Jam-Packed in San Francisco

Tour buses line the streets in San Francisco, filled with gawking visitors to the city, snapping pictures at the multitude of historic sights. On February 13, though, a 40-person bus parks in front of the Hotel Whitcomb to pick up some local teenage residents of the bay area. Fourteen musicians, all students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Pre-College Division, clamber aboard early in the morning carrying a variety of string instruments. Sleepy heads rest on top of every other seat, and the remainder of seats are filled with cello and guitar cases. This is how From the Top moves 14 musicians, 5 cellos, 4 guitars, 3 From the Top staff members, 2 violins, and a viola.


We’re here to tape a show at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Planted in a modern and breathtaking six-story building in the heart of the city, the training in the pre-college department here has been integral to the musical journeys of more than 50 From the Top alumni, including cellist Matt Haimovitz, frequent collaborator with our host, Christopher O’Riley.

So it is a treat to showcase the amazing talent from the bay area on a show that celebrates the level of talent here at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Pre-College Division. And, if you know us, (which I’m sure, dear reader, that you do) you know that we can’t keep such a treat to ourselves.

This brings me back to the bus, now winding its way through the hills until it stops in front of a school perched high, overlooking the freighters in the bay. We have arrived at Malcolm X Academy in Hunter’s Point. While there is no formal music program at this school, the students have had workshops in African drumming as well as other one-time music events.


As the schoolchildren file into the cafeteria-auditorium, pianist Elliot Wuu and violinist Kevin Zhu are playing an Alicia Keyes song as teachers and students are sway to the music. Before long, the Cambiata String Quartet is playing a rendition of Pharrell Williams “Happy”. “Why aren’t you singing?” asked one little girl, “I want to hear you make music with your voices.” The Cambiata String Quartet pick up their instruments and the room erupts in song and smiles are pasted on the faces of every dancing child. When the program is over, the students are reluctant to leave and they eagerly approach the 24-Strings Guitar Quartet, plucking their strings and grinning widely at the sound that follows.


This experience was eye-opening for our young performers who don’t remember a time before music was a part of their lives. Many of them, like cellist Catherine Kim from the Konpeito Cello Quartet, wondered, “what more can I do to make sure these kids have access to music?” Director of Education & Community Partnership Linda Gerstle reminded the young performers that they could make a difference at this and many other schools throughout the city, since they lived nearby. She introduced them to Elizabeth Lowry, the outreach coordinator for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ricki Nelson, an El Sistema Fellow from New England Conservatory who is now working with children at different schools in the area, including Malcolm X Academy.


Later in the day, our tour bus descended the steep hills from Hunter’s point to reach Jefferson Elementary, a school with a diverse population in the middle of a city-wide kickball tournament. When we arrived, the kickball teams were sharing an ice cream treat in their beautiful garden courtyard. We met briefly while enjoying lunch and Linda asked if any of the musicians would like to take on a different role in this program, interacting more personally with the kids in the audience. The violist from Cambiata string quartet, Patricia Tang, enthusiastically raised her hand and her eyes lit up.

When it came time in the program, Patricia selected two young students from the audience to conduct the Konpeito Cello Quartet. She bent down to see the youngsters’ faces as she showed them how to direct the ensemble’s volume. One young boy followed Patricia’s movements, raising his arms and the cello quartet’s playing became louder, dropping them and they became softer. His eyes were alight with joy as he realized that he was making music with them. A thunderous round of applause followed as Patricia ushered the kids back to their seats.


Our overstuffed tour bus rambled through neighborhoods of Victorian homes and green parks on its way back to the Conservatory where the musicians were dropped off for a rehearsal to prepare them for their final audience of the weekend: a sold out show in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall on Valentine’s Day. While they’ve performed on that stage before, they knew their performance would be broadcast to over half a million listeners when the radio show airs on NPR stations across the country the week of March 9. Much like this bus packed with musical instruments, the weekend in San Francisco was packed with amazing interactions that our young performers won’t soon forget.

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