By Rachel Barton Pine
Chicago, IL, USA
"Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything." Plato, the legendary Greek philosopher and founder of the first institution of higher learning in the Western world, shared this insight nearly 2,400 years ago, and I believe it is equally as relevant today.
Somehow, I seem to have discovered the foundations of this truth as a young child. At the age of three, I heard a few middle school-aged girls playing the violin at church one Sunday. I was captivated by the sound and immediately asked my parents for a violin. I was persistent, and that summer, my mother signed me up for Suzuki violin lessons with a teacher in my neighborhood. Music and the violin became the core of my existence, and, by the age of five, I was signing my school papers "Rachel B., violinist." I spent every day looking forward to my next opportunity to make music on the violin.
As I improved on the instrument, my mother sought out more advanced violin training for me. I transferred to another violin program in the suburbs of Chicago, reveling in increased opportunities to perform with other kids and listen to more music. Ultimately, the search for higher-level training brought me to the Music Institute of Chicago and the studio of Almita and Roland Vamos. I realized at the time how fortunate I was to have the opportunity to work with the Vamoses, but I could never have guessed how important a role the Music Institute would play in my development.
The Vamoses are internationally renowned university professors who traveled to a community music school in Winnetka, Illinois, each weekend to teach an elite class of pre-college students. The school in Winnetka, now one of the Music Institute's campuses, was then called the Music Center of the North Shore. It was founded in 1931 by Dorothy and David Dushkin who had met in Paris as students of Nadia Boulanger, a legendary teacher of composer and conductors.
The Music Institute of Chicago was (and is) a mecca for conservatory-bound teens and pre-teens from around the country. My family's commute from the city felt long, but it paled in comparison to those families who traveled weekly from other states. Some families even relocated so their children could study with the artist-teachers on the Music Institute faculty. Among the exceptional teachers, Nell Novak (cello) and Emilio del Rosario (piano) stand out in my memory. I used to pause outside the doors of their studios on my way to string quartet rehearsals to be inspired by their coaching and their students' playing.
I received my formative musical training in this extraordinary environment of teachers and young pre-professionals. I spent my weekends taking private lessons with the Vamoses, rehearsing chamber music, and receiving coaching from the faculty. It was incredible to be surrounded by students who were as passionate and serious about music as I was, many of whom became my future colleagues and some of my closest friends.
When I was 14, the Vamoses invited me to be their teaching assistant, giving supplemental lessons to some of their less advanced students. This experience and the example set by the Music Institute faculty awakened in me a strong passion for teaching. I built and maintained my own studio, ultimately joining the faculty, until my touring schedule no longer permitted the time and consistency the students required. I am pleased that many of my students from those years went on to make careers in music, some with major orchestras. These former students devote their lives to making music that brings enjoyment and fulfillment to their audiences.
However, equally as special are the students who pursued careers outside of music in the worlds of medicine, finance, and business. As I've reunited with them throughout the years, they always speak of the value of their music education and the important role that music continues to play in their lives and in the lives of their families. Listening to them tell their stories, it would be impossible to feel that the many hours of time I devoted to teaching them was wasted. Their student years at the Music Institute clearly were as impactful for them as mine had been for me.
Although I spent most of my time as a Music Institute student and faculty member with the organization's pre-professional program, I was always aware that this program is only one small part of the Music Institute's larger mission to enhance the lives of people of all ages through music. My understanding of and appreciation for the Music Institute's contribution was greatly enhanced when I joined the Board of Trustees in my early twenties. As a Board member, I learned that the vast majority of the student body was studying music as an enrichment, whether as children or lifelong learners. Students ranged from six-month-old babies to adults in their nineties studying virtually every orchestral instrument (and even some non-orchestral ones).
The Music Institute offers traditional music lessons to children as a supplement to (or in the absence of) school music programs. However, the organization also offers lessons to children in under-privileged communities and has created programs targeting children in inner-city schools without their own music programs. The Music Institute's Arts Link program, currently serving more than 6,500 students each year, has been delivering arts integration curricula and music instruction in Chicago's public schools since 1992.
In my capacity as a Trustee, I've had the opportunity to watch some of these young musicians perform. Seeing their poise and confidence and the looks on their proud parents' faces is a tremendous testament to the power of music to transform lives. These experiences are one of the reasons that I make an extra effort to visit and support similar programs around the world as part of my touring schedule.
The New Horizons Band and Community Symphony is another area at the Music Institute that has inspired me. The groups consist of adults in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and even nineties who have recently begun studying an instrument or are returning to an instrument after many years away. Led by dedicated Music Institute faculty, these groups offer an incredibly supportive environment that encourages members to explore and enjoy music together. There are few experiences as uplifting as watching a New Horizons concert.
When I meet the public after my performances, retired audience members often tell me they always wanted to learn an instrument and wish they had studied music. With New Horizons as the example, I encourage them to start. It truly is never too late!
For decades, one of the Music Institute's signature programs was the Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA), which recently became a separate 501(c)(3) not-for-profit. ITA offers clinically based creative arts therapy in all of the arts disciplines (dance/movement, drama, visual art, music) to children and adults with physical, behavioral, emotional, and developmental issues. We witnessed people who couldn't speak but learned to communicate through singing and people for whom playing an instrument helped with their coordination for "activities of daily living." ITA benefited victims of abuse, autistic children, the underserved veteran population, and numerous others struggling against great challenges. ITA's positive impact underscores the healing power of music and its unique ability to reach people beyond words.
I feel very fortunate that my music education and life have been so deeply intertwined with and influenced by the Music Institute of Chicago. Through this amazing school and its programs, I have witnessed the truth of Plato's observation and am continually reminded of my role as a musician and emissary of the art. There are thousands of other schools and organizations that are changing lives through music. I am grateful for their efforts to "give soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything".