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Meet the musicians investing their time in mentoring the next generation



What is the future of music? Why, it's the kids, of course, and our friend Marin Alsop, who's better than almost anyone. She's chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony, as well as director of the graduate conducting program at Johns Hopkins University. She joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Maestro, thanks so much for being with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, it's great to be with you again, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And the maestro's joined by Nema Robinson, a violinist who's studying music education at University of Maryland Baltimore County and is herself helping to mentor young music students. Thank you both very much for being with us.


ALSOP: Great to be here. Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Marin, teaching music, helping young people relate to music, putting music into the lives of young people has always been important to you, right?

ALSOP: Yeah. It's been a real passion of mine, as you know, Scott. I think that having this opportunity as a young person to learn how to play an instrument and to learn how to work with others - it develops a whole skill set that enables kids not only to go into music, if that's what they're interested in, but to be wonderful students, to be better members of society. You know, playing a violin, as Nema does, you have to motivate yourself every day to practice. You learn that things take time. You know, I mean, there's so many skills that if I were creating a company, I would want all musicians as my workers, I think, because they have this incredibly advanced skill set.

SIMON: How do you open a young person's mind and heart to music? Bet you've been asking yourself that for quite some time now.

ALSOP: Yeah. You know, of course, my belief is that, you know, we're all born hot-wired for music, and it's all about the kinds of opportunities that we're given to explore that side of us, because for young people, when you're able to open them up to music or to art in any way, it opens up a world of imagination and a world of self-expression that I think can be transformative for many young people.

SIMON: Let's bring in some more of that music that we heard at the top. This is the National Orchestral Institute's performance of Mahler's "Symphony No. 1."


SIMON: Maestro, help us get hold of what goes into performing a piece like that, the hours of rehearsal.

ALSOP: Yeah. The cumulative hours, I think, that these kids have spent on their instruments is - you know, you can't even count them. But you hear the result. I mean, they sound pretty fantastic, don't they?

SIMON: Boy, yes.

ALSOP: This program is extra special this year because I was able to bring in 10 musicians from the Chicago Symphony to mentor the kids and work with them on this Mahler symphony. And then we're taking the entire orchestra to the Ravinia Festival. And the first half of the program, the young musicians will mentor kids from around the United States, including five kids from the OrchKids program. So it's kind of a complete cycle of mentoring in a way.

SIMON: Maestro, tell us about OrchKids. We've done stories there.

ALSOP: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's an incredible program. And I started it in 2008 with a couple of friends and 30 first-graders. And today, the program has over 1,800 kids playing musical instruments. So it's pretty formidable.

SIMON: Nema Robinson, let's turn to you because, of course, you played with OrchKids, the group affiliated with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I gather you're still a mentor there, yes?


SIMON: What did you learn going through the program? What do you try to pass on to youngsters now?

NEMA ROBINSON: OrchKids is, like, a very big family. They set you up very well when it comes to mentoring. For an example, one of my teachers gave me an opportunity where he was a previous teacher at OrchKids for jazz. And I ended up doing internship during my sophomore year of college. And he was like, oh, Nema, you got it. And so, you know, he put me in front of the classroom, and I was, like, teaching the class. It was, like, a strings classroom. And I was like, whoa. Like, that was, like, my first, like, experience.

ALSOP: Is that what made you want to go into teaching?



NEMA ROBINSON: Having, like, those type of experiences and, you know, the teacher, like, you got it.

ALSOP: You got it. They trusted you.

NEMA ROBINSON: Like, they trust you. Like, they see that you got it. And, you know, they put you forward, and they're like, you know, I'm going to give you the lead. And it's like, whoa, like, are you sure? Like, OK.

SIMON: We want to hear some of a recent OrchKids performance if we could. This is "The Deserted Garden" by Florence Price from their recent spring performance.


SIMON: That's just beautiful. Nema Robinson, I guess you've also worked at summer music camps, yes?


SIMON: What's that like?

NEMA ROBINSON: It's such a different experience from other camps I've been to. Over the years, like, the main camp I worked at is Camp Encore/Coda in Sweden, Maine. And you build these types of relationships with all these kids, and you watch them grow up. So, like, every summer, you know, they're looking forward to seeing you. And the music is beautiful. Like, it's a camp where everything - there's theater, there's arts, there's visual arts, there's music theory. And then they have, like, these different orchestras, and you can just see how these kids love music. They have all these different activities for the kids. So it's not only just music but also these kids - you know, they look forward to it every summer. Like, by the end of the camp, you know, the kids are sad that they're leaving 'cause these kids are coming from all over.

SIMON: Marin, any advice you'd like to give Nema in front of, you know, several million people?

ALSOP: (Laughter) Oh, gosh. No pressure, huh? What's some good advice? Oh, listen, I - it's the same advice I give my son, I think, which is that when you find a vocation, a job, that is the same thing as your passion, never let go of it because you never have to spend one minute of your life working. You spend every minute of your life being passionate.

SIMON: The maestro Marin Alsop and Nema Robinson. They are both teachers and instructors of youth orchestras. So I think - at least I feel the future's in good hands. Thank you both very much for being with us.

ALSOP: Our pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

NEMA ROBINSON: Thank you so much. Thank you for having us.


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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.