By Joan Katherine Cramer
From Baltimore to Nairobi, Peabody musicians are turning to music to effect change and bring people together.
Dan Trahey calls it “the most magical thing I’ve ever found.” The Peabody Preparatory faculty artist, who graduated from the Conservatory in 2000 with a degree in tuba and music education, is talking about a revolutionary way of teaching and thinking about music that is inspiring new sounds and a new ethic among young musicians all over the world.
Informed in part by El Sistema — the system of teaching children music to effect social change that was developed in 1975 in a Venezuelan parking garage and subsequently caught fire internationally — this new way of thinking about what it means to be both a musician and a music teacher is part of a rich interplay between Peabody faculty members and alums and aspiring young musicians from Detroit to Nairobi.
Trahey — who serves on the board of El Sistema USA and who was integral to the creation of two El Sistema programs in Baltimore, Tuned-In and OrchKids — traveled to Chile this winter for his third El Sistema Educators Bootcamp. There, he works with the National Youth Orchestra of Chile, not only on the traditional repertoire but also on creating a new orchestral piece based on a locally relevant social and/or musical theme.
“One of the themes of last winter’s composition was about the value of a human life, especially inequality,” Trahey says. “We might start by asking, ‘What does inequality sound like?’ And one of the kids will say, ‘It sounds like a dog with three legs.’ Then we ask, ‘What does that sound like?’ And someone will talk about a jingle bell on each leg. Ultimately, they come up with a mixed meter pattern, like a Steve Reich piece. When we get into the orchestration, they say, ‘Let’s have all of the winds, brass, and percussion play as loud as possible at the same time the strings play pianissimo to show what an unbalanced society might sound like.’”
Collective composition is a way to engage musicians where they are, says Trahey. “You hook people on music by getting into the music they are listening to, their culture.”
So, when he and Preparatory Wind Orchestra Conductor Elijah Wirth took the Preparatory’s Tuned-In Wind Brass Percussion Congregation to Detroit last June, they spent the week working with local musicians and incorporating Detroit sounds, including Stevie Wonder, with the goal of creating something entirely new.
Tuned-In students worked with the young musicians of Accent Pontiac (an El Sistema–inspired program in one of the region’s most distressed towns), performed all over Detroit, and wrote a piece combining the musical flavors of Pontiac and Baltimore.
Trahey says this kind of deep exploration informs everything he is doing, both as a musician and a teacher. “It’s what my work is based on now: connecting communities by not only validating the interpretations of Western European music, but also acknowledging the fact that there is a new sound to be found in every community, if they’re willing to explore it.”
He says it’s also a way to diversify the traditional repertoire. “We know that the repertoire needs to be racially and regionally diverse and gender equal, but because our ensembles represent so many demographics already, what they are creating is naturally emblematic of their inherent diversity.”
Peabody doctoral student Rachel O’Connor is a graduate of the Global Leaders Program “for rising musical change makers,” a national program that introduced her to entrepreneurial skills, teaching artistry, and a number of El Sistema programs in Latin America. It was this experience that served as the launching pad for a proposed teaching artistry and performance tour of Latin America that earned her last year’s $10,000 Presser Graduate Music Award. A French horn player from Toronto, O’Connor used the funding to focus on teaching and learning with musical communities in Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Mexico through brass pedagogy and performance training.
The original plan was for a three-week sojourn, but when O’Connor started planning and talking to people the interest was so great it ended up being nearly eight weeks. And the number of communities she would visit surged from three to 21.
O’Connor worked constantly during that whirlwind 2019 tour, which began in mid-May and continued through the beginning of July. She led master classes and workshops, worked individually with students and teachers, and performed for audiences so receptive she arrived at one venue to find concertgoers lined up around the block. She also received a substantial donation of instrument cleaning and auxiliary supplies from Maryland’s esteemed Baltimore Brass Co., which she distributed throughout the trip. A major part of her work was organizing brass and chamber music festivals; she used part of the funding to bring in guest artists and clinicians to replicate her own formative experiences at summer music festivals. Most of her work in Chile and Peru consisted of doing residencies and master classes with El Sistema–inspired organizations. And she spent her first week in Bolivia launching a brass program at a music school in a remote town in the Amazon.
“It was an incredible privilege to be welcomed into these vibrant musical communities,” says O’Connor. “The warmth and receptiveness brought out the best in my teaching and musicianship.” She is actively working toward establishing continuing partnerships with the communities and organizations she engaged with during the tour, as well as finding a way to facilitate a similar experience for others.
“The hardest part was that first step, actually putting my dreams on paper and committing to them,” she says. “Once I started moving, it wasn’t so hard. So, I hope people find that inspiring.”
It’s an unimaginably vast musical world when you get out of your own bubble, as Jonathan Taylor Rush (MM ’19, Orchestral Conducting) and Clifton Joey Guidry (BM ’18, Bassoon) discovered when they went to Nairobi for the second year in a row to play The Nutcracker with the Nairobi Philharmonic Orchestra for the Dance Centre of Kenya. “It may sound cheesy,” says Guidry, “but there is something amazing about communicating with people from other countries through The Nutcracker when you’ve never played together and may not even speak the same language.”
A year ago, Guidry saw that Rush, his friend and Peabody classmate, had been chosen to conduct the orchestra. “Jonathan had won the prestigious Respighi Prize in Conducting and played at Carnegie Hall, and there was all this press attention,” says Guidry. “Plus, he’s a black American and the Dance Centre really wanted a black conductor, so they hired him. I’m also a black American and I’ve always wanted to go back to Africa and never could see how I could get myself there, so I called him and said, ‘This is awesome. Do you need a bassoon?’ And, incredibly, he did!”
Rush struggles to find words to fully describe the experience. “I can’t do it justice,” he says. “The place is so lush, so beautiful, the culture so rich, the people so warm and friendly. They dance and sing while they work, while they play, while they worship, in the streets, and they come up to you while you’re passing by and say, ‘What’s up, brother? What’s up sister?’ I felt immediately at home.”
In Kenya, Western classical music is rooted in colonialism, but the Nairobi Philharmonic Orchestra is now virtually all-Kenyan, “and people were thrilled to have a black conductor,” Rush says. “They told me they’d never seen one. Plus, last year was also the first time The Nutcracker was performed with a live orchestra, and the excitement was so great we had twice as many people show up to play this year and a much larger audience, including the U.S. ambassador, who was just blown away. The diversity is amazing. We had people of all skill levels, all social strata, plus musicians from Berlin and the U.S., including the Chicago Sinfonietta [where Rush is now assistant conductor], who also taught master classes. And we sounded incredible.”
The Sinfonietta will be bringing some of the Kenyan musicians to Chicago to continue the collaboration with performances and master classes this spring, thanks in part to funding the group received from a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” Rush says.
There is a near-mythic quality to playing in Nairobi, says Guidry. “It’s like being back with the ancestors.” And now, when he is composing, he finds himself drifting back to “that peaceful place of just pure tranquility where I know people are with me on this journey, and I have this support system even when it’s one I can’t see.”
That mythic connection, that diverse and even otherworldly support system that transcends language and culture and gender and ethnicity, is the essence of the new sounds young musicians are bringing into the world, Dan Trahey says.
“So right now, we have these kids who came up in Baltimore City through Tuned-In paired with kids they’ve already worked with at El Sistema summer camps in places like L.A., Chicago, and Miami. And they’re creating a community within our community, a kind of synergy. Through El Sistema, they’ve learned not only music, but mentoring and teaching, from a very young age. A kid may know only three notes, but he teaches the kid who knows no notes. So, these kids are not only changing music, they are changing the world.”