When I met 16-year old Sirai, she had been learning to play the cello through group classes at John Jay High School in the Edgewood District of San Antonio. Sirai was only able to practice at school on a borrowed instrument that she was not allowed to take outside of school. School funding for music programs is very limited, especially because Edgewood is the least resourced program among all the San Antonio’s school districts. Sarai’s dad is a preacher, and her mom works three jobs, one as an overnight nurse, so they have little time to help nurture Sarai’s extracurricular interests.
Sirai’s music teacher knew about the Classical Music Institute (CMI), which I helped to co-found in 2016. He connected us with Sirai, and one of our instructors, Diego Rodríguez, went to hear her play at school. Recognizing her nascent talent, he connected Sirai with one of CMI’s generous patrons, who agreed to fund 50% of her lessons with CMI instructors during the school year and fully sponsor her participation in CMI’s summer institute.
The first lessons didn’t go well. Sirai seemed very pessimistic, not just about music, but about her life and future in general; she was lost. But music changed everything. She started practicing incredibly hard and gaining confidence as her skills improved. After only a couple of months, she took part in an audition for the Regional Concert Youth Orchestra, formed by high schoolers around the county. Out of 57 cellists who auditioned, Sirai won 3rd chair. At CMI’s summer institute, Sirai won the prestigious concerto competition and was able to perform as a soloist, accompanied by an orchestra before a large audience. She also formed a quartet with her schoolmates and competed to win a spot in a masterclass by Camerata San Antonio, formed by principal players of the San Antonio Symphony.
Sirai is incredibly motivated now. She even got a part-time job so she can pay for a portion of the cost of her weekly lessons and transportation that her scholarship doesn’t cover. Because of music and CMI, she has transformed into a young woman of confidence and self-assurance. Her dream is to study music and win a scholarship to attend college; something that previously seemed out of her reach is now within her grasp.
CMI was conceived from a series of conversations between me, a professional concert violinist, and Paul Montalvo, a San Antonio firefighter with a passion for classical music. Energetic and with a deep commitment to civic service, Paul had already started the vibrant Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio in 2012, with whom I performed a few times a year as concertmaster. In 2015, I won the Pro Musicis International Award, and the prize came with a grant to start a “social outreach” project. In conversing with Paul, we discovered a common passion for education and the power of music to improve peoples’ lives. I had always wanted to incorporate my love of performing and inspiring others by playing alongside young musicians and mentoring them through collaborations. San Antonio seemed like the perfect place to make those dreams into a reality, because of Paul’s network of classical music lovers and supportive patrons, the lack of tuition-free musical opportunities for young people, and a large underserved population of students, many from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Being a musician is a lifelong journey, a constant evolution in the quest for universal beauty. No matter one’s age, background, or level of experience, musicians are always learning from each other. That is the driving force behind CMI. In CMI’s summer institute, over 100 musicians from 11 different countries come together to perform, sharing their passion for music with the community of San Antonio. CMI’s senior faculty members are world-renowned musicians who have performed as soloists with major orchestras or as chamber musicians with organizations such as the prestigious Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. We also bring in junior faculty members, who are recent graduates of prestigious conservatories like The Juilliard School. Most of our faculty have extensive teaching experience, and many speak fluent Spanish, which facilitates engagement with San Antonio’s largely Hispanic student population.
The kids who come to CMI, like Sirai, range in age from 8-18 and are recruited from the different school districts of San Antonio. Most of the kids are Title I students who only have access to music once a week in their schools. They attend CMI’s summer institute free of charge; all parents have to do is drop them off and pick them up every day, and we provide breakfast, lunch, and instruments to those who do not own one.
Those two summer weeks at the CMI institute change the lives of every musician, from 9-year old beginners to senior faculty. Take Julius Gonzalez, a participant that has participated from the first edition when he was 15 years old. Through his summers at CMI, his technique made a huge leap, and the inspiration and hard work have carried him forward into dedicating his life to music. His family made the effort of purchasing his own violin, and because of his musical talents, he obtained a scholarship to attend Texas A&M to become a music teacher, where he is currently a freshman.
The life-changing moments reach all of us, including our senior faculty. Mexican violist Jorge Martinez came to CMI as a senior faculty member in 2016. Though he had been Professor of Viola at New Mexico State University for over a decade, with a vast teaching experience, he had not developed his performance abilities as extensively as other international faculty members had. As Chamber Music Director of CMI, I am in charge of selecting repertoire for the summer program and assigning pieces to specific individuals. To push Jorge out of his comfort zone, I asked him to play the viola part of Schoenberg’s Trio and Kodaly’s Serenade, two of the hardest chamber pieces ever written for the viola. He was initially terrified to play them, particularly alongside world-class chamber musicians who had performed these pieces many times before. But the camaraderie, acceptance, and generosity at CMI that lift everyone together also worked its magic on Jorge. By performance time, Jorge was playing beautifully and confidently, and he knocked it out of the park. And this experience gave him the confidence to accept his biggest musical challenge yet: to perform a viola concerto as a soloist with his hometown orchestra in Mexico – the same orchestra that gave him his first job. Jorge the soloist had not just an incredible performance, but also a standing ovation with his whole family in the audience and his former coworkers behind him.
CMI is now entering an exciting new phase. Two of our faculty members have moved to San Antonio permanently, and we are starting to establish a year-round educational program. The goal over the next two years to have five CMI musicians living in San Antonio full time, guiding the music educators at San Antonio public schools who are collaborating with us and working with the kids on a year-round basis.
This approach of “learning through collaboration and performance” and having young artists share the stage with world-class musicians, is one that I experienced as a student myself, at festivals such as Marlboro and the Perlman Music Program. These were transformative, life-changing experiences for me, and with CMI, I am passionate about spreading the approach to more diverse and underserved populations. Music can truly change lives for the better, instilling confidence, focus, discipline, teamwork, and a sense of community, while bringing inspiration to players and audience members alike.