Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Community Conversations

Community Conversations


Photos by Will Kirk


From composing classes to harp lessons (and everything in between), Peabody’s musicians are actively engaged in exporting music beyond the Conservatory’s walls. In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by WYPR’s Tom Hall, five key players tell why community engagement is crucial to the future of classical music.

Hall: Jeff Sharkey, let’s start with you. Why is community engagement important to Peabody? Peabody has an international imprint and you have students from all over the world. Why are you interested in being engaged in the community in which the Conservatory sits here in Baltimore?

Sharkey: Musicians have always been engaged with their communities and it’s ever more important now. The profession as we know it is undergoing a sea change. Orchestras are on strike. They’re demanding more of their musicians. String quartet residencies, jazz residencies are few and far between. So part of the reason we are working to do it is to make sure we are graduating an adaptable musician who can contribute more than just the traditional performance. But we are also aiming to influence their musicianship. One of the challenges of being a musician is you are just in a practice room, perfecting your art and not seeing the sun, not seeing who you are communicating with. When you get out into the community, and you work in inspiring others to develop their own creativity, you remember why you got into music in the first place. And your own musicianship becomes freer, more natural. So that’s reason two. Reason three: It’s the right thing to do. Peabody is one of the great things in Baltimore. We don’t want to just sit on a hill, as an ivory tower, not reaching out to the city around us.

Hall: Let me play the devil’s advocate. What’s wrong with the ivory tower? What does Peabody gain, as an institution, from students being engaged in Baltimore while they are living here, even if they are not here for the long haul?

Sharkey: In the 20th century, classical music became a little isolationist, a little elitist: We are playing symphonic music, please sit in reverential silence, don’t bring your children. I think the art suffered. So community engagement actually helps the art. We take pride in sending out people who are going to be catalysts in Detroit, in Chicago, in L.A. We want to be a great center for this kind of education.

Trahey: To Jeff’s point, it’s important for the city of Baltimore as well, because if we don’t do it, who else is going to do it? It starts in the academic world and then gets to the professional world. And that’s why it’s important to have this kind of innovation at Peabody so that the professionals will listen to us.

Hall: Tell us about how the El Sistema program works internationally, where it started in Venezuela, and then how the iteration at Peabody came to be and how that grew into OrchKids.

Trahey: Fifteen kids in a parking garage in Caracas, Venezuela, were locked out of orchestras in Venezuela because they weren’t European or American, so the minister of culture thought they couldn’t interpret classical music in an appropriate way. So what any good conductor does is he makes his own ensembles. So Jose Antonio Abreu made his own ensemble, and it grew and grew and grew. El Sistema actually didn’t start as a social mission; it started as a musical mission and then turned into a social mission. There is something missing from our professional orchestras. There is something missing from our conservatory orchestras and ensembles. And I think a lot of that is the heart and soul and guts behind the music making, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to reach out into the communities, because that’s where the emotions are really being felt the most. So 35 years after the start of El Sistema, we started it at the Conservatory with a program called Tuned-In with Jeff and Carolee Stewart, the dean of the Prep, and then Marin Alsop found out about it and we translated it to a program for the symphony as well.

Hall: How many kids? How many schools? What kind of program?

Trahey: We’ve got 75 kids in the Tuned-In program at Peabody, and we’re serving about 12 schools with that. We’re about to graduate our first student, and I believe he’s probably going to get into Peabody, a clarinetist, and so we’ll start this cycle of rebuilding and refueling the Conservatory with people from the community.

Hall: And OrchKids has how many kids and how many schools?

Trahey: There are 650 kids in four schools.

Hall: And Kathryn Ledwell, community engagement is not limited just to education. Talk about the work that you do in shelters, hospitals, and hospices with Creative Access.

Ledwell: We have collaborations with these different venues, and each month we have Peabody student musicians go and perform for whatever kind of residence the venue has.

Hall: So this is a great opportunity for the Peabody students to try out pieces for their recitals and that sort of thing?

Ledwell: Exactly. The amazing thing about the program is that it’s benefiting both the performers and the community.

Hall: Jasmine Hogan, tell us about Harp Adventures.

Hogan: Harp Adventures started out as a teaching program in the Peabody Harp Department. Since then it has branched into an outreach program because we had such an overwhelming response from students who wanted to take harp and teachers who really wanted to teach them. It allows us to offer children in the area discounted harp lessons and harp rental fees, and the teachers in it teach as part of a class that we teach for free. We do everything for free on our own time. It’s really interesting to see how children react to playing the harp. It’s a great instrument for learning basic music skills.

Hall: What makes the harp a good instrument for a beginning musician?

Hogan: Well, basically it sounds good from the first moment you start playing it, which is incentive to keep practicing and keep playing. And it excites kids. They want to do something different than other kids. Quite frankly, that’s what keeps a lot of them going. Then it turns into something the family can be proud of, having a little harpist. It’s amazing how many people come to our concerts and say, “This has really changed our family dynamic.” It really helps the student socially in many different levels.

Hall: Judah Adashi, you run a program called Junior Bach. Tell us about that.

_NWK4699Adashi: Junior Bach started in 2006, with an undergrad named Kevin Clark, who was a composition student. Kevin went to the St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, which is right around the corner from us, right by Center Stage. And he started a composing club, essentially. He talked some friends and colleagues into volunteering with him, and they would go once a week and they would teach composition lessons. And this culminated at the end of the semester with a concert, with music written by these students. Kevin and the other composers would do most of the heavy lifting in terms of notation, but the students led the way in terms of the creative process. Junior Bach is one of my favorite things that I do at Peabody. On average we work with eight students a semester, middle schools boys from low-income families. They come over to Peabody once or twice a week. The whole point of the process is that it introduces them to writing music, which is something that I certainly was not aware of in middle school. Those were dead white guys, and that’s what they did. So that dynamic is immediately changed, and this presents a gateway that is very empowering to them. They really get creative agency and the chance to see a piece through from the beginning concept all the way to the concert. At the end of the process, they get a score that they were part of creating, and that’s kind of their diploma from our program. Hopefully, if they had a good experience, some of them come back and do it semester after semester. Tariq Al-Sabir was one of the first Junior Bach students from St. Ignatius. Then he went to the Baltimore School for the Arts in voice, and went to the Peabody Prep and took composition lessons with me. Now he is a voice major at the Conservatory. So he has a wonderful narrative that we’d like to see more of. What’s interesting is that once kids like Tariq go through this process, they don’t need any [push] to do community engagement. Tariq is already teaching in West Baltimore and doing all this community engagement, even as a freshman at the Conservatory. Another thing that is interesting about Junior Bach is that it is largely one-on-one. These kids are entering into a kind of mentoring relationship, which involves building a lot of trust. You’re putting your musical ideas out there, which is a very vulnerable place to be. And by the time they come out of it, they understand something about what it is to have a one-on-one teaching rapport with a composer who is an undergrad, master’s, or doctoral student at Peabody. It is a great thing.

Hall: Jeff Sharkey, has the role of the artist changed as dramatically as I have a hunch it has in the last 20 or 25 years?

Sharkey: I think it really has. In the 20th century, we became the nation of specialists: You are a doctoral expert in Gregorian chant from Italy. You are a neo-Romantic, or you enjoy playing Brahms but don’t compose. Today, I think we are in a much more holistic phase where composers are performing again. And it’s expected that performers know how to compose, and it’s expected that people are going to teach in some way, shape, or form and know how to inspire creativity. For a typical conservatory student to have a wider palette refreshes their own musicianship and makes them more adaptable.

Ledwell: I have noticed that sometimes it’s difficult to get Peabody students to come perform with Creative Access for the first time, but after they go once, they always want to go back, just because they realize how much of a difference they are making. But also their musicianship really grows.

Hall: Don’t you find their emotional quotient grows as well? They sense what an audience might be wanting to hear and how the mood is shifting?

Ledwell: It does. I think the key is to encourage people to volunteer for the first time and to really see what this is all about.

Hall: What are the biggest challenges that you face in moving forward and addressing the myriad problems that could perhaps be beneficially addressed through community engagement?

Sharkey: It’s interesting for me to argue for the role and the space of the arts within the university. What makes life interesting, what makes it beautiful, what makes it worth waking up every day, more than simply the sum of your job and eating food? What answers deeper questions? That’s a hard thing to advocate for. And we are a time-poor society. We are rushing around more than ever before, asked to be more productive than ever before, using our iPhones to listen with headphones. The community aspect suffers. I guess what we’re trying to do is to bring the energy of a community— through our art, through our music— back together. And those who experience it say, “Oh, wow, that was meaningful.” It’s about relationships; it’s not about things. That’s why we’re touched every time we do this.

Adashi: It’s not hard to sell to the kids.

Trahey: You’re right.

Hogan: I encounter this a lot in my position representing Harp Adventures. I have to do a lot of convincing of other students and teachers to come with me, come watch the students, come teach. Before I came here today actually, I met with the other teachers in the Harp Adventures program and I asked, “What is the best part of this program? Why do you like doing this?” They started sharing stories about parents who said, “Wow, you know we’re going through a divorce, we’re going through a hard time. And it means so much that we can come and get these lessons that we wouldn’t normally be able to get in music school or anywhere else.” We’re really impacting these kids’ lives.

Adashi: This is a trope in classical music, the idea that we are constantly in the business of convincing. We are meaningful. We are necessary. We are valuable. [Today] I think we need to do less and less convincing because we’re modeling the success of some of these things. When I mention OrchKids to people, they all know what it is. Their eyes light up. And I’m not just talking about musicians. I actually feel like the programs speak for themselves in remarkable ways, whether you have eight students or you have 650. What we’re doing is becoming entrenched, it’s becoming second nature. It’s just what you do. This is what it is to be a musician in the 21st century. When Dean Mellasenah Morris comes to the Prep faculty meetings, she’ll often point out that when most people in Baltimore think of Peabody, they don’t think it’s a place where you get undergraduate and graduate degrees; they think it’s a community school. Peabody represents a place that brings people in. So, by doing the things we’re doing, I think we’re building on something that’s already out there in people’s minds.

Ledwell: Three years ago, when I first began the role of the site coordinator for Creative Access, it was not nearly as easy as it is now to get volunteers. So I think that’s just a testament to the student body and the communication that’s going on right now about community engagement and its importance.

Hogan: When people come in to audition for the Harp Department at Peabody, I get to talk to them and tell them about what Peabody’s going to be like. I know of three separate cases where people have come to Peabody just because of the teacher training. There aren’t a lot of schools right now where people can get teaching opportunities in such diverse environments.

Hall: Another great trope has been the demise of music education, particularly in public education: The kids today are not getting music training in schools as part of the school day the way that kids 30 or 40 years ago might have gotten. Programs like OrchKids and Junior Bach are supplementing that which used to be offered as part of the normal day. Are we going to end up replacing what used to happen in the choral rehearsal rooms and the band rooms and the orchestra rooms of high schools and middle schools across the country?

Sharkey: I very much hope not. At Peabody we aim to do both as well. Nothing replaces a well-qualified, certified music teacher being there, keeping the learning going, representing music. And in fact, when we do these special projects, we are integrating them into what’s there. That’s the ideal combination. So it’s a wonderful partnership when it works together.

Hall: The old model used to be that there are these two tracks—the performing people and the teaching people—and never the ’twain shall meet. And there are those who used to think that if I spend any time outside the practice room, I’m not going to be as good a player. Is that barrier breaking down?

_NWK4880Ledwell: Yes. The big argument for me is that while you’re performing in front of people, that’s practice in and of itself. But I also feel like people are realizing more that there doesn’t have to be this kind of gap or this closed door between practice and between community engagement and performance.

Adashi: I think this speaks to something broader that is improving in conservatory culture. Community engagement is only one piece of it. I did liberal arts as an undergrad. I didn’t go to a conservatory. Every opportunity I get as a teacher, I inject history, the humanities. With composition particularly, who would want to listen to the music of someone who doesn’t go out and lead an interesting life? If you don’t read books, if you don’t look at art, if you don’t have rich conversations, if you don’t meet a “I also feel like people are realizing more that there doesn’t have to be this kind of gap or this closed door between practice and between community engagement and performance.” —Kathryn Ledwell wide variety of people … I don’t know about that music. Tom Benjamin, who is a composer and theory professor at Peabody, would hand out a reading list at the end of the semester: These are interesting books you should read, not about music. And then his big line, which I am always quoting, was: “The point of an education is to become an interesting person to talk to.” If we’re not doing that, there’s no point. I think we are doing that now at Peabody. We are turning out people who are interesting to talk to.

Trahey: A lot of other places I go, I see them throwing money at community engagement or this new idea of education. And what I’m seeing at Peabody is like a sandwich. A lot of grass-roots stuff—Junior Bach started as a grassroots thing, as did Tuned-In, Creative Access—but we need help from the top as well. So we’re coming at it from the top and the bottom.

Hogan: One way I’ve seen success in a general pedagogical way is that I’ve seen my students want to learn more themselves. Sometimes I’ll put two students from different families in the same lesson for a couple of weeks. Or I’ll teach three people together because they’re working on similar things or very different things and they complement each other. I was in one of those classes recently where I put three people together and halfway through the lesson, I realized they were teaching each other. It got to be an hour, and I was about to say, “Okay, lesson’s over,” and they kept going. That’s something I think is important in any kind of educational system—to instill a love of knowledge and a love of learning. And for me, whenever I see that in my students, that looks like success.

Hall: Five years from now, we sit around this same table, it’s 2018. Where are we with community engagement then? What does the future hold?

Ledwell: I think every student at Peabody is going to be excited to participate. We are going to have to find as many outlets for them as possible.

Hall: So, this is a growth industry?

Sharkey: I think people will put community engagement at the core of their degree, not just as an added extra. Symphony orchestras and other organizations, as they emerge from all this conflict, will have to find a new way of working together. I think we’ll see a landscape change, in terms of what musical bodies will expect from their performers or their members.

Adashi: I already feel Peabody is in a good place. I think in five years, we will just be in a better place. Jeff used the word holistic. I feel that most of the student body will be of that mindset, with a wide-ranging portfolio.

Trahey: With 50 harpists, 75 or 100 tuba players—I really believe that Peabody will be on the lips of every single Baltimore City schoolchild.

Ledwell: I envision that the community outreach that is going on at Peabody is going to start inspiring students in other academic areas. I have some friends at Homewood who see what I’m doing with music in the community and they say: “I’m an engineer, can I do that?”

Tom Hall, discussion moderator, is the host of Choral Arts Classics on WYPR-FM and has been a dynamic force in Maryland’s creative community for 31 years, as a performer, broadcaster, lecturer, writer, and educator. As music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, he has collaborated with many of Maryland’s leading arts organizations.

Composer Judah Adashi, MM ’02, DMA ’11, who is on the Composition and Music Theory faculty at Peabody, is the faculty director of the Junior Bach Program, through which Peabody composition majors give weekly one-on-one lessons to students at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, a Baltimore City middle school that targets low-income families.

Jasmine Hogan, BM ’11, an MM harp performance/ pedagogy student, is a coordinator of Peabody’s HarpAdventures, a community outreach program offered by members of the Harp Pedagogy class that provides beginning harp lessons to Baltimore area students. HarpAdventure students have the opportunity to rent instruments at greatly discounted prices and study ensemble as well as solo music.

Kathryn Ledwell, who graduated from Peabody in May with a BM in piano performance, is a site coordinator for Creative Access at Peabody. The volunteer student organization enriches the lives of disadvantaged audiences in the Baltimore community— at hospitals, schools, and other venues—by arranging customized concerts by talented solo or ensemble musicians. This fall she’ll begin graduate studies at the London School of Economics.

Jeffrey Sharkey, a pianist, composer, and veteran music educator, has been director of the Peabody Institute since 2006. Before coming to Peabody, Sharkey served as dean of the Cleveland Institute of Music and director of the Purcell School in London. A founding member of the Pirasti Piano Trio, he has toured throughout the United States and Europe. His compositions have been performed by the St. Louis Symphony and in chamber concerts in the United States and Britain.

Daniel Trahey, BM ’00, , is director of Peabody’s Tuned-In program, which offers full Peabody Preparatory scholarships to promising public school music students; artistic director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids; and tuba player with the Archipelago Project, a community engagement– based chamber music ensemble. of rebuilding and refueling the Conservatory with people from the community.