Be Yourself: Musical Connections in Washington, DC

Backstage at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 8-year-old pianist Oscar Paz-Suaznabar has his head bent over a cell phone, launching angry birds at stubborn pigs, and From the Top alum Clifton Williams reaches over to show him a trick. Clifton has recently graduated college and moved to Los Angeles to build a career composing and playing piano, but this weekend he has become a superstar to young Oscar, who watched intently each time Clifton took his seat behind the piano. Around the corner in the dressing rooms, you can hear soft giggles as 15-year-old Kiarra Saito-Beckman and 17-year-old Taiga Ultan, who only met a few short days ago, recount their performances on the stage. Over the stage monitor beats the super cool rhythm of Christopher O’Riley’s break piece, a version of Aphex Twin’s produk 29 [101], which is being performed by Christopher, joined by alum Marcelina Suchocka and her all-girl percussion ensemble “Excelsis.” These From the Top musicians have had an amazing week in Washington, DC, filled with musician-to-musician interactions that are the start of new friendships.

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The recording of From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley, presented by Washington Performing Arts, was the final event in a week-long residency in Washington, DC, sponsored by The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The recording lauded the 15-year anniversary of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and celebrated our ten-year partnership – which has resulted in over $2 million in scholarships for amazing young musicians with financial need. All of the performers on this show received From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, a scholarship to be used on instruments, lessons, travel, or other essentials needed to further their musical education.

The whole experience began at a middle school half an hour away from George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Tuesday, October 21. There, the performers met face-to-face for the first time in the auditorium at River Bend Middle School in Loudon County, Virginia. They gathered around From the Top’s education program staff to see videos of how some of From the Top’s alumni are taking their music beyond the concert hall. Inspired, they got down to business, planning and rehearsing an assembly that they would present to the seventh and eighth grade students the next morning. They practiced what they thought they might say to the young audience before turning to the school’s teachers for advice, who smiled and told them “Be yourself.” As they made their way back to Washington, DC, the performers were ready.

FromtheTopDC 76The next morning, the fresh-faced bunch performed their assembly to thunderous applause. The performers made their way into the audience to greet their new fans. High fives were given generously and grins adorned each performer’s face. As the last audience member made their way out the door, the young musicians peeled off into a row of classrooms where eighth grade music students would visit for mini-master classes with From the Top’s mini-masters.

FromtheTopDC 17In the band room, Marcelina selected kids to play the marimba, shakers, and wood blocks, while she laid down a groove on the congas. Next door, Clifton gave the kids a lesson in networking usually reserved for young professionals, “Be kind, be assertive, and be yourself” he told them. Kiarra used Bach to demonstrate how classical music employs repetition, as popular music does. And finally, Taiga and Oscar encouraged students to explore how the experience of listening to classical music changed when they were lying down, or facing the wall, or doing anything but sitting quietly in a normal concert hall.

This day of outreach was a huge learning opportunity for our performers. Asked to speak for a group of donors later on in the week, Kiarra told us that she wouldn’t have known how to tell her story prior to the education experience with From the Top.

But that was only the beginning. They still had to record an episode of the most popular weekly one-hour classical music program on public radio. Now that they had planned and presented such an involved program for such a discerning audience – middle-schoolers! – this team of performers had experience and confidence that would support them in their From the Top radio recording.

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You can hear their show the week of November 17, by listening on your local station, downloading the podcast, or streaming the show at www.fromthetop.org.

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.

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:

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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.

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Elizabeth Aoki Warms the Hearts of Elderly Residents in Phoenix, AZ

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9-year-old violinist Elizabeth Aoki charmed listeners when she appeared on Show 261 in Boston, Massachusetts. During a visit to Phoenix, Arizona with her mother, Elizabeth’s musical talent also won the hearts of residents living at the Freedom Plaza Retirement Community. She worked with a family friend to organize the event and played some violin favorites for the residents (check out the program below!). They loved having the chance to meet such a talented young violinist.

The thing I most enjoy about music is getting to go to different places and dressing up. I also like seeing the smiling faces of people in the audience enjoying my music.  It seems like the people that listened to me play enjoy classical music. Because of this experience, I may want to play for retirement centers again.  – Elizabeth Aoki

Elizabeth Aoki Photo 6PROGRAM:

Édouard Lalo
Symphonie espagnole in D minor – I. Allegro non troppo

J.S. Bach
Sonata No. 1 in G minor – Adagio

Pablo de Sarasate
Introduction and Tarantella

Variations on Amazing Grace
(Traditional)

Franz Zhao and the Youth Music Society Bring Joy to the San Francisco Community

Franz Zhao Photo 2

“I imagine these experiences will be invaluable to my future, where I will continue to provide music for those who are willing to accept it.”

Ever since he was young, composer, pianist, and From the Top Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award recipient Franz Zhao (Show 257) has seen the inspiring effect that music can have on others. He used that inspiration to create his own organization the Youth Music Society of San Francisco. Franz recruited musical friends and colleagues to join him in sharing classical music with audiences who otherwise have limited access to musical performances. The majority of their performances have been at retirement homes, and the residents have been truly grateful for their visits.

Franz shares more about Youth Music Society below…

I am proud of my ability to lead and my overall willingness to help, whether it be organizing concerts for the elderly, or more contained matters, such as volunteering at summer camps. Several years ago, I took these ideas Franz Zhao Photo 5 and founded a small, non-profit organization called the Youth Music Society of San Francisco. This organization consists of myself along with a several of my friends and classmates. Our aim is to bring concerts to those who cannot access them by normal means – this typically leads us to senior centers and senior homes, where we play music for the elderly. We typically put on concerts several times a year, usually occurring during our school breaks.

Therefore, there are usually one or two holiday concerts during our winter break, another during spring break, and few more during the summer. We have also organized a few benefit concerts, including one to help support the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus 2011 Russia Tour – the money we raised help pay for choristers’ travel needs.

Ever since I was young, I would periodically play at my grandparents’ senior apartment for their holiday parties, Franz Zhao Photo 3most often during the Lunar New Year celebration. After each performance, I would have many tearful elders come up to thank me. Using this inspiration, I have continued the tradition over the past several years. Playing music for these elders with my organization has deepened and ignited a passion in playing for them. The happiness of these seniors matters most to me, and through these concerts I am able to share my passion and joy with them.

Involving myself with these activities has allowed me to see the world with a brighter perspective. In this sense, playing music at senior centers and senior homes has helped me understand how much our elders appreciate music. I imagine these experiences will be invaluable to my future, where I will continue to provide music for those who are willing to accept it.

Eric Segerstrom Brings Smiles to Albany’s Youth Receiving Family Therapy and Support

Eric

Because these presentations took place…right after the holidays, I wanted to bring some happiness to these kids who have been through so much hardship. Furthermore, I wanted to introduce them to music that they normally would not be so exposed to.”

Percussionist and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Eric Segerstrom (Show 237) wanted to connect with children from his hometown who hadn’t had the same musical opportunities that he had growing up, so he reached out to the Parsons Child & Family Center: a residential facility for families and children coping with domestic hardship. Working with three separate groups of kids at the center, Eric performed a combination of classical and hip-hop works on marimba, and then helped the kids build their own instruments using paper plates and plastic cups. At the end of the event was a full-group performance using the newly made instruments. The experience provided Eric with a whole new perspective on the ways he can share classical music with younger audiences.

We asked Eric to share more with us about his visit to the Parsons Center…

FTT: How did these presentations differ from your previous work with kids?

Eric: Before this, whenever I worked with kids, they were privileged and fortunate New York City kids who wanted to learn a little more about composition. Yet talking about classical music with kids who have no background in it, while also trying to make it fun and exciting, is a lot harder than it sounds. For the first time, I really felt like I had to step up to show these kids what I knew and how music can be new and fun.

FTT: What were some of the challenges you encountered?

Eric: The most challenging moment for me was the first presentation: I had almost no idea what to expect going into it. I had been prepped a little beforehand by one of the Directors of Therapeutic Recreation, who suggested just working with the kids and going with the things they wanted to do. However, this is really tough advice to follow when you aren’t getting any visible feedback from your audience! Before I knew it, I had gone through all of the pieces I had prepared with 45 minutes left in the presentation! I was a little embarrassed, and felt badly that I hadn’t done what I had hoped to do. I went home and came up with a few more ideas for the next presentation, including combining their interest in hip-hop with classical music. I felt much more prepared the next day.

FTT: What were some memorable moments?

Eric: The most memorable moments were definitely those in which I realized that I had left some sort of impact on the kids. On my last day at the Parsons Center, there was a particularly rambunctious kid who spent much of his time with me running around the room and flailing his newly made shaker in the air. When everyone had left and I was packing up, one of the Directors told me that she had never seen that kid so happy for so long.

Another memorable moment was my second day: this was the smallest group I played for with only three or four kids. However, they were so genuinely interested in the marimba and the music I was playing that their questions filled up a majority of the presentation!

FTT: What did you take away from this experience?

Eric: I think my time at the Parson’s Center showed that music can help people, even if it’s in a small way. The kids that I worked with all seemed pretty happy when they left, and I think it piqued an interest in some, or at least a curiosity, to the idea of classical music and the marimba. This is why I strongly believe that funding for the arts cannot be cut out of school or federal budgets…the impact of a creative and emotional outlet can be vastly underestimated, especially when it comes to kids.

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

Eric: To me, being an arts leader is about giving back and passing on what you know. As a college student, I’m in a rather unique position: I have knowledge that I can pass on to kids, peers, or even adults about music and composition, yet I am young enough that my peers and younger kids can relate to me more so than they would to an adult. I got to this point because of other people who took the time to teach me and pass on what they knew. I believe that being an arts leader is really about using what you know to benefit others, whether it is by teaching, performing, writing, or speaking.

Check out this video created by the Parsons Child & Family Center with highlights from Eric’s visit: 

Carson Marshall Aims to Inspire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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