Ensemble Connect Reflections
As the first year of their fellowship draws to a close, a few members of Ensemble Connect share their takeaways and reflect on their most memorable experiences.
Maddy Fayette, Cello
I never imagined playing the cello in a jail. But at 10 AM on a rainy day in May, that’s exactly what I was about to do. A group of five fellows from Ensemble Connect, including myself, had spent the start of the spring semester designing an interactive performance for kids of all ages. However, adapting our performance for the audience we were about to face at the Manhattan Detention Complex felt like no small task and a complete unknown. As we moved through the security checkpoints of the jail, I felt anxious. Immediately we were greeted by an enthusiastic events coordinator for the jail whose positivity and excitement upon our arrival eased the anxiety. We made our way to the chapel, where several men were already waiting, but the last bit of our audience was delayed. So as we unpacked, we were able to chat with the men, who greeted us with excitement and openness. Some shared stories of their own musical experiences, while others asked us questions about our lives as musicians. By the time we started the performance, it was more of an ongoing dialogue between the performers and audience rather than a traditional concert, fluidly switching between music and questions.
The big change we made to our interactive performance was to focus on how the music we played personally touched and related to each one of us and our journey as musicians. In kind, the men were open about how the music resonated with them and shared stories of their pasts. Throughout that performance, I saw a room full of men who eagerly wanted an opportunity to tell their stories and be heard, to ask questions and get answers, and to peacefully enjoy a rare experience. As the jail event coordinator thanked us for our performance that day, she told us how rare in a jail it is to have events, such as our performance, and how these opportunities inspire good behavior and happiness in a place that can have so little. What she said, as well as my interaction with these men, impacted me as a musician and as a person, and will always stay with me. In any type of concert—whether at Carnegie Hall, a school auditorium, or a jail chapel—I now look for that personal connection I feel with the music I play and try to communicate that to the audience. That’s what can turn an ordinary performance into a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Maren Rothfritz, Viola
I struggled a lot to figure out what has had the biggest impact on me in my first year of Ensemble Connect. Convinced that it is the program as a whole, it took me many hours of thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, until I finally distilled something more specific than vague hints in hot air.
At one point, I started to approach it from the other side, to “bridle the horse from the back,” as we would say in German: What is it that makes me feel like a different person now after one year of Ensemble Connect? What is the result of this biggest impact?
A big difference is that I am much more confident. That is partly because I now find myself doing things naturally that I used to think of as being very difficult or even scary. For example, it is especially challenging for me as a non-native English speaker to present freely in public, or to lead an entire lesson in a classroom full of seventh graders. Now, I not only find it easier—I really like it!
But a different aspect of this confidence is that now I feel that I am an active and even important part of society. Interacting with and connecting to so many diverse audiences made me see again and again the impact and power that music can have. I feel that I have a role and meaning in the world as a musician.
And that’s the moment when it started dawning on me: Over the past months, we used music in so many different ways, but always to communicate with people. Whether it’s during a concert performance, an interactive performance, a pre-concert talk about the music that connects us, or in music class with my school kids, it always comes down to connecting and communicating.
I think in the end, what impacted me the most was the process of constantly dealing with a single question: How can we use music to make the world a better place?
Because we ask that question, we wonder how we can reach people, how we can teach people, how we can connect with them, understand each other, give each other special experiences, and more. Whatever I do, I ask myself: How does this help? How is this good?
I really like this particular lens to look through. It affects everything. Everything I do now has a higher level of meaning, and it gives me an equally high level of fulfillment, encouragement, and inspiration.
Becky Anderson, Violin
“It’s so offensive!! You can’t even tell what it is anymore!!!”
“I think it’s awesome. It’s cool and so different.”
“I just think it’s disrespectful. You have to respect our national anthem.”
The musical discussion with students at the Brooklyn High School of the Arts was on the verge of backfiring on me. My curated selection of four versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” played over the classroom speakers at the end of January, had snowballed into an impassioned (but still respectful) shouting match between students over Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 Woodstock performance of our national anthem. Some students thought the performance was brilliantly creative, while other students found it simply obscene. After calming everyone down enough to allow each student to have a platform on which to speak, we got down to the core questions of the disagreement: Does a national anthem serve to be recognizable, or as an opportunity for individual expression? What is the relationship between performer and music? What does interpretation allow?
Speaking honestly about music, and the critical thinking that is necessary to articulate that to other people, has been one aspect of being a part of Ensemble Connect with some of the most impact. Whether in the classroom, during an interactive performance, or from the stage during our concerts at Weill Recital Hall, Ensemble Connect encourages us to genuinely ask ourselves, “Why is this important? What can I say (and how can I say it) that will enhance an audience’s experience of music, rather than distract or detract from it?” These questions, and the decisions that come from their answers, make me continuously excited to perform for and connect with each new audience and community.
Oliver Barrett, Trombone
It’s become common knowledge that to get to Carnegie Hall you have to practice, practice, practice. But what do you do once you have arrived? After my first year as a member of Ensemble Connect, I have learned that the answer remains: Practice, practice, practice. It may be the same three words, but over the past year their meaning has transformed for me. They no longer refer to the solitary, tedious, and exacting practice of a musician chasing the perfect technical performance, but instead call to mind a much different type of practice that is often overlooked. When pursuing a performance career, it’s easy to become consumed by the mechanical details of “what” and “how”: What slide position sounds the best? How do I improve my tone in this passage? Inevitably, we lose focus on whom we’re playing for and why we’re playing for them in the first place. Ensemble Connect has taught me that it takes just as much practice and discipline to not only bring the “who” and the “why” back into focus, but to demand that they become the guiding force behind every note that I play. After my first season with Ensemble Connect, I will continue to practice, practice, practice, but I will practice using music as a tool to form personal connections with communities; I will practice helping audiences discover why our music is relevant to their lives; and I will practice insisting that the strength of the “who” and the “why” become the ultimate measure of my success.
Rosie Gallagher, Flute
A lot can happen in eight months, four days, and nine hours.
Many bagels can be eaten, rehearsals rescheduled, rash world leaders elected, music lost and reprinted, friendships formed, and embarrassing secrets revealed under the guise of a harmless ice breaker. This is a brief story of my time with Ensemble Connect—and as a warning, it may ooze with sentimentality, so it is best consumed with a cup of tea and something chocolate(y).
On September 14, 2016, warm sun flowed through the large windows of the education wing at Carnegie Hall. I felt small in this magnificent building. The walls were adorned with large photos of such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Yuja Wang, Gustavo Dudamel, and—my personal favorite—Leonard Bernstein, who was crouched at a piano with curious children surrounding him. Within a few months, this beautiful building would come to feel like home, the strangers around me like family. And these intimidating photos on the wall would transform into inspiring friends, challenging me to continue their pursuit of a meaningful life in the arts.
The first few months of this fellowship were akin to ziplining over a beautiful body of water: Once you took that initial step forward, there really was no going back. From day one, we were challenged as to how we saw our role and responsibilities as artists, both individually and collectively. Sessions with Carnegie Hall Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson left me in awe of the possibilities of visionary leadership. He communicated his sincere belief that music holds a power to heal, unite, educate, and forward our world, and that it should be available to anyone—with no exceptions. It quickly became clear to me just how fortunate I was to be working in an organization who held this value above all else.
The performance opportunities were unforgettable. We played a concert with Sir Simon Rattle in Zankel Hall and not long after undertook a residency at the Paris Conservatoire, where we were to work with dynamic soprano Natalie Dessay and the inspirational musicians from Ensemble intercontemporain. There was something magical about the way French oboist Philippe Grauvogel would raise an eyebrow and reinvent the 32 16th-notes of his solo in our rehearsals of Michael Jarrell’s Assonance VI. To me, this was a stark reminder that no phrase should ever be played out of habit.
We traveled in small groups to schools around the five boroughs of New York City to give interactive performances. My group and I weaved our way through Mozart’s Flute Quartet and Brahms’s Piano Quintet, exploring the role of character in these pieces. I’ve discovered that no audience is more honest than one of 50 teenagers sitting in a school auditorium. Every sigh, yawn, and iPhone beep felt like a nail sliding down a blackboard and pushed our group to constantly reinvent our methods of engagement and presentation. On the morning after the November election, I found myself sitting on the subway, traveling to spend a day teaching at Grover Cleveland High School. The carriage was quiet and I felt an angry confusion hanging in the air. It was a gift to work with the students of Grover Cleveland that day. It gave me faith that our future can belong to these kind, intelligent, and empathetic minds that I see on a weekly basis.
As the barren trees in Central Park were cloaked with gentle snow, the new year began. I worked in the early days of January with magnificent cellist Julia Yang to put together Villa-Lobos’s duo Assobio a Jato. Our rehearsals were a fascinating experience for me. Julia’s thoughtful and challenging approach to interpreting the notes on our page breathed a unique life into the music. This was one of countless times where my fellow musicians have inspired me in the rehearsal room. I will always hold sacred the hours spent with my colleagues; each person unique and with a beautiful lens in which they approach a score.
The unpredictable climate of our world can lend itself to some strange daydreams. I find myself—often while traveling to my partner school—wondering how humans will reconcile the immeasurable differences in what we hope for the future. Being a part of Ensemble Connect has been a microcosm of this bigger picture. Coming from all around the world, with different life experiences and expectations, 18 people have been pulled together for a unique moment in our lives. We have come together to serve something greater than the differences that separate us: our love for music.