An orchestra made up entirely of young musicians will take the stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on July 22. The group is called the National Take a Stand Festival Orchestra, composed of musicians aged 12-to-18 from across the country.
They're members of youth orchestras inspired by El Sistema — the Venezuelan arts program that nurtured L.A. Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel.
Dudamel will conduct the performance along with Thomas Wilkins, principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
The performance culminates the Take a Stand Symposium in Los Angeles, which is hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association in partnership with the Longy School of Music at Bard College. Students attended classes and workshops taught by L.A. Philharmonic musicians and members of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, which Dudamel also runs.
During a rehearsal at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Wilkins contrasted this program to youth orchestras that he and many members of the L.A. Philharmonic participated in:
What's different about this program is that it creates access to people who wouldn't have normally had access to this kind of musical training, and that was one of the things that Gustavo [Dudamel] wanted to make happen here, which is happening in communities across the country.
Wilkins has held a titled position at the Hollywood Bowl since 2008 and has served as principal conductor since 2014. He is also music director of the Omaha Symphony, and holds the Germeshausen Family and Youth Concert Conductor Chair with the Boston Symphony. Next month, he joins the faculty at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.
Despite having worked with various orchestras across the country, Wilkins says he doesn't treat the young members of the National Take a Stand Festival Orchestra any differently than adult musicians:
We're all on the same team. We're all there to serve the music and we've all been instructed to understand that the most important people in the room aren't the people on stage — they're the people in the audience.
Wilkins said that he spoke with the children about the word "groove" and used modern terminology to teach the kids how to play classical music, including Leonard Bernstein's "Mambo" from "West Side Story":
The Bernstein [piece] was really slow and funky a few times this week, just to get it ingrained inside the deepest part of them. But then we were able to translate this notion of groove to Tchaikovsky, and this notion of groove to Berlioz. They just didn't use those words. But the sense of motion and choreographed motion, in a way, is nothing new. The minute that you identify with [the children's] lives, but you relate it to the world that you're trying to introduce them to, it makes it go a little better.
Another teaching method Wilkins used was a food metaphor — using the visual image of a stringy piece of "pizza cheese" to describe a way to play:
Sometimes if I just say, Save the bow, which basically means don't use up all the bow in the very beginning of the stroke, they might understand what that means. But if I say, Pretend it's a piece of taffy that you can't seem to break loose of, now all of a sudden they have a different mental image and they can translate that into the bow ... It's a lot of fun.
Wilkins said that though he and many members of the L.A. Philharmonic were part of youth orchestras growing up, the Take a Stand Festival and Symposium is unique:
There are kids who were like me when I was growing up to a single mother on welfare. Living in the housing projects, she couldn't afford piano lessons for me. So something like this, which charts a course of fresh new opportunities and options for these kids at this age, that's what makes this thing really special. You give some kids who have fewer options the best option. I wish I had had that when I was a kid.
As an African-American conductor who counts Calvin Simmons and James DePreist as pioneers, Wilkins acknowledges the power of seeing role models who look like you in jobs that you want to do.
I think even to have both Gustavo and I as the two conductors is like, What world is this? These guys don't look anything like the conductors in the old history books. I think that is a neat thing. That is a great gift to give to a kid ... to say, Yes, this too is possible for you.
Recently, arts education and arts funding have been increasingly under attack. President Trump has said the National Endowment for the Arts is not a priority. Wilkins says it's a current he and the arts community have been swimming against for a long time. But, luckily, there are artists and programs who have a voice and can help keep others afloat:
I remember the day when my mother told me I was old enough to go to the public library by myself ... because that's where all the classical albums were. I understand profoundly how important it is that when you have a vision or a dream early in your life, [education] makes it easier to navigate the difficulties of that life.
Our children are surrounded by a world that's becoming increasingly graceless and somebody has to be about the task of surrounding our children and saying, You were built for something better than that. That's what education is all about. And if we don't do it, then shame on us.
Wilkins says one way to improve education is to add the arts to STEM education programs. He believes the arts are a complement to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He says young musicians have been learning to think critically from the minute they pick up an instrument, which is an important skill for scientists and engineers.
But, most importantly, Wilkins says access and opportunity are what will ultimately help children find their way to the arts:
Always, always, always, we need to be about the business of what I call painting doorways on the brick walls for kids. We give them a view first so they can have a vision later.
To hear John Horn's full conversation with Thomas Wilkins, click on the player above.