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Harnessing Your Power: Highlights of From the Top’s 2020 Boston Residency

On a Wednesday afternoon, eleven From the Top young musicians gathered in Boston to begin a 4-day residency. They arrived as strangers; some having traveled across the country to be there. One goal was clear – the young musicians had to prepare for a performance and recording for NPR’s From the Top radio show. (In fact, the group recorded two shows that week – Show 382 & Show 383!) What they didn’t know was that they were about to embark on a journey focused on using their artistry to connect with the community.

Read on for some highlights of that journey.

HARNESSING YOUR POWER

As the young musicians gathered at the From the Top office, the room was full of nervous giggling and enthusiasm. After sharing personal stories, and inspirations, the musicians began to dig deeper. From the Top Executive Director, Gretchen Nielsen, reminded the students of the power they have as artists.

“There is a lot of pressure on your generation to help society connect. We believe you are the ‘now generation’ of artists. We want to help you harness your power to use music to connect.”

With that, the group dove into planning unique and interactive performances in the community. The group quickly learned that each performance would come with its own unique challenges. How could they invite people into their music?  What would it take to read the room and adapt their performance for each audience? How could they be sure to truly connect?  As the musicians discussed these questions, their plans began to take shape.

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“I NEEDED THIS TODAY”

The next morning, part of the group trudged through the snow to perform for 30 people at the Women’s Lunch Place. The space was bright and welcoming, with fresh flowers on each table. A noisy room suddenly hushed as 18-year-old Wooldjina Present, a soprano from Homestead, FL and recipient of From the Top’s Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award, began to sing an Italian opera song. The captivated audience began to dance, take videos, and ask questions.

Gloria L. has been coming to Women’s Lunch Place for 33 years. As the music continued, tears flowed from her eyes.

“I needed this today,” she said. “Especially with the way this world is going. I love classical. When I am upset and need to sleep, I put on some classical music and it calms me down….I was feeling really down. Then I heard him [14-year-old Benjamin Shaar from Newton, MA] play the piano and Wooldjina sing. I said, ‘Lord that is so wonderful.’”

After sharing stories with the guests, the musicians reflected on the power of music to access emotions, shift the energy in a room, create connections, and recall childhood memories. Most importantly, they learned that music can be accessible and enjoyed by everyone.

Later that day, those lessons resonated again as a small but crowded room at the Haley House, a soup kitchen for men, took in a performance by the musicians and erupted with applause after each piece. Mid-way through, the guests even joined in. One man began air conducting during a group sing-along of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” Another started crying, beating his chest, and dancing to “Amazing Grace.” Two guests played the keyboard.

As the group left, a staff member from Haley House thanked the musicians. “You could do this for anyone and you are doing it for them. It makes them feel like they have value. Everyone wants to be treated with respect and dignity.”

“I WILL DEFINITELY USE THESE SKILLS”

After successful dress rehearsals and a performance at the Margarita Muñiz Academy, the group had one more performance to give – this time at the Hale House, a residential care facility for seniors. Drawing on the lessons of the week, the group truly connected with the residents. As 16-year-old pianist Caroline Hsu from Woodbury, New York played the baby grand piano, she asked residents to imagine a couple waltzing in the grand room that boasted high blue ceilings, ornate crown molding, and large picture windows. Conor Padmanabhan, a 16-year-old guitarist from Palo Alto, California, who played a tango on his guitar, connected with a man from Chile. The violin sibling duo, Daniel and Isabel Chin, ages 14 and 16, from Windham, New Hampshire, shared their love of Costa Rica with a resident who had ties to the region.

“People were smiling who were not usually smiling” remarked Catherine Logan, the Activities Director, as she looked around the room. On the walk back, the musicians were filled with warmth, joy, and inspiration. The lessons they had learned were evident.

“I will definitely use these skills,” said Caroline as she talked about plans to connect with a senior home being built in her neighborhood. Conor, who has been playing at senior homes in his community, was inspired to expand on his program and spend time talking with residents.

“Normally when I go play at the senior home I play at in California, we don’t get to talk to the people after. But at From the Top, I saw that was a really meaningful thing. I think it was just as important as the performance – for us, and them.”

16-year-old guitarist Conor Padmanabhan

At the close of the residency, they formed a circle, held hands and sent a pulse around the group. They had joined the From the Top family and were ready to take their new skills and experiences to go make positive change in the world. Through coaching, mentorship, and connections, they left inspired to use their artistry to make the world a kinder, more tolerant, and empathetic place.

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