Last Sunday, I experienced my first spring concert as a faculty member in the Music for Youth Suzuki program based in Arlington Heights, IL. Originally started in the 1970s as a result of cuts to music programs in Arlington Heights’s primary school district, Music for Youth is unique it that it offers stringed-instrument instruction to public school students beginning in the first grade, setting it apart from most public school music programs in which fifth grade is the traditional starting point. I began teaching with the program in September 2014, and have enjoyed it immensely. I have about 4-5 students at five different elementary schools, and teach repertoire classes for advanced middle schoolers every other week. Obviously, it’s not my only job-as I’ve mentioned in previous “updates,” I’m becoming well-acquainted with the Chicago roadways these days as I travel back forth between various teaching and performing commitments, but I consider my work for MFY to be of utmost importance. A more cynical individual might venture to suggest that, as a graduate of two prominent conservatories, I should be teaching somewhere other than an elementary school classroom, but I don’t feel that way at all. I can, and do, offer advanced instruction and performances. But I strongly feel that the some of the most impactful work a musician can be doing is to work with children, because they are, quite literally, the future of music. We talk all the time about attracting more youth to classical music concerts; well, perhaps sticking a violin (or preferably, a cello) into their hands just might be the best way to go about that.
Although our program continues through the duration of the school year, Sunday’s concert was our last big event, and the only one in which all of the students in the program had an opportunity to perform on the same stage. Needless to say, the weeks leading up to the performance proved to be rather hectic. A snow day put a wrench in our carefully-laid rehearsal plans; details of the concert day had to be organized to a fault; programs had to be proofed and double-proofed; and, of course, the students had to be adequately prepared. What turned out to be Chicago’s coldest February on record also didn’t help matters when it came to instrument maintenance; over the course of the rehearsals and concert, we had two fingerboards fall off, a cello crack like the San Andreas fault, an endpin fall out and vanish somewhere in Arlington Heights, and a bow tip explode like a firecracker. But everything was resolved in the end, and the concert turned out to be a great success.
I felt great joy and pride as I watched and participated in the performances of my students, who range in age from 5 to 14. This was not just another extracurricular activity for them; this was an experience they would never forget. I wondered whether any of them might go on to become professional musicians and teachers. How cool would it be if, fifteen years from now, I’d hear that someone had gotten into a top music school, or, a few years later, a prominent orchestra? After all, the great musicians we love and admire today were youthful students once too, as strange as it might seem to imagine. One time while I was at Eastman, my teacher, David Ying, told stories about teaching a seven-year-old Alisa Weilerstein. It was almost surreal to think of this great soloist as a fledgling beginner, just beginning to appreciate the basic fundamentals of cello playing-but then again, I suppose nobody is born playing the cello. Even Yo-Yo Ma probably had to start out with “Hot Cross Buns” (although I suspect he didn’t spend too much time on it).
As I continued to imagine the possibilities for my students’ future, I was struck by another, somewhat unsettling thought: what would that future look like? With so much change sweeping the classical music world, even more so than when I began my formal conservatory studies in 2008, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what the coming decades hold. If one of my five-year-old beginners who played their first concert last Sunday decides to major in music, he or she will theoretically be finishing a Bachelors degree in the year 2032. What, I wonder, will the prospects be for a music major at that point in the future? Will people still be auditioning for a small number of orchestra openings, or will there be ample opportunity in both traditional and contemporary ensembles? Will there be a large variety of teaching positions in a thriving music education scene, or will programs like Music for Youth fall victim to budget cuts and the lopsided priorities of indifferent politicians? Will the “sea of gray” characteristic of a classical audience be replaced by more seas of gray (and hopefully some seas of browns and blondes and brunettes), or will it dry up irreversibly?
As optimistic as I am about the future of music, I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I know who does, even if they do not: my students, who happily see me once a week in various parts of the Chicago area, from the music rooms of elementary schools to the storied halls of the Music Institute of Chicago. They hold the keys to our future, and the rich heritage of our past. It is our duty-it is our responsibility-to impart to them the wealth of knowledge we possess, so, in the unknowable decades to come, they will in turn be able to pass on the timeless art of music to the children of the future. That is why I teach in programs like Music for Youth, and why I plan to continue doing so for many years to come.