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Exploring Vulnerability and Risk Taking: FTT’s Fairfax Residency

What connects skateboarding and those electrifying Paganini Violin Caprices?

Phillip Hammond (credit Cameron Whitman)

For Phillip Hammond, 17 year-old violinist from Bloomington, Indiana and a recipient of From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, it’s all about taking risks. Being able to pull off these techniques, whether on a skateboard or on a violin, requires him to be fully committed and vulnerable at the same time.

Taking new risks to be able to grow as a musician and an arts leader is a key aspect of the From the Top experience. During their community engagement work, that means exploring creative ways to connect to new audiences.

In February 2020, Phillip and ten other young musicians gathered for a residency with George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Virginia that included the recording of two From the Top shows and community engagement events, such as interactive assemblies for a local middle school.

Adrienne Bryant Godwin, Director of Programming at the Center for the Arts, described the residency partnership:

Hosting From the Top was an incredibly rewarding experience, which perfectly married our institution’s mission of serving as a creative classroom for our on- and off-campus communities with From the Top’s emphasis on the artistic and professional development of extraordinary young musicians… The depth of the engagement extended far beyond the doors of our theater, as the From the Top performers connected with students at a local Title 1 middle school, as well as aspiring young musicians from the Mason Community Arts Academy.

Outside of rehearsals and recording, the From the Top musicians spent time preparing for their interactive performances at Poe Middle School in Annandale, Virginia.

Though the school context was a familiar one for our school-aged musicians, the challenge was this: how would they frame their performances to grasp the attention of 12-14 year-olds and make the whole experience meaningful?

FTT Performers enter Poe Middle School.

Poe Middle School welcomed From the Top (FTT) on February 28 for a packed day of interactive assemblies and classroom visits. Upon arrival, the young musicians were treated to a tour of the school and learned about the Poe student body from drama teacher Justin Sumblin. Students on their way to class peered curiously at FTT musicians lugging their instruments through the color-coded hallways.

The key to an interactive performance is connecting and responding to the energy of those in the room. In each of the two assemblies, there were 300 students accompanied by their teachers and other school staff members. The young musicians learned that many Poe students have not had access to live classical performances, let alone performances by students their age.

To craft the interactive component for their performance, FTT musicians brainstormed ways to get these middle-schoolers engaged and excited about the music. Natalie Brennecke, 18 year-old violist from Oberlin, Ohio and another Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist, summed it up best when she said that the process was all about “making my explanation of the piece relatable and understandable, not just a bunch of historical facts.” The ideas from this brainstorm session seemed almost too wild at first. Connecting skate-boarding and Paganini? Linking the story arc of Frozen II to Rachmaninoff’s famous C# Minor Prelude? But by being vulnerable and taking creative risks in their presentation, the musicians let the results speak for themselves.

From the back of the assembly hall, our first group of performers watched as their audience filed in. For Lira Masuda, our 10 year-old violinist, Poe students were actually older than her. The rest of the FTT musicians stood at the door to greet students who were buzzing with curiosity.

An eager audience awaits the assembly at Poe Middle School.

16-year-old bassoonist Xavion Patterson, a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist from Smyrna, Tennessee, invited two students on stage to get a special close-up look at the bassoon thumb keys, while pianist Ella Kim, 12, had the whole hall raising their hands to choose their favorite chords.

Cellist Levi Powe demonstrated the cello’s ability to capture different registers by having his audience clap the bass line while he played the top.

Alexander and Jialin, the Supernova Piano Duo, illustrated the idea of “tension” in the music by having Poe students pressing their hands together, feeling the transfer of energy from one arm to the other.

While our musicians had mapped out their interactive performance, the tricky part was adapting to a live audience. Many of them had to learn to be comfortable with the noise level in the room. Middle-schoolers had a different way of showing that they were having fun with the music, and it took courage to play into that energy.

The bottom-line lesson? Connection over technical perfection.

Kiesse Nanor, 15 year-old pianist, reflected on this lesson below:

“Even though my voice was a bit shaky, I found comfort in the expressions on their faces as I explained the structure of my piece… [T]his experience was impactful because it helped me really realize and understand that music is in no way one sided, it’s about communication, and sharing different types of experiences and perspectives through a common medium.”

Sharing a personal perspective was the entry point for Sam Higgins, our 17 year-old countertenor from Milton, Massachusetts. His performance at Poe Middle School was the first time he shared about his journey in discovering and developing his rare voice type. And Sam was surprised by young fans lining up afterwards:

“…what really stood out to me was that directly after [the assembly], about 6-7 boys approached me ready to talk about their voice types and tell me how cool mine was. I was a little taken aback at first, because I never expected my speech to have that much impact, or to make kids feel safe enough to approach me and talk to me about their voice types. It was certainly a memorable and touching experience.”

Sam Higgins addresses a theater class.

For Sam, the choice to be vulnerable invited others to do same. Our musicians got to experience different kinds of vulnerability during the classroom visits. In a drama class, our musicians put their instruments aside to participate in improv exercises that invited both Poe students and FTT musicians to be uncomfortable, silly, and adventurous together.

In a chorus class, our instrumentalists tried to keep up with the tongue-twisters and other vocal warm-up exercises. FTT Alum Olivia Cosio taught the beginner chorus some of her favorite warm-up routines. Afterwards, the group talked earnestly with the middle-schoolers who were not afraid to ask honest questions. These questions, especially thought-provoking coming from 12-14 year-olds, covered how to afford instruments, how to navigate your parents’ dreams vs your own dreams, and how music works as a career.

Although the full day at Poe Middle School allowed our FTT musicians to improve on their own communication and leadership skills, the lasting impact of the experience was how they made use of those skills to build connections with the community there.

Xavion commented:

“I was a little nervous that no one would care about what I had to say, but as soon as I walked out and stood in front of everyone, everyone’s eyes lit up. It was so cool to see how music affects a community.”

And of course, the effect of those connections rippled beyond what they were able to see. A music teacher thanked us for coming and expressed admiration for the dedication and creativity of our young musicians. Some Poe students wanted the FTT shirts that were handed out to their teachers. The school’s police officer enthusiastically recorded the performances and gave us a big good-bye wave at the door. Though the final bell had rung and the school was emptying, our young musicians’ heads were full with the day’s event, and with images of the wide-eyed middle-schoolers they had connected with.

Anderson & Roe pose with the FTT musicians who participated in the residency with George Mason University.

Thanks to the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University for opening the doors to our collaboration with Poe Middle School. Shoutout to Justin Sumblin and and Purev Arslanbaatar for welcoming us into their classrooms! And special thanks to our incredible guest-hosts, Anderson & Roe, for being amazing MCs and treating everyone to their electrifying performances throughout the day.

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