Conversation: MacArthur Fellow, Community MusicWorks Founder Sebastian Ruth

BY Jeffrey Brown  October 21, 2010 at 4:47 PM EST

There’s much talk these days of a crisis in music education as schools cut back programs and fewer children are exposed to music and other arts.

One of this year’s MacArthur Foundation fellows has been honored for coming up with a response: Sebastian Ruth is the founder and artistic director of Community MusicWorks, a non-profit organization in Providence, R.I. He’s also a violist, violinist and member of the Providence String Quartet.

On Wednesday, Ruth and Kirby Vasquez, a cellist and former student at Community MusicWorks, were honored at the White House with a special award for excellence in arts youth programs.

I spoke to them while they were in Washington.

A transcript is after the jump.

 

JEFFREY BROWN: There is much talk these days of a crisis in music education as schools cut back programs and fewer children are exposed to music and other arts. One of this year’s MacArthur Foundation fellows has been honored for coming up with a response. Sebastian Ruth is the founder and artistic director of Community MusicWorks, a nonprofit organization in Providence, R.I. He’s also a violist, violinist and member of the Providence String Quartet. Joining him and us today is Kirby Vasquez, a cellist and former student at Community MusicWorks. She’s now a student at Smith College. This week they are both being honored at the White House with a special award for excellence in arts youth programs. Welcome to both of you.
Sebastian, what’s the idea behind Community MusicWorks?

SEBASTIAN RUTH: Community MusicWorks is a series of experiences between professional musicians and urban communities in Providence, R.I. It’s a collection of musicians, first in a string quartet and now more than four, who make our work and our home in seven urban neighborhoods, connecting kids with music and the instruments of a quartet, certainly, but also more broadly, a set of ideas that help them become engaged citizens.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of ideas? I mean, beyond music.

SEBASTIAN RUTH: Beyond music we are working on issues of social justice, thinking about what are the issues of oppression in our lives and our communities. What are important issues both local and globally that we can have some impact on as artists.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, well beyond music. Now Kirby, you were telling me earlier that you were studying music in school as a child and then music lessons went away?

KIRBY VASQUEZ: Yes. I was actually in the fifth grade when arts was cut from public schools, public schools in Providence.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what happened? How did you get connected here?

KIRBY VASQUEZ: Well, Sebastian was actually teaching at a daycare that I was part of…and my friends were playing instruments and I just wanted to be with my friends so I asked them about it, and they told me about Sebastian and I went up to him and applied to be in the program and have been there ever since.

JEFFREY BROWN: Been there ever since. And that’s where you started the cello?

KIRBY VASQUEZ: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sebastian, this started for you as a young musician, as well. What made you think that there was a problem that as you grew into adulthood as a musician that you could address?

SEBASTIAN RUTH: I was playing in a string quartet in college and knew that string quartet playing was something I felt passionate about and wanted to continue to do in my career, but also that the typical career for musicians and the typical audiences and concert formats, this whole system wasn’t appealing. And in fact I was looking for ways of combining a sense of musicianship with a career or service. So I would say it was about an instinct for introducing kids to music and certainly for experimenting with a set of educational ideas about transformative education through the arts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is there that disconnect? You were trained at a high level of musicianship and as you say typically that goes one way and it doesn’t connect to the community in most, especially in most urban areas. Why is that?

SEBASTIAN RUTH: That’s a good question. I think there has traditionally been this divide between performer musicians who become performers at a serious level and musicians who don’t make it as performers and therefore do work with community settings. And so this was a real experiment to say what is this energy that comes about when you bring together performers who are really striving for a very high level performance and a career of concertizing with a community and community life in a city such that working with the kids reinvigorates the performace that we do as professionals, and vice versa, and that we could bring a certain kind of energy to this community as performers and from our rehearsal and concert life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Had you had an opportunity to see professional performers up close like this when you started?

KIRBY VASQUEZ: Yes, we were constantly taken to performance, like concerts, the Boston Orchestra or even just seeing them play, and they were — we have workshops and they bring in musicians once a month, so we’re constantly exposed to musicians.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what did that do for you and your friends?

KIRBY VASQUEZ: Well, going to what Sebastian hoped, is it showed us that we deserved music and that we deserved this, although our parents couldn’t pay for it that doesn’t mean that we didn’t deserve music. And it brought this world into our world and made it one, which is a great gift.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you are in college now. But you are not intending a serious music career, right?

KIRBY VASQUEZ: No, but.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, what?

KIRBY VASQUEZ: That doesn’t mean that music is not important to me and that I haven’t found other ways to make it into my life, whether it’s picking up the guitar or just always being very attentive to music. And I don’t plan on ever stopping to play the cello. It means a lot to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime you’ve kept up your — do you keep up your own on the violin and viola?

SEBASTIAN RUTH: Yeah. No, it’s an integral part of what Community MusicWorks is, is this residency of professional musicians. So many times a week the Providence Quartet is rehearsing. I’m a member of that group, and 30 or 40 times a year we’re performing both in this community and in more typical concert settings.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is the money allowing you to do now?

SEBASTIAN RUTH: The MacArthur?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, the MacArthur.

SEBASTIAN RUTH: Certainly there will be a component of that that’s about reinvesting in Community MusicWorks, and I think broadly it gives us freedom to think about what are the other ways that musicianship and service can combine. And one of the nice things that the MacArthur Foundation does is to give you a three or four month window before the fellowship starts, to really think about what form this takes, and then of course it goes on for several years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because as you look out more broadly this problem of music education isn’t getting any better in most —

SEBASTIAN RUTH: No, and even more than that it’s — you know, I had the opportunity to take a risk and be creative with my career as a musician, and I think that’s what I’m really interested in to encourage others to do and possibly help instigate, you know, as to say to other musicians the traditional career paths are not the only ones and there are other meaningful ways to make your life in music that are satisfying from the point of view of performing but also can have a real impact in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you want to tell us what your plans are?

KIRBY VASQUEZ: For music or for —

JEFFREY BROWN: For life.

KIRBY VASQUEZ: Well, actually, I’m very interested in film and that’s something I have to thank Community MusicWorks for. I got my first job at Community MusicWorks and was taught how to make documentary films, and it’s definitely my passion and I’m going to school to hopefully study it more. And I want to work with youth and Sebastian definitely has inspired me to give back to the community. That’s my hope at least.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Kirby Vasquez and Sebastian Ruth, thank you both very much. Congratulations, again.

SEBASTIAN RUTH: Thanks.

KIRBY VASQUEZ: Thanks.