Jon Corin: My From the Top Experience

By Jon Corin, 18-year-old saxophone player from Sarasota, Florida

Jon Corin performs on From the Top

Jon Corin performs on From the Top

When I first heard From the Top on the radio, I was in awe of the musicians who were just around my age. My favorite part of the show is how real it makes its performers, bringing them down to earth for the listener and giving an insight into the lives of these young musicians beyond the practice room. When I learned that I would have the opportunity to perform on the show, I was excited that I would be able to share both my music and who I am with the From the Top community.

It’s hard to pick just one moment that I’ll remember most when I think back to my From the Top experience. Many of my memories come from moments that were not even part of taping the show. I will always remember discovering the Gamelan with such an amazing group of musicians (who were equally confused by the instrument at first as I was). I’ll also never forget the dynamic of the green room before the show. Although we all experienced some normal pre-performance jitters, I was struck by the poise and comfort of the group.

From the start of the weekend, the From the Top staff amazed me; making the organizational machine run so incredibly smoothly, constantly maintaining a smile, and meeting every one of the performers’ needs. For me, one of the most profound aspects of the show is the sense of community and love for the arts that is so clear amongst the group. I know that I will take that feeling with me for the rest of my life, and I will try to bring it to all of the environments, musical and otherwise, of which I am a part.

Listen to Jon on this week’s episode of From the Top, taped at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota .

Taking It From the Top at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy

It’s 7:30 AM on a Monday morning at the Columbia Campus of Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Kids grades K-8 have filed into the gymnasium for their usual morning meeting. Sitting in rows with backpacks and coats still on, they suddenly hear a saxophone above them play, “Oh When the Saints, Go Marching In…” The song continues with violin, melodica, cello, and voice as four teenagers come on stage to join the saxophonist above them in the crow’s nest.

Photo by Caitlin Cunningham

Surprise concert at the Columbia Campus.  Photo by Caitlin Cunningham

This was the kick-off to From the Top’s residency at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, an elementary school located on multiple campuses in the Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods of the City of Boston. The residency was comprised of a series of assemblies and concerts at three of the school’s four campuses, bringing the power of music to 1,000 kids.

Photo by Caitlin Cunningham

Chad Lilley kicks off the assembly. Photo by Caitlin Cunningham

Thanks to a grant provided by the Free for All Concert Fund, From the Top was thrilled to visit this school in our hometown, especially since the school is so committed to music education. 600 Pope John Paul II students participate in an after-school string program. From the Top’s visit with five performers from our October 6 radio taping at NEC’s Jordan Hall served to inspire this school full of budding musicians to embrace music and keep practicing.

Mary Swanton, Music Director at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, opened the assemblies by telling her students that the From the Top performers left her speechless!

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Performers following their radio show taping at NEC’s Jordan Hall on October 6.

The interactive assemblies drew inspiration from the stories and talents of our From the Top performers – 17-year-old saxophonist Chad Lilley from Olney, Maryland; 17-year-old cellist Lev Mamuya from Newton Highlands, Massachusetts; 16-year-old pianist Niu Niu from China but now living in Natick, Massachusetts; 17-year-old mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosio from San Francisco, California; and 16-year-old violinist Yuki Beppu from Lexington, Massachusetts.

Students imagined what colors and images they heard in Lev’s performance of a Debussy Cello Sonata – purple, black, red, and rainbows.

Photo by Caitlin Cunningham

What do you imagine?  Photo by Caitlin Cunningham

They chose sound effects for Chad to play on the saxophone from a long striped hat – such as circular breathing, playing two notes at once, and slap tongue. Watch the game here:

Yuki shared her dream of making more kids listen to classical music and after an intense performance of Ysaÿe, she played her violin along with a track of Lady Gaga’s “Applause” to the delight of the dancing and cheering audience.

Photo by Caitlin Cunningham.

Singing along with Lady Gaga.  Photo by Caitlin Cunningham

Olivia joined a middle school chorus from Pope John Paul II’s Mattapan campus in a performance of Beyonce’s “Halo” and then led the entire audience in a round of vocal exercises.

Niu Niu shared how hard it was to move to the United States from China and then had jaws dropping as he played Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude.

Niu Niu commented that “Watching all these kids in schools laughing and screaming and their happy facial expressions when listening to the music was amazing.”

Photo by Caitlin Cunningham.

Photo by Caitlin Cunningham

Check out how some of the students got into the music here:

The day long residency was every bit a learning experience for our From the Top performers as it was for the students at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy and provided a very real set of challenges and opportunities for their Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop.

“One of our main goals at our experience at PJPII was to inspire the students with music and share our love for it. I think all of us were really looking forward to seeing how they would react to our assemblies, and what they took away from the whole experience,” says Yuki. “However, something I took away from the outreach was confidence and to embrace spontaneity. When we got there, we were all forced to be somewhat spontaneous and throw ourselves out there like a pebble into a pond, and just watch the ripples forming. This applied to both the musical portion and the speaking portion as well. But with the energy of the kids and their enthusiasm, my hesitation and worries completely disappeared. So all in all, I think not only did the kids benefit from what we did, but we as performers benefited greatly as well. This was a very mutual experience, and something I will never forget.”

You can hear Chad, Lev, Yuki, Niu Niu, and Olivia in their From the Top radio episode the week of November 18.

From the Top performers with PJPII leaders.

From the Top performers with PJPII leaders.

Learn more about the Free for All Concert Fund.

Check out our photo gallery.

“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.”

From the Top Takes Aspen by Storm

As the thunder subsided and the rainclouds parted high above the Aspen Music Festival grounds on August 4, a phenomenal double rainbow appeared over Harris Concert Hall, just as the last ticket-buyers were hurrying in to the hall to see From the Top’s live taping.

Thanks to generous support from the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, From the Top took up residency at the Aspen Music Festival and School earlier this month with a whirlwind of activities, including auditions, an alumni picnic, a live radio taping, an arts leadership orientation workshop and outreach event, and special events for our donors and board members. Every summer, hundreds of serious young musicians from across the United States, including approximately 60 From the Top alumni, come to Aspen to immerse themselves in their musical studies, making a natural setting for our continued collaborations with Aspen Music Festival.

Shortly after arriving in the beautiful mountain village, our recruitment team immediately set up for a full day of auditions. We saw some of the stars of tomorrow’s From the Top episodes!

Sterling Elliot at Music Rehearsal in AspenLater that day, we met up with the performers who would be appearing on our taping on Sunday for a pizza party and music rehearsal. This show featured eight performers, including four alumni who have graced From the Top stages before – which made for a particularly rousing and fun music rehearsal and pizza party on Saturday night. Adria Ye’s mom Rui Wang even noted that this was her third pizza party with us!

Left, Sterling Elliott (Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist), 14, rehearses the third movement, Introduction: Andante – Allegro Vivace from the Cello Concerto in D minor by Édouard Lalo.

 88More than 50 From the Top alumni, parents, board members, and supporters gathered for a picnic lunch on Sunday, including soprano Lauren Criddle, now age 30, who was featured on our very first show, taped at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1999, as well as 13-year-old violinist Maya Buchanan who will appear on our next taping in Vermillion, South Dakota. It was our third time hosting an alumni gathering while in Aspen.

 284Above, alumni pose for a picture at the picnic.

Then it was time to rehearse and tape our radio show in Aspen Music Festival’s Harris Hall. This was our third show in Aspen in six years and we were thrilled when the enthusiastic audience erupted in thunderous applause for each of the performances.

Left, Colton Peltier performs “Feux Follets” from Transcendental Etude No.5 in B-flat major by Franz Liszt.

Leadership pathwaysThe next day, the show performers took part in an Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop, conducted by our Education and Outreach department. The kids were led through a variety of exercises to help them discover the myriad leadership pathways open to them as artists.

Above, performer Jiacheng Xiong’s Leadership Portrait from the Arts Leadership Orientation Workshop.

1011570_10151787605183606_1197624193_n Later that day, they had a chance to put what they had learned into action when they performed a surprise pop-up performance at the playground of the Yellow Brick School for the students at the Early Learning Center.

Left, Sterling Elliott, Austin Huntington, and Haruno Sato with the kids from the Early Learning Center in Aspen.

That evening, a reception in support of From the Top was held at the Aspen home of Lynda and Doug Weiser, who hosted along with Cathy and Peter Halstead and From the Top Director Elaine LeBuhn and her husband Robert. IMG_0296More than 50 of our friends and donors enjoyed performances by alumni 12-year-old pianist Avery Gagliano, 19-year-old cellist Nathan Chan, 20-year-old violinist Nora Scheller, and host Christopher O’Riley. Guests included From the Top Overseer Kate Bermingham, Tom and Vivian Waldeck, and 19-year-old alum Colton Peltier.

Right, hosts Lynda & Doug Weiser, Elaine LeBuhn, and Peter & Cathy Halstead at the reception.

See more pictures from the weekend here.

Be sure to tune in to hear the Aspen episode the week of September 16!

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.

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