After more than two decades performing and engaging community music programs across the country, the Marian Anderson String Quartet—winners of the 2008 Guarneri String Quartet Award, as well as the 2006 Congress of Racial Equality Martin Luther King Award for Excellence in Arts–has found a permanent home of sorts in Bryan, Texas. Founded in its current incarnation in 2009, the Marian Anderson Quartet Community School is, in the words of violist Diedra Lawrence, an “organic outgrowth” of the quartet’s long history of community outreach, serving students of all ages and abilities, regardless of financial means.
CMA spoke with Ms. Lawrence and violinist Nicole Cherry about what brought the quartet to put down its roots in Bryan, the importance of authenticity in an educational setting, and what’s changed since the quartet’s historic win of the International Cleveland Quartet Competition more than 20 years ago.
CMA: The quartet has a long history of community engagement, but what led you to finally decide to establish a year-round music community program of your own?
Nicole Cherry: It’s a very organic outgrowth of our work as educators. Early on, the emphasis was on quartet competitions, but as we traveled we found ourselves adding more and more community outreach programs to the concerts that we played around the country, and helping more and more communities build their music programs. Through a residency at Texas A&M, we ended up here in Bryan, and we looked around and realized that, though we were constantly working to support the music programs in other areas, there was no program here, serving our own community.
CMA: Do you see chamber music as having unique educational and social values?
Diedra Lawrence: Nicole just turned to me and mouthed ‘chamber music is awesome’–and that’s pretty much just it. The students we work with have some music around them—they’ll have an orchestra at school, for example—but there’s a kind of autonomy and a responsibility implicit to the act of playing in a chamber music setting that you can’t really simulate without others guiding you.
There’s also a kind of social network that blossoms out of the chamber music experience—something we each know from personal experience. In the community music school I attended growing up, the whole world revolved around my friends and my instrument, us playing chamber music together and us practicing. It became a wellspring of support and confidence on a personal and development level, as well as on an emotional and social level. And that’s a feeling we try and replicate for our students.
It’s an amazing thing when we get together and we play with our students, whatever their age—7 years old, or 77 years old. We work with our students almost every day—in master classes and workshops and performances. I’ve actually had private students who were about to give up on music and then, after coming to our summer chamber music workshop, had a revived interest in playing the instrument. They saw something in it that reached beyond simply playing the instrument itself—they saw an empowering kind of sharing, and felt a connection with the people around them, people that they didn’t expect they could connect with it.
NC: What they’re hungry for is the feeling of community that encircles the quartet—a feeling that then begins to reach out in concentric circles to the people around us. Everyone gets absorbed into the community. One of the things we always end our emails to our new students with is ‘welcome to the family’–it’s a very intimate community. You’ve a heard of a mom-and-pop organization? We’re a mom-and-mom-and-mom-mom organization.
CMA: Is there advice that you have for young ensembles still considering how to navigate and balance the teaching and performing sides of their careers?
DL: If I had to share one word of wisdom it would be that authenticity is key. When addressing anyone in an educational environment, don’t put on the hat of teacher or step into the role of ‘now I’m going to address the audience as an educator.’ The audience at the master class is there to meet two things—they’re there meet the music and they’re there to meet you. Let them meet you. Let them see you. Each person can then develop their own personal teaching style by simply trusting their own authenticity. It’s one of the things I appreciate most about this quartet, and it came up recently, when we participated in a lecture series at the African American studies department at Brown University. We had done a recital the previous night and some outreach work that morning, and we had one person on board with us the whole time. She saw us in the recital, saw us at the children’s concert, and saw us at the lecture series at Brown, and she said that we were exactly the same people in each of those moments. Build your style as educator around your authentic self—not your artificial self.
CMA: Part of the quartet’s stated mission is to “create new and diverse audiences”—a kind of work that more and more ensembles are beginning to take seriously. What works and what doesn’t?
NC: I think again it goes along with what Diedra said—you have to be yourself, and you have to be committed and passionate about the work. If our quartet is going to play a Brahms quartet, we’ll play it at the CVS, just because the owners said ‘oh, my cousin just loves music—can you come do a recital there?” I’m exaggerating a bit, but truthfully we draw no lines between where we will and won’t present music. We’ll go into a prison, we’ll go into a hot dog stand in the country—it does not matter. We are completely committed to that idea. And as long as you’re committed to your idea—whether it’s presenting to senior citizens or disabled vets or a particular ethnic group—as long as you’re genuinely reaching out and giving back, the work is going to grow naturally.
I should say, however, that I have a bit of a problem—and I think I can speak for the quartet, here—with the impulse to target a particular group. Whoever has a need, we’ll provide it. If someone came up and knocked on this window right now, I’d have to put this interview on hold.
DL: There are a lot of people out there that are trying to figure out, ‘what is the best thing to write in this grant so I get these funds?’ Follow the passion and then find the grant; don’t follow the grant.
CMA: When the quartet won the International Cleveland Quartet Competition in the early 90’s, it was the first African American ensemble to win a classical competition. What are the changes you’ve witnessed—in regard to race and class in the classical community—in the years since?
NC: Some things are much better than they were when we started out 24 years ago. There are so many more diverse types of chamber music ensembles performing now, we have so many more different ethnic groups being represented—and that’s just a thrill for us to see and know. Sometimes I feel that the audience itself is not as diverse as the performing community has become, and we’re also out working on that. There are a lot of people who don’t feel welcome, don’t feel like it’s a world to which they belong. For people to feel that, they often have to look up on stage and see someone who looks familiar.