Sebastian Ruth: And I guess what I am working off of is a notion that music can have a profound impact emotionally, spiritually, socially on people and on communities and it's important to be able to offer that impact to people in a broad sense. So I guess I'm saying that in our case the role of the artist is to offer something to the world and to let that sense of offering and invitation become part of my artistry, part of my practice of being a musician in the world.
Jo Reed: That was violinist and violist Sebastian Ruth talking about his commitment to public engagement as a musician in urban areas of Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome to Artworks, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
Sebastian Ruth is a founding member of the Providence String Quartet and Community Music Works, an organization based on the idea that musicians can play a significant role in the public life of a community. Through the permanent residency of the Providence String Quartet, Community MusicWorks provides free after-school music education and performance programs. Now in its 14th year, its success has been staggering. In fact, CMW was honored by the White House with a 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, and Sebastian Ruth himself received a 2010 MacArthur Genius Grant. I had the opportunity to speak with Sebastian Ruth and began our conversation by asking him to share the ideas behind Community Music Works.
Sebastian Ruth: Community Music Works is a connection between professional musicians and kids and their families in several urban communities in Providence, Rhode Island. We build a set of programs around a professional string quartet and in addition to quartet a collection of musicians who are living, working, teaching, performing in these urban communities we work, and with the idea that this is about establishing a career and a life for professional musicians that meaningfully engages with community and meaningfully engages with the notion of public service.
Jo Reed: It's in many ways a very radical idea when we think about the culture that happens at many conservatories. It's almost a monastic culture and there’s a way you're just placing yourself in opposition to that.
Sebastian Ruth: Yeah. The idea is to really reconceive of the role of a musician in the twenty-first century and to say, "What is it essentially that we want to do? What is it that essentially we can do as we're practicing and performing music?" And we're living this experiment of saying that musicianship is truly a publicly engaged activity and when you're on any concert stage you're looking to engage and to communicate with your audience, and this isn't mere entertainment at its best. When you've been part of it as an audience member or as a performer, been part of a really deeply moving performance, it's transformative. And we're trying to just geographically move those sets of experiences out of the traditional venues of concert halls and in to community settings where we don't fundamentally change the activity of practicing and rehearsing and performing music but by doing it in a storefront and unusual community settings we're making Beethoven string quartets part of the normal fabric of a community's life and at the same time invigorating ourselves as musicians because we are trying to sort of live a reciprocal relationship with a community where as performers and as educators we're not wedded to a fixed notion of what classical music is but rather taking a set of tools and playing the instruments of the string quartet and taking a set of repertoire and making experiences happen on a daily basis that uses these tools in some very traditional ways and also some new ways.
Jo Reed: It's very interesting because I say this as somebody who very much enjoys going to concerts and listening to classical music there, but nonetheless you enter that concert hall and there is a way in which it's almost like a church where there's prescribed behavior and it's very easy to understand how people who aren't familiar with it can feel intimidated by it and just begin to question the whole behavior around being there rather than being able to relax and actually listen to the music.
Sebastian Ruth: Right. Right, and I think fundamentally my sense is the problem isn't necessarily in the concert hall and I myself I quite enjoy the magic of stillness when you have a thousand people seated together hanging on every note of a performance that's going on on a stage. I think there's something quite beautiful about that moment. The challenge is one of belonging and if a Hispanic child whose parents aren't familiar with this kind of art form sits there with his or her parents and doesn't feel that he belongs then it becomes this alienating experience. You look around and there aren't people who look like you sitting in this audience. There, as you say, there's a set of norms about how you're supposed to behave and that sort of consumes your whole experience and you don't feel like you belong and there's- alongside that there is this issue of cost and how much it costs to go to a concert.
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Sebastian Ruth: And it's not to say that it's the only prohibiting factor. Low-income families that we work with will still pay money to go to entertainment, but if you're going to pay money you're going to go to a place where you don't feel like you belong and let alone just the sort of language of music and whether that feels accessible or not, but if you kind of feel like you're an other in this space you're not going to opt for that experience again probably. So one of the programs we do is to bring families, both kids and their parents, to concerts but we surround it by a social experience. We have a pizza party beforehand and a group of teachers goes with the families to these concerts and we do some talking beforehand about what the music is. We do some talking at intermission about what's going on and try to just be a guide to the experience so that it is something that you- that a family comes to one of these concerts with us and feels like they've got the skill set; they know what they're there for and they have things to listen for. And hopefully then having been introduced to it families may take themselves back and feel like, as with anything, if you know something about it you can feel like you belong there.
Jo Reed: Part of what they get to know by being involved in Community MusicWorks is the process of how music is played, how it's created, how it's made, so you open that process up for these kids.
Sebastian Ruth: Yeah. No. Absolutely, and importantly it's also in most cases parents of the students that we work with haven't themselves played a classical instrument or studied one so I think the magical moments for me are when the student is the tour guide for their parents and say, "Oh, this is what I'm seeing in the viola" and "Look at that. Would you look at that?" and the parents is the ones who are being introduced to it by the young person, but yes, certainly once they are-- That'd be true of anyone, not just our students, but—
Jo Reed: Absolutely.
Sebastian Ruth: … the more experience you have having played or listened to many times the more you can take away from it.
Jo Reed: How did this begin, Sebastian? How did you start this?
Sebastian Ruth: Yeah. So I started Community MusicWorks with a $10,000 fellowship from Brown University where I'd been an undergrad and specifically from the Center for Public Service called the Swearer Center, and the Swearer Center was offering a one-year public service fellowship to graduating seniors to start a public service project domestically or internationally that was connected to an existing community organization. So the back story for me was that I am a string player. I play violin and viola and knew that string quartet playing was something that I was passionate about and wanted to do, also knew that it was- that there was a challenge in the traditional career path, that I wasn't necessarily drawn to a typical career in which I felt that by participating in this art form I'd be sort of underwriting or participating in an exclusive cultural experience. And yet the music itself and the experiences of listening and playing it I didn't think were in any way exclusive but the- as we were just talking about the aura and the norms and kind of cost and- etc. associated with classical music tends to be exclusionary. So that was one set of impulses for me was trying to find a different way to have a career as a musician. Another set of impulses came from studying education and really getting excited about the idea that education can be a strategy for addressing social justice issues in our country but specifically in cities and that access to a set of educational experiences for young people that really raised questions of social justice and that gave kids an opportunity through a world of ideas to become people they may not have expected they could become. This set of ideas was really fascinating to me and so I began to make the- this connection between the possibility of music study and performance together in a community setting being a place that young people could access a world of ideas and a set of mentors in us as professionals that would have a long-term impact on how they grow up and how they see themselves in the world. So those ideas were the basis of this fellowship proposal. My now wife, Minna Choi, is a violinist who was in that quartet with me and she and I and our cellist, Nahanni Rous, were still in town the year after graduation and were playing informally—
Jo Reed: And this is in Providence, you went to Brown.
Sebastian Ruth: In Providence, and so our fourth colleague was already out of the country doing some other things but we started informally playing quartets. The fellowship was a chance for me to get some ideas started, and then within a couple of years it became clear that this was something more than a temporary project, that it was something that needed to grow and that we needed to build a nonprofit organization around so that it could really mature.
Jo Reed: How did you find the students at first? And I'm not being facetious. I'm really curious. Did you just show up at a community center with your instrument saying, "Hey"?
Sebastian Ruth: Yeah. Well, at first I was working with a small art center that was attached to a church which for reasons that sort of predated my participation there was facing some challenges and closed within the first couple of months so I was a little bit out of luck there. I had positioned myself with this group and then they folded, and so by virtue of having been in the neighborhood a couple months and driving past a community center called the West End Community Center in Providence it seemed to have the kind of activity and the hub of community life that I was really interested in. And so I as you say walked in with my instrument one day and said, "Hey, got this—
Jo Reed: Oh, you really did.
Sebastian Ruth: I did.
Jo Reed: Oh. Okay. <laughs>
Sebastian Ruth: I did right off the street. I just walked in and said, "I've got this program, got my own funding. We can offer free music lessons and- as a part of a bigger program and would you be interested in working with me?" And they said yes immediately, which was luck. They had it turned out been looking for something that would be an alternative to the basketball programs that they mostly had for the young people and they embraced it immediately, which in hindsight was a huge opportunity for me and for developing this program because that community center was really deeply in a position of trust and a sort of deeply important place especially in the black and Latino community in Providence. And the director at the time, a woman named Deb Wyatt, was informally referred to by politicians around town as the mayor of the west end of Providence. She was a real community leader, and so by virtue of them bringing me on and sort of bringing me under their wing I think I gained a lot of trust and credibility in the community that I probably would have had to work for many years to achieve otherwise.
Jo Reed: So you aligned yourself with someone with very deep roots in that community.
Sebastian Ruth: Yeah. Absolutely.
Jo Reed: Now of course Community MusicWorks is very well known and you have a waiting list of kids who want to study with you. What was it like in the beginning? How did you get kids interested?
Sebastian Ruth: That was surprisingly easy. We as a quartet went in to the community center. We went in to a couple of other community programs and just played a 20-minute performance and talked about our instruments and talked about the music we were playing--I think at the time was a Mozart string quartet--and put out a sign-up sheet and kids have a natural curiosity about things, right, but also these boxes of wood that sing. And it's like you could do this, do you want to try it, and most times the kids signed up just out of sort of excitement for trying something. That's how we got started. Certainly, once kids realize how hard it is their interest level tends to drop and they think oh, gosh, I didn't know what I was getting myself in to, but over the years we've addressed that by encouraging them to stick it out until our first performance, and once they have that feeling of pride and that sense of accomplishment and the sense that they- that people are clapping for their accomplishments they tend to get psyched about it again.
Jo Reed: I feel the need to emphasize that you're not screening these kids for talent. You're not looking for the next Jascha Heifetz or Yo-Yo Ma.
Sebastian Ruth: No. This is true. Yeah, it's this creative tension that we live with on a daily basis, which is we are opting to make this a publicly available, cast the net very wide, anyone who would like to have this experience is welcome, and yet also hold high expectations for the kids and know in our minds that they could become the next Jascha Heifetz as you say and provide them with the tools they would need to get there. So I describe this as a creative tension because on the one hand if the latter was our goal only, if our goal was to produce great musicians, we would structure things radically differently and some programs in this country do have that as a goal. They have as a goal enabling people from limited means to have great careers in classical music and certainly there's a ton of validity there and some great programs exist, but by not setting that as our primary goal and setting our goal that this is something that could be an excellent opportunity for everyone we don't structure the program with rigid screening-out processes and auditions and competition nor do we penalize people if their interest sags or if they miss a week. Certainly, we work very hard to make sure people's attendance is good and I don't mean to suggest otherwise, but we're sort of living these two goals simultaneously and the end in my mind is that musicians who come out of Community MusicWorks will be hopefully very interesting people to listen to. And we haven't talked much about the other elements of our curriculum yet but in addition to studying the basics of string instruments kids are also working, especially teenagers, in discussions- in group discussions about issues of social justice, issues of oppression in our communities.
Jo Reed: I'm sorry. This is the group that you call Phase Two?
Sebastian Ruth: That's right, yeah. This year we're doing a series of discussions on important moments of musical protest throughout history starting with Haydn's Farewell Symphony and moving to as far forward as the freedom songs of the 1960s civil rights movement and even more recent than that and so that students are sort of engaging with this idea that as artists we are both public intellectuals but as artists we're also have an important public role so that kids begin to understand that aspect that we're trying to live as professionals as well.
Jo Reed: Can you explain how the whole program works? Take me through it. I have a daughter. She's accepted. Let's say she's ten years old. What can I expect?
Sebastian Ruth: Right. So the basis is that everyone has a private lesson in violin, viola or cello, and that's once a week. On Fridays everyone comes together and this is a new program for us this year for what we call All Play Day or All Play Fridays where your daughter would have an hour-long studio class with two teachers and all of their students combined to do master classes and group pieces and other kinds of playing opportunities together. We all have a sort of big community break and snack and announcements and dancing sometimes and then we have another hour of ensembles so that's a two-and-a-half-hour experience every Friday. Periodically throughout the year we have a Saturday workshop. Traditionally we've had musicians coming in from lots of different musical styles and backgrounds to do an interactive performance with our kids. Once a month or so there's an opportunity to take, for a family to go on a concert trip. The phase two students are getting together Thursday nights for these discussions I mentioned. Our students have elective opportunities like to study fiddle styles, to study improvisation, to work in a media lab doing electronic music, and then our phase three students who are the most- the oldest and most advanced play performances publicly for pay so they're in small chamber ensembles, quartets or duos or trios and are hired to play gigs around Providence, around the state, and they're actually paid for that work.
Jo Reed: We do need to say that your outfit is in a storefront so that it's readily visible from the street and people can hear as well because you have speakers outside.
Sebastian Ruth: That's right. So about nine years ago we rented this storefront to be our headquarters, a rehearsal space, our meeting space, a little performance space right on the street in the heart of one of the neighborhoods we work in, and over the years we've outgrown the one and we have now two storefronts adjacent to each other and another space within the same building. And we’ve grown to expect that musicians and musicianship are part of the normal fabric of a community's life. The hope is that as kids can feel that by having this language of music that they have access to a global community of the musicians and that that itself is a real kind of world-expanding notion and a world-expanding sense of possibility.
Jo Reed: And I'm assuming that's one of the ways but one of the many ways you see chamber music changing the way these kids see themselves in the world.
Sebastian Ruth: Right. Right. Absolutely, and for any of us who have participated in music and it's- certainly it doesn't- it's not limited to music but when you're involved in an intense activity like music there is a sense of community among peers and the world of music is somewhat small and so it's not unlikely that you have friends who know friends in faraway places and you may meet them and you travel and you may have a network of people there. And there's a sense that there's a little bit of a portal experience. You enter Community MusicWorks and you become a musician and then there are friends in faraway places that you can consider your own.
Jo Reed: How do you measure success?
Jo Reed: And in the meanwhile you're also—and you I mean the broad you, the Providence String Quartet of which you're a founding member—you're all committed to expanding your own musical repertoire and your own development as a musician.
Sebastian Ruth: Yeah. And this is the experiment we're trying to live and some others have joined us in this experiment as well. There's a fantastic group in New Haven, Connecticut called Music Haven that's centered around a string quartet and there's another group in Boston called the Boston Public Quartet. There's a group in Pawtucket called the Rhode Island Fiddle Project which is the closest geographically but also very close because. It's started by a fellow from our program. We hadn't talked about that but a training program where people come and work with us for two years. So there are several groups now living this experiment and the experiment is to say this is not altruism; this is not about selfless service; this is about positioning your career in such a way that your fulfillment artistically is located literally in a place where your own pursuits are helping other people as well and vice versa and their interest and their pursuits are helping your musicianship and their enthusiasm for it. So it's a challenge because we make ourselves very busy trying to do a lot of things with our educational program but we also maintain a concert series of our own that we play. We accept invitations to play in other professional settings on other people's concert series and we push ourselves to continue to develop as individuals as well through annual what we call “practice retreats.” We give everyone a week off a year to take on a personal development project whether it's taking some lessons or preparing a recital or something. I had the opportunity last year to take a three-month sabbatical as well. It's the first of that sort that we had done in the organization and that was a chance for me just to go back and put on a single hat and just be a violinist and violist for a few months and study and perform. So it's very much about this living experiment of being able to have a career as musicians that is also having this hopefully profound impact on a community.
Jo Reed: Well, Community MusicWorks has received many awards, many prizes. We would be here for an hour if I listed them all, Sebastian, but one of them recently was an NEA grant.
Sebastian Ruth: Yeah. We've had some very generous support from the NEA over a course of several years particularly in the Access to Artistic Excellence program recently and then an American Master Works grant to learn and perform in this case a series of American string quartets that span the twentieth century from 1896 up through 1994. We'll be doing a series of these American master works over the course of this current season funded by the NEA, and then in addition we recently won this National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award.
Jo Reed: Yes, and you went to the White House to pick it up.
Sebastian Ruth: We did and it was well worth the trip—
Jo Reed: And quite a group of you. How many kids went?
Sebastian Ruth: Well, to the White House it there were just two of us, one adult and one student, but we brought a busload of about 30 staff, students and parents to do a series of performances around Washington the day of the White House ceremony. So after a couple of us got to go to the White House and meet Michelle Obama and accept this award the others were getting a tour of the capital at that time and then afterward we all met up at the NEA and played a performance there in the old post office building for NEA staffers and other folks in the building.
Jo Reed: Of which I was a part of that very appreciative audience.
Sebastian Ruth: It was great.
Jo Reed: It was wonderful.
Sebastian Ruth: We played that in Washington at the NEA but also at the Sitar Center for the Arts, a youth program in Washington, and then at the national- on the National Mall site of the new Martin Luther King Memorial, which is still under construction but which we felt would be a sort of symbolic gesture of paying tribute to Dr. King and to the ideas and words that he represents still. And so it was a sort of informal performance outside the walls of this new memorial that hopefully will live on in our kids' memories, and as I told them at the time hopefully when they come back as grandparents and they bring their kids to the National Mall and they see this memorial with all the beautiful stone they'll say, "I was here. We were laying down a musical cornerstone to this place in 2010."
Jo Reed: Very nice. Sebastian Ruth, thank you so much and many, many congratulations.
Sebastian Ruth: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.
Jo Reed: That was Macarthur Genius grant recipient Sebastian Ruth; he was talking about Community MusicWorks. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from Ravel String Quartet, performed by the Providence String Quartet
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on Beyond Campus and search for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Next time, a conversation with Shirley Sneve about Native American media arts.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening .