by Ron Oshima
While Vice President Kamala Harris visited Milwaukee on January 24, her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, visited the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center (MYAC) to highlight the federal COVID-19 relief grants that helped performing arts organizations such as Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO) and First Stage keep operating during the pandemic.
Emhoff met with the leaders of MYAC, MYSO, and First Stage, and the MYAC Student Advisory Board, consisting of students from MYSO and First Stage, and talked about what the space meant to them. This article focuses on the MYSO students who participated–Zindzi Frederick, Lucas LaBeau, Valkyrie Ladd, Noor Salameh, and Clark Snavely.
As the first student to speak, Lucas LaBeau, a sophomore jazz pianist, mentioned he was glad that MYSO was open during the pandemic. Music is a group endeavor, and he looked forward to getting together at MYSO every Wednesday.
Lucas played a jazz tune, “Skylark,” the version popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. His improvisations included reharmonizing different parts of the melody and adding different chords. The Second Gentleman, an ardent jazz fan, liked Lucas’ improvisations. He said that if he had had another son, he would have named him Miles after Miles Davis. In fact, he has a daughter named Ella, after Ella Fitzgerald, and a son named Cole, after John Coltrane. Now that’s the sign of a true jazz aficionado!
Noor Salameh, a junior cellist in Senior Symphony, talked about her volunteer work with Progressions since the eighth grade. (Progressions is an intensive string training program for third- and fourth-graders who live in or attend school in Milwaukee.) She said “I think that Progressions is really cool. They weren’t going to school and their parents needed to be at work, so this was the one place they could get out of the house and come to. It was great to see them excited to be here, accomplishing their work.”
A favorite cause of Noor’s is equity in education, consistent with MYSO’s principles. She sees classical music training and orchestral ensemble work as great examples of equity in education; everyone in an ensemble is working towards a shared goal and learning simultaneously from excellent instructors and coaches.
Zindzi Frederick, a junior violinist in Senior Symphony and a member of our Soca steel band, expressed how important it was to keep MYSO open during the pandemic. She was not able to attend school in person but was able to come to MYSO for in-person rehearsals. She found MYSO to be very helpful to her mental health. She witnessed many of her peers losing motivation due to isolation and lack of face-to-face interactions.
Valkyrie Ladd, a freshman violinist in Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, has been with MYSO for four years. They said “I grew up listening to a lot of Motown from the 60s and 70s with my dad. When I wanted to play an instrument, my mom suggested the violin, which I started playing when I was seven. The arts are a huge part of my life.” They wanted the Second Gentleman to know that if you’re really looking to find your people, MYSO is the place to come. “In school, I never felt that I fit in. My first MYSO stand partner from four years ago is actually one of my best friends to this day.”
Clark Snavely, a sophomore violinist and concertmaster of Senior Symphony, spoke last and played a piece by Henryk Wieniawski. Having MYSO in his life when everything else was shut down enabled him and his orchestra mates to play beautiful music and work on their pieces weekly as part of a “normal” routine. It was the one thing during the week they could depend on. He said, “it would have been hard to make it through the height of the pandemic without MYSO.”
Clark added that through his playing he wanted to show the Second Gentleman how wonderful MYSO is in developing not just musicians, but people as well.
Looking back upon his experience that day, Clark said “you don’t realize how amazing it was until afterward. I was in the same room with the Second Gentleman; I got to play my violin for him and tell him about MYSO.”
Just as relevant today are the remarks the Second Gentleman made in opening the NEA Jazz Masters Tribute back in April of 2021. “At the end of a long day, putting on ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis or Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ just has a way of making everything okay. And that’s the power of music, isn’t it? Through melodies and lyrics, music serves as a source of comfort and solace, and helps us process and navigate the most challenging times.”
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