back of the stage, supporting the star at the front, except for recording sessions. The under-appreciated always reminds me of an insight by the acclaimed physicist Richard Feynman:

I have a friend who’s an artist. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘I can see how beautiful this is, and you as a scientist take it all apart, and it becomes a dull thing.’ Although I’m not quite as aesthetically refined as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions, which also has a beauty. It’s not just beauty at one dimension; there’s also beauty at a smaller dimension…. Science and knowledge only adds to the excitement, mystery, and awe of a flower – it only adds! I don’t understand how it subtracts.

Humble yet neglected, Neara nevertheless internalized all the ensemble spontaneity required of session musicians. They need to be flexible to the demands of the main artist and attentive to the sound they produce, in order to blend or “camouflage” themselves to the unique style of the artist. This is a classic example of the product being greater than the sum of its parts. Many think that melody is king; however, Neara quickly learned that “No one is ahead or subservient to the other. The flower is truly breathtaking, even more so because of its cells and processes.”

Armed with diversity, Neara experimented with the holistic recording process by producing, engineering, composing, playing, and singing – by herself – an original album called Noise and Silence. One can hear a seamless amalgamation of different compositional techniques, from her strong background in piano to electronic elements. As her first album, one can definitely see that her style is not at full maturity; however, her potential and talent shine through tracks like “Look for Something” and the eponymous “Noise and Silence.”

Check out the tracks I mentioned on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/noise-and-silence/id432545894. Look forward to a second album, in the planning, with this teaser song, “Get Happy.”

Tatum Roberston Introduces Kids to Opera

“…being an arts leader means teaching some of what you have learned as an arts student, so that the passion for learning about the arts is ignited and to show that education in the arts has a reason to continue.”

After appearing on our now-famous Boston blizzard taping this past February, soprano and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Tatum Robertson, 17, shared her passion for opera with kids in her hometown of New Orleans, LA. Read about her experience below:

Why did you choose this project?

For my outreach project I decided to teach solfege, and to show how the lyrics to opera are very similar to the lyrics of many popular songs. I presented my outreach project to the kids of Camp Impact, which is my church’s summer camp…because I wanted to introduce opera and aspects of classical music to children who never had the opportunity to learn about this.

What did you include in your presentation?

I presented my project in two 10-minute segments. The first segment, I introduced myself as Slide5a classical vocalist, and that I would be teaching them solfege. I taught them that solfege is used to help musicians sight read and that sight-reading helps musicians to be able to pick up any piece of music and play it rather quickly. Next, I went through the solfege syllables with them as they repeated after me. Then I showed them the hand signs that corresponded with the solfege syllables. To finish off the first segment we sung a  “D “major scale together.

Kids

For the second segment of the presentation, I talked to the older children of the group. I began that segment of my presentation by asking them what type of music they listened to, and what the music they listened to was about. They gave responses like gospel, R & B, Hip-Hop, and Pop.

I explained to them that I would be showing them a favorite Italian opera song called “Libiamo” from an opera called La Traviata. After showing them a video of Anna Netreko singing “Libiamo” I showed them the English translation to “Libiamo”. I then explained to the children that classical music talks about all the same things as the music they listen to – that opera has love songs and party songs.  And since some of them mentioned they liked Rihanna I told them that “Libiamo” is a party song like the party songs Rihanna makes. Lastly, I told them that now they can enjoy opera the way they enjoy their favorite music, and that all they have to do is look up the translation of the opera song they want to listen to

as they watch or listen to the song. To close the presentation, I asked if any of them had questions, and they asked to see a video of me singing. I showed them a video, but they wanted more and asked me to sing “in person”. Before I sang, “Give me Jesus,” I told them that there are songs about Jesus in classical music as well.

What impact do you think this had on the students? Tatum

After I finished my presentation the kids all returned to their classes separated by age. I was happy to hear the children excitedly departing trying to sing opera. As the parents started to come in to pick up the children many of the children kept pointing at me saying “Mommy she taught us opera today!” Also, the next day one of the teachers at the camp was teaching the children a gospel song, and the kids asked her if she could teach them opera. I was very pleased with the children’s responses and reception to my presentation as I got them excited to learn more about classical music -opera in particular.

What did you learn from this experience?

Through my presentation, I learned that children are extremely impressionable and that when you enthusiastically present something to them, they respond with enthusiasm. I also learned that if you relate something children enjoy to the information you are teaching, the children are more likely to pay attention and be captivated.

What does being an arts leader mean to you?

The children’s response to my presentation really showed me what it means to be an arts leader. They showed me that being an arts leader means sharing what you do with others in the community, and displaying what has inspired you to do what you do because the community cares and is excited by exposure and opportunities. Lastly, they showed me that being an arts leader means teaching some of what you have learned as an arts student, so that the passion for learning about the arts is ignited and to show that education in the arts has a reason to continue.

Infusing New Vibrancy into the Oldies: Introducing Conrad Tao

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Conrad Tao
Photo by Lauren Farmer

by Jingxuan Zhang

Jack of all trades, yet master of all, 19-year-old From the Top alumnus Conrad Tao – pianist, violinist, and composer – can be pithily summed up as a thinker. “Thinker” is not the most titillating of words; however, it fits Conrad perfectly because he uses his artistry in the humblest way to do the biggest things. On the contrary, “intellectual” is too pompous for someone so plainspoken, and “visionary” too grandiose.  One can get a quick taste of what Conrad ruminates about by visiting the website for the UNPLAY Festival, a three-night event he organized using his Avery Fisher Career Grant and Gilmore Young Artist Award. In the WHY page, readers are assaulted by the question “What space does the musician occupy today?” Yeah, that is what he “thinks” about, dire problems faced by classical music.

It takes some real guts to ask that question, since it is such a sore spot in the classical music community. Attendance to classical concerts is becoming increasingly scarce, while Justin Bieber fills up sports stadiums to the brim with prepubescent youngsters without breaking a sweat. Conrad is fighting against the decline of classical music through his unique and thought-provoking concert programming. He said, “A concert is something more than just having a good time. I want to engage the audience and challenge them to change their thinking.” That statement underlies Conrad’s vision of a more passionately involved audience who reacts to the social commentary music can provide.

His goals were brilliantly articulated on the final night of his festival, themed Hi/r/stories. In his own words, Hi/r/stories “questions how history allows classical music to exert its power. Why is there currently a narrow conception of what classical music is for, among not only audiences, but also musicians and presenters?” His question is right on point. Classical music thrived in the 18th century, with giants like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all patronized by emperors and dukes. These powerful men had nothing to do other than wage war, walk in elegant gardens, and be dedicatees for historic compositions. But look at the modern industrialized society: On any Friday evening, in addition to that concert at Lincoln Center, one can go clubbing, see a Yankees game, watch Game of Thrones, or do homework (God forbid). Maybe the poor guy is too tired after eight hours of work to care!

Conrad is rethinking music’s role as a passive form of entertainment. Music has to evolve with society by being attuned to the fickle tastes of the modern audience, and he’s had those ideas since he was 10, on his appearance on From the Top’s 107th show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: “I remember saying, ‘It’s 2004. We have cellphones and computers already, so we need some new music to go with that.’ I played my own composition on that show, and the support I got from the audience, in addition to From the Top doing such effective outreach, really inspired me to forge my own path and reach a wider audience.” He has come a long way since then. For UNPLAY, he compiled a very compelling narrative which heavily features the works of living composers, with guest artists who specialize in electronic and experimental music. In the program one can easily see the socially relevant compositions just by titles such as “Private Time,” “Violence,” “Endurance Test,” and “… like kites with no strings.

The first day of UNPLAY also ushered in Conrad’s debut album Voyages with EMI, which features works by Monk, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Tao himself. This album is a microcosm of his journey as a musician, and he hopes listeners can derive their own journeys by listening. The inspiration for this album conforms to his unique perspective as an artist: “The process of travel is oftentimes seen as linear, from A to B. For me, it is not about the beginning and the end, but the space in between; the process itself is meaningful.” At only 19, Conrad has only started his “voyage,” but it has already been riddled with milestones. With a bar so high, it is time for him to “think” about what he can possibly accomplish next.

To check out selections from his festival and debut CD, visit http://www.youtube.com/conradtao. For more information on Voyages, visit http://www.smarturl.it/ConradTaoVoyages.

From the Top Alum Nathan Chan Spreads the Gospel of Music

Nathan Chan, 19

 by Jingxuan Zhang, From the Top Alumni Correspondent

Talking with Nathan Chan is a jarring reminder that I can still have hope in humanity – all I hear about is love, acceptance, and community. And String Theory, a five-cello student ensemble Nathan founded in the autumn of 2011, is the fruit of that passion. An undergraduate studying in the prestigious joint program between Columbia University and The Juilliard School, 19-year-old Nathan Chan made his appearance on From the Top on Show 207 in Stanford, California in 2009. There are very few classical musicians willing to venture into the world of popular music, but in an age which has witnessed classical music’s losing steam to the mainstream, Nathan decided to reach a wider audience with String Theory’s innovative arrangements of hits such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Viva la Vida.”

Because String Theory performs works newly arranged by members of the group, the pieces do not find their final form from the start. Thus, all rehearsals demand creativity, flexibility, and teamwork, or as Nathan puts it, “verbal rearrangement.” To ensure the quality of music, they carefully engage with it by polishing the texture and refining musical layers during the run through, working and editing along the way. And the group’s commitment to the caliber of output is just a microcosm of its mission to engage more people and share their passion for music. Nathan says, “Playing [in String Theory] has taught me to be an open thinker in terms of being a musician. I’m beginning to understand what modern audiences are looking for and enhance classical music with that knowledge.”

Nathan embraces what are now perceived as different categories of music, transcending the boundaries between classical and popular: “We make it so that all kinds of music are accessible to as many people as possible, so that music becomes less exclusive, and more community-oriented.” And isn’t the exclusivity of classical music why popular music is, well, popular? Behind the formidable fence of concert halls and suited attires, the younger generation has been estranged from centuries of tradition. Nathan is actively trying to break down barriers and invite the modern audience into his world of music without losing musical integrity. On his YouTube page, one can see Bach cello suites juxtaposed to Coldplay or The Swan neighboring Libertango. This diversity allows the audiences who enjoy mainstream to expose themselves to classical and vice versa. For Nathan, his YouTube channel’s contents are not merely video recordings, but continuations of live performances, for they continue to give music and spread joy to those who want it, anytime. As he phrases it, “Social media is a key way to reaching out to as many people as possible.”

He has learned a lot in this journey, which in a way started with his appearance on From the Top: “What impressed me most is how From the Top emphasized that music is really a community, and one has to foster it.” And foster he has. Quickly becoming one of the most popular student ensembles at Columbia University, String Theory established itself as one of the best and most popular ensembles on campus, being invited to collaborate with various campus organizations and student composers. Nathan Chan and String Theory surely have earned their name as “Columbia University’s Premiere Cello Ensemble.”

For more information on Nathan, visit nathanchancello.com. Listen to his musical journey at youtube.com/nathanchancello. And finally, follow him at twitter.com/nathanchancello.

Update: Nathan recently performed on behalf of From the Top at two events in Aspen: an event hosted by From the Top radio sponsor U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management at the Aspen Ideas Festival; and a From the Top soiree in conjunction with a radio taping at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

Kristina Zlatareva Sparks Students’ Imaginations

“As a young artist and leader, I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to inspire and connect with the public through classical music.” 

After appearing on Show 263 in Davis, California, with The Angeles Trio, 19-year-old violinist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Kristina Zlatereva created a powerful musical experience for students at the St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Monica, California. Read her beautifully written account of the experience below:

Kristina AL Photo 4

Music — the Gateway to Eternity

by Kristina Zlatareva

Albert Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” As a young artist and leader, I firmly believe that it is my responsibility to inspire and connect with the public through classical music. Art is a universal language, whose impact endorses every individual’s ideas, regardless of their cultural background, socioeconomic status, age or personal beliefs. Art abolishes class and race, and in its essence is hidden the idea of universal validation of every human’s imagination, no matter how different and unconventional it may seem in the eyes of society. Inspired by Einstein’s words, I decided to dedicate my Arts Leadership Project to working with children, and that led me to the music students of the St. Anne Catholic School in Santa Monica, California.

A K-8 school, St. Anne consists of more than 200 students from which the majority come from low-income families, who cannot afford to make art their children’s priority. The 40 music students whom I met with are so-called “lucky,” because they are permitted by the school and their parents to participate in the music program. Although they have an advantage to have music classes at their school, I found out that for them sitting in a classroom with eight to ten other kids for one-hour music sessions deprives them of individual attention which is needed to unlock their talent and potential. For many of the St. Anne students, learning an instrument seems like another ordinary activity at school.

Witnessing this, I decided to organize an informal event, where the children did not have to feel obliged to sit quietly and listen to music which they cannot understand, but where they could have their voices heard and opinions valued. Together with three of my musician friends, I performed a concert, including pieces for violin, piano, and cello from different classical periods.

Kristina AL Photo 2Before each performance we talked about the different composers and history of every piece and at the end we opened a discussion, where the students had the opportunity to share their individual comments — what they liked or disliked about the music, how it made them feel or what it made them think about. Lupita, a violin student, shared her honest opinion about the beginning of Chopin’s Prelude No. 15, Op. 28: “It’s like I could see a million bubbles floating in the sky. However, I liked it only until the loud part started in the middle. It should have been quieter all the way through, don’t you think?” How funny, I thought, that Chopin gave “Raindrop” as the title to the Prelude and Lupita imagined flying bubbles; and it was not coincidental, because music inspired a connection between a child’s imagination and an adult’s artistic vision. Despite the different eras they lived in and the differences in age and knowledge, I think Lupita felt the music the same way Chopin did. So, here is a proof that art is timeless — be it a painting, a poem, or a musical piece, it carries an eternal message that never alters throughout the ages.

I learned from the St. Anne students more than I could have ever imagined. They inspired me to see music in a simpler way, in a purer form, based solely upon human feelings. They reminded me that music is not always meant to be theoretically analyzed and critically evaluated, but its main purpose is to bring joy and emotional freedom to people. The main idea behind my project was not to teach dates or facts about composers and pieces, but to show that music and its power to give freedom can be trusted. I hope that the children will use it in the future as a tool for discovering inspiration and expanding their imagination. I truly hope that they will use music as their ally where words are powerless to resist the circumstances.

I have learned that in this material world, so fragile and filled with uncertainties, there is nothing more comforting than to know that music exists for the purpose of giving abundance to one’s soul and lifting one’s spirit. I have learned that music gives wings to the human imagination, thus breaking the boundaries of reality and allowing one’s dreams and ideas to flourish and come to life.

Kristina AL Photo 3

Catching Up with Alex McDonald After the Cliburn

Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. He managed to track down  Alex McDonald at a party following the awards ceremony. Alex, 30, appeared on From the Top Show 9 when he was 17.

Alex McDonald (Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer)

Alex McDonald
(Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer)

(Q) What was your experience like the Cliburn?

It’s definitely the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done. Even when I was trying out pianos, these silent guys with cameras were shadowing me, so I felt pressure not to make a mistake. At one point I just couldn’t handle it, so I started playing Super Mario on my laptop. It was like From The Top times 30,000. I’m not a career competition pianist. I haven’t done this 50 million times, which was obvious because I always had to go to the bathroom again. I wasn’t used to all of the stress. There’s a competition circuit, and I’m not on it.

(Q) What do you think of competitions in general?

This was like the hunger games for piano, except no one is dead and my bowels were a lot emptier afterward. The Cliburn is very intense; there are more cameras here than anywhere else. I’m not substantially disappointed. I tell my students that juries mess up all the time, and now I have a great example of that. The more interesting you are, the more you will divide a jury. Just to be clear, I believe the winners are very deserving. But when you rank people, you give them a new name. It gives the impression of even spacing on a scale and the most dangerous thing in the world is for young pianists to internalize that ranking. A ranking is a label, a new name placed on you by experts. I’ve had students who win competitions, and it’s a horrible growth stunter.

(Q) You struggled with tendonitis in the past.  How have you overcome your injury?

It took me six years to recover fully. I wondered about having to change career and maybe go into accounting. Everything I’ve learned about music has come from tendonitis. And many good things in my life have come from it. I met Rachel, my fiancé, at Juilliard. And I went to Juilliard to study with someone who could help with my technique. I had to release my identity as a pianist. If my primary identity is a pianist and I don’t play well, then I’m fighting for my life.  If I am a child of God, my identity is not given or destroyed by external things. I’m bummed I didn’t advance beyond the first round, but I’m not destroyed. One drawback of our western culture of individualism is that we have to create our identities. If I think I matter not because of how I play but because of what God has done for me I may be temporarily enslaved by the competition, but God loves me, I’m okay. I shouldn’t try to change. Injury forced me to confront that. It’s humbling.

(Q) What do you remember about being on From The Top?

I remember joking with Chris. He is a funny guy. I was totally psyched to be on the radio, and I was starstruck by the experience. It was great to play for a national audience.  These kinds of things bode well for the future of classical music. It is exactly what needs to happen to engage new audiences.

(Q) Did being on the show have a lasting impact on your career?

From the Top gave me a vision for how classical music can be made entertaining without compromising standards. Everyone knows From the Top, even non-musicians. It was fantastic exposure at a young age.

Alum Sean Chen Takes Third in Van Cliburn Competition

Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. Sean Chen, 24, who appeared on Show 134 when he was 17, was one of six From the Top alumni to enter the competition with an impressive group of 30 international pianists. Sean was the only From the Top alum to advance to the finals. 

Sean Chen celebrates his Crystal Award with his Cliburn host family.

Sean Chen celebrates his Crystal Award with his Cliburn host family.

At an award ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas last night, Sean Chen took third place in the Van Cliburn competition.

At the press conference following the awards ceremony, Sean said: “If you had asked me when I was a freshman at Juilliard if I ever would have medalled in the Cliburn I would have laughed and left. “

He said that the experience at the Cliburn has been one of the best and also one of the most stressful of his life. When asked how high this this moment ranks among his musical accomplishments, he stretched his hand high in the air and smiled.

He also said that he and gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko were thinking of celebrating with whiskey.

Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at www.nickromeoauthor.com.

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