Raúl Gómez: Living in a world of optimism

The Metropolitan Youth Symphony director talks full STEAM ahead about the vital positive links among science, education, and the arts

[Editor’s note: Gómez, music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, delivered a version of this essay as a speech to Intel employees in November 2019. It has been updated, and edited for length. See also Vision 2020: Raúl Gómez, Brett Campbell’s interview with Gómez in ArtsWatch’s Vision 2020 series.]

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By RAÚL GÓMEZ

I live in a world filled with optimism. The reason is that I work with young people in the arts. Every Saturday, more than 500 students come to Metropolitan Youth Symphony rehearsals in Portland and Hillsboro. I get to conduct two out of fifteen ensembles at MYS. One of these ensembles is our most advanced full orchestra: MYS Symphony Orchestra. These are highly gifted young musicians, playing near or at professional levels, many of whom have made their ways up the ranks at MYS,  from our youngest entry-level orchestra to our top group, which recently came back from touring Italy and Austria.

These young musicians fill me with optimism every Saturday, because they walk in the door, they say “hi” to their friends from different schools, chat a little bit, then they sit down, we tune, and then, for three hours, they’re laser-focused on slaying some of the most challenging and rewarding orchestral repertoire there is. This include masterworks like Beethoven Symphony No. 7 or Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and brand-new music by their peers: local, young composers from Oregon. 



THE ART OF LEARNING: an occasional series



My world is filled with optimism because after rehearsal, these kids go back home, hopefully rest and get some sleep, and then proceed to make it through their weeks at home, school, and their communities with the same focus, leadership, team spirit, and excellence that they exhibit in the orchestra. I go back home –exhausted and depleted of physical energy after rehearsing two ensembles for six hours – but on such a high. Five hundred-plus kids in Portland and Hillsboro just spent hours, under the leadership of an amazing team of conductors and coaches, doing what neuroscientists are calling “the brain equivalent of a full-body workout.” 

MUSIC & BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

As somebody who is a professional musician and as somebody who works in music education, I am very aware of the many benefits that music brings to anybody who engages in some kind of music-making on a regular basis. Music performance, music education, and the arts in general are good for the brain, and they are a booster for creativity and discipline. 

There are many studies, articles, scientific and scholarly publications about the correlation between music education and academic achievement. Students who participate in music score substantially higher on many standardized tests of math, reading, and writing, and in other measures of academic achievement and skill development.  

In the last few decades, neuroscientists have made great breakthroughs in understanding what music does to the human brain. A video publication by Dr. Anita Collins, a music educator in Australia, addresses this beautifully.

She explains that neuroscientists are able to monitor how our brains work with instruments like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography scanners. They monitor the brains of people who are doing activities like reading or solving math problems, and different areas of the brain are activated. However, when they monitor people listening to music (not even playing, just listening) multiple areas of the brain light up at once. The scientists compare it to fireworks.

As we process sound, our brain takes it apart to understand the different elements, such as melody and rhythm, and then puts it back together into a unified musical experience. And this happens instantly. 

Then, when the neuroscientists went from observing the brains of people listening to music, to observing the brains of people making music, what they saw was spectacular. They call it, as I mentioned earlier, the “brain’s equivalent to a full-body workout.”

These scientists have found that playing a musical instrument activates “practically every area of the brain at once, especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices.” And on top of that, structured, discipline practice of music strengthens all of those functions, allowing us to use them for many other purposes. 

Now, of course, the main difference between listening to music and playing it is that playing an instrument also engages fine motor skills, which are controlled in both hemispheres of the brain. It combines the linguistic and mathematical precision of the left hemisphere with the creativity that resides in the right side. Playing a musical instrument is a highly technical exercise. The technique required to play an instrument well is very intricate. At the same time, making music involves codifying and thinking about abstract things like emotions and feelings. Research shows that musicians often have higher levels of what’s called “executive function,” which includes planning, strategizing, and attention to detail, and requires analysis of cognitive and emotional information simultaneously. 

Also, scientists have found that playing music increases the volume and activity in the part of the brain that is the bridge between both hemispheres, creating more efficient routes for information to travel. This is why so many of the skills acquired through music can be transferred to many other settings. 

Neuroscientists have also found links between music and how our memory system works. Musicians exhibit enhanced memory functions (creating, storing and retrieving information).

Learning music can have a long-lasting impact on brain development. Something that’s really exciting is that, according to Dr. Sarah Wilson, music neuroscience, University of Melbourne, as little as one hour a week of structured musical practice is enough to see some change in the brain. Additionally, for children, there is a window of opportunity when the human brain has heightened plasticity, and the ability to shape the brain long-term is at its optimal. Those periods tend to occur before the age of 7. So, if you have kids, get them a musical instrument NOW.

If you’re older, however, and you don’t play a musical instrument, I have good news for you. There is hope! Diane Cole, in her Wall Street Journal her article The Joy of Learning to Play an Instrument Later in Life, explains the many benefits for people in their 50s and 60s of picking up a musical instrument or singing. Roy Ernst, of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, says there used to be a “widespread belief that if you did not begin learning a musical instrument in your childhood or school years, you had missed your chance,” but research shows that’s really not the case. Dr. Ernst founded the first “New Horizons Band” at Eastman, a program for older adults to learn to play a musical instrument, and went on to help develop more than 60 similar programs in the United States and Canada.

“Music is the gift you give the child for their life,” says Paul Scott-Williams, director of Australia’s Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, regardless of whatever they end up doing professionally.

Raúl Gómez. Photo: R. Kobell

HOW METROPOLITAN YOUTH SYMPHONY FITS

MYS was founded on the belief that the study of music is a central part of a child becoming a well-rounded adult. We are an independent nonprofit organization, one of the largest youth orchestra programs in the nation, and one of only a handful offering a jazz program. We provide music education and performance opportunities for young musicians of all ages and levels of experience. Now in our 46th year, we enroll more than 500 students from the Portland Metro and Southwest Washington areas in 15 ensembles including orchestra, band, jazz, and percussion, including two string orchestras in Hillsboro. We have music theory classes, a chamber music program, and a chamber music summer camp: Portland Summer Ensembles.  

Since its inception, MYS has:

  • Contributed to the musical development of more than ten thousand musicians.
  • Performed hundreds of youth concerts all over the Northwest.
  • Performed outreach concerts to thousands of students in under-served schools.
  • Embarked on tours around the world.
  • Awarded tuition assistance to every young musician in need.
  • Developed volunteer support that incorporates more than 100 people in many different capacities.

Our commitment to access is at the core of what we do. Our School Concert Outreach Program, which reaches more than 5,000 students each season, exposes elementary-school kids around the region to live music performed by young people. Concerts often include music that’s familiar to the kids, like music from movies or arrangements of pop or rock tunes from the radio. Musicians and conductors engage with the audiences, talking about their instruments, the fundamentals of music, and the composers and the pieces they are performing, inspiring other kids to welcome music into their lives. Students also receive free tickets to one of our concerts at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. For many students this is their first time going to the Schnitz, or going to a concert hall altogether. On average, the rate of kids on free or reduced lunch programs was 77 percent, with 58 percent minority students. 

Our tuition-free Beginning Strings classes provide instruments free to  low-income elementary students, with training in note-reading, rhythm, singing, and their instrument.

Our Tuition Assistance Program provides financial aid for all students who qualify, giving low-income students the opportunity to participate in our orchestras. We do not turn anybody away because they can’t pay. 

Our Instrument Lending Library provides free instruments for all Beginning Strings students, and extremely subsidized rental rates for low-income students in ensembles across our main program. 

Last season, our Coaching Program gave 155 sessions across our orchestral, string, and band ensembles. Members of the Oregon Symphony and other professional musicians come to us on Saturdays to work with our students in small groups. This is especially important for families who cannot afford regular private instruction.

We are thrilled to have programs in Hillsboro now. We want to make music education accessible to all, and to be able to have programs in Hillsboro means that many families that are not able to travel all the way to Northeast Portland are able to have access to what the Metropolitan Youth Symphony has to offer, right in their neighborhoods. 

Last year we started a county-level partnership with Multnomah County’s Department of Human Services that has brought three Beginning Strings classes to their community center and clinic Bienestar de la Familia, serving more than 30 kids.

 We’re not trying to take the place of music education in schools. On the contrary, we are working hard to strengthen and support these programs. Our students at MYS come to us once a week, and they go back to their school bands and orchestras as leaders. They mentor and inspire other kids around them. 

PERFFORMANCES AND PARTNERSHIPS

Imagine something with me. It’s Saturday morning. More than 500 young musicians, each of them in their homes, are getting up in the morning, maybe a little later than a normal school day; they’re having breakfast, they get in the car with their families, they sit in Saturday traffic for a little bit, and they come to rehearsal. Five hundred-plus students say “hi” to their orchestra friends, from other schools; they catch up, then they sit down and focus and work hard for two to three hours, away from their screens. They’re challenged, and they GROW. Rehearsal is when the hard work happens. 

Then, after a few weeks of hard work, comes a concert! And these concerts are when our students get to share their gifts with an audience. We talk about this, explicitly, at MYS. We say that these kids are “gifted,” right? Well, for our musicians this gift, of music, is something that they get to give.

With all of our 15 ensembles in Portland and Hillsboro, we have three parallel concert series during the school year. In our School Outreach Concerts, our ensembles go out and perform at elementary schools. 

In our Community Concert Series, we perform in many different venues around Portland, Vancouver, Hillsboro, Beaverton, etc. Here, we feature all of our kids: from the youngest violinists from our Beginning Strings classes, to our jazz bands, our symphonic bands, our percussion ensemble, and more.

For most of these Community Concerts I don’t have to conduct or perform: My colleagues are conducting their groups. So, I get to just sit in the audience and be amazed by their work, and the work of these kids. They’re fearless. Maybe they’re nervous, especially if it’s their very first concert ever, but once they’re on stage, surrounded by their peers and friends, they just start playing and it’s magic! They’re focused, they’re engaged, they’re there. They’re having fun. And in their brains…. FIREWORKS! Times 500-plus.

After years of artistic growth, MYS students audition into our top orchestra. In our Downtown Concert Series, the MYS Symphony Orchestra, which I conduct, performs at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland. We play four concerts, in November, January, March, and May. Our programming is equivalent to that of a professional orchestra. My philosophy behind our programming is that we are creating concerts that are dynamic and fun. We include masterworks from the orchestral repertoire, music by traditionally under-represented composers, and new music by living composers, many of them local, and young. And music that pushes the limits of what an orchestra can do. Music that blurs the lines between classical, jazz, pop, rock…

Our concerts often include artistic partnerships with other local performing arts organizations and schools, from youth mariachi groups to the world premiere of the rock opera The Poet’s Shadow with PHAME, a local performing arts academy for adults with disabilities. In May, we are collaborating with BodyVox, the Portland dance company. And we have an ongoing partnership with Portland’s Fear No Music and its Young Composers Project. Through that partnership, called The Authentic Voice, and sponsored by Ronni Lacroute, every one of our concerts at the Schnitz has a world premiere by a local young composer. It’s very rare for a young composer (or even adult composers) to have access to a full orchestra to get their music performed. 

Raúl Gómez with the MYS Symphony Orchestra. Photo: R. Kobell

2020 VISIONS

This month we presented “Lights, Camera, Music!” in partnership with the International Youth Silent Film Festival. If you’re not familiar with the IYSFF, you should most definitely check them out. This is a global competition for young filmmakers, with regional contests around the world, and a red-carpet event here in Portland every June, where finalists fly in to have their short films judged by a panel of celebrity judges. The young filmmakers are asked to create their films based on three-minute soundtracks that Portland native composer Nathan Akavian created for the theater organ at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland. So, the films are based on the music, not the other way around. We teamed up with our friends at Fear No Music’s Young Composers Project, and had 10 young composers arrange the organ scores for full orchestra.

In March, our Symphony Orchestra and our advanced Jazz Ensemble will welcome Regina Carter as our featured soloist. Ms. Carter is a living legend of jazz violin. I’ve been a fan of hers since I was in middle school, so it’s a dream come true to collaborate with her. She will perform Portland’s own David Schiff’s 4 Sisters Concerto for Jazz Violin. Mr. Schiff, who retired last year after 38 years on the faculty at Reed College, is a pioneer composer in bridging the gap between classical music and jazz. In addition to the concerto, Ms. Carter will perform with our Jazz Ensemble, including a new piece by a young composer from the PJCE youth program. The concert also includes a world premiere by young composer Grace Miedziak. 

Finally, in May, we’re closing our season with a bang. Typically, orchestras close their seasons with a BIG piece, like a Mahler or Shostakovich Symphony. We’ve done that in the past. This time, we are closing our year with a concert we are calling “Dance Party: Then and Now!” This is basically a hit parade of short dances for orchestra, some of them very famous, like Strauss’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube,” Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, and Bernstein’s Mambo from West Side Story; a few dances by Latin American composers; as well as music by Portland’s celebrated composer Kenji Bunch: his “Groovebox Variations.” The concert also includes a world premiere by local young composer Rohan Srinivasan. 

ON THE ROAD

Metropolitan Youth Symphony has a growing international profile. Our top orchestra typically tours internationally every three years. This past summer, we were in Italy and Austria for two weeks. Three years ago, the orchestra went to China. Three years before that, Poland and the Czech Republic. 

Our latest tour to Italy and Austria raised the bar for us. Instead of doing just a concert tour, our time in Europe started with a residency at the Accademia Pianistica D’Imola, a renowned festival in northern Italy. We had rehearsals and performances with guest European conductors and soloists. At this residency, we performed two chamber-music concerts and two full-orchestra concerts, with totally different repertoire for each. The experience was a lot closer to what a professional orchestra would do. After that, we embarked on a journey that included performances and visits to Riva del Garda, Cremona, Verona, Palmanova, Venice, Slovenia, and Villach in Austria. 

On this tour, we gave the Italian and Austrian premieres of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 from 1932. Ms. Price was the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and her music fell into oblivion after her death. We also gave the U.S. West Coast premiere back in May of this year. And I know that these performances by MYS have inspired other professional orchestras to program music by Florence Price. 

Our performance in Austria was one of the most unforgettable musical experiences I’ve ever had. After two weeks of rehearsals in Portland, and close to two weeks of international travels and performances, the orchestra ascended into a new level of artistry. They sounded great, and they knew it. Each difficult moment in the music that they knew was coming, they kept nailing. Moment after moment.  

Austrian audiences can be pretty cold, but at the end of the concert we got a standing ovation. We played an encore of music by Louis Armstrong, and after we were done with that, the audience wanted more. So, we played our encore again, this time with me not conducting and letting the orchestra play on their own. 

Afterwards, downstairs in the dressing rooms, there was spontaneous dancing, singing, and just so much joy. Like a sports team winning a championship. For many of these students, this was the culmination of a long journey that started perhaps with hearing an in-school outreach concert, years earlier in their elementary school. 

STEAM VS. STEM

Back home in Portland after the tour, our students had a quick turn-around before school started for the year. They all returned to their classrooms, bringing with them the unforgettable experiences and growth that come from international travel, and the confidence and sense of accomplishment earned from their artistic achievement.

In their school lives, our students have many passions in addition to their musical pursuits. They are disciplined, creative, curious, and motivated. They are living proof that the artistic and academic worlds are not at odds: They actually benefit tremendously from each other. 

Richard Lachman, a professor at Ryerson University, believes that both the arts and the sciences face a new antagonist: populism, with its growing distrust of intellectuals.  Lachman speaks specifically about the importance for the scientific community to bridge this gap. He asks, “How can universities train our scientists, technologists and engineers to engage with society, rather than perform as cogs in the engine of economic development?

Lachman writes that technology raises moral questions. He cites a few examples:

1. Software algorithms used for applications with life-changing impacts, such as criminal sentencing and employment.

2. CRISPR for gene editing in bio-technological applications.

3. Geoengineering to address climate change “making massive-scale edits to our planet’s most fundamental systems.”

These are not technological issues. These are ETHICAL issues that contain technological issues. These are moral questions. Here is where what we learn from the arts becomes crucially important.

The debate about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) vs. STEAM (the A stands for the Arts) has gained traction in the last few years. To me, the answer to the question, “Why STEAM?” is one word. And that word is EMPATHY.

The A in STEAM is important because we can teach ethics through the arts. Instead of looking at the humanities as an abstract way of creating “well rounded individuals,” we must use the arts to engage directly with discussions of morals, values, ethics, and responsibility.

This is exactly what our young musicians do. Through the highly technical act of playing a musical instrument, they are learning to think about complex emotions. They are not just playing notes or making sounds. They infuse their music with meaning as they explore the composer’s voice and how the music relates to their lives and their world. When we play Beethoven, we reflect on joy and fear, life and death. When we rehearse Joan Tower, we talk about gender equality. When we perform Florence Price in Italy and Austria, we are giving a platform to a silenced voice. 

The A in STEAM stands for the Arts, but it also stands for creativity, discipline, compassion, empathy and joy. Arts education MUST be part of our young people’s in-school daily experience.

My daughter, Alma Rose Gómez-Smith, was born last year. Because of her, I think a lot about the future. Let’s use the arts to teach our children the value of discipline, creativity, kindness, and empathy, so they will take those values into whatever it is they do when they’re older. Our young artists are the future of our technology industry, our teachers, doctors, artists, politicians, climate activists, and other professions we don’t even know exist yet. 

My life is filled with optimism because I work in arts education. Lots of disheartening things are going on in the world. But because I work with so many talented young people, I know that we are in good hands, that good will triumph over evil, and that love, compassion and empathy are the driving forces behind our future.

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