Second Chance

In the spring of 2007, an enthusiastic undergraduate composer named Kevin Clark approached me with a proposal. The previous year, Kevin had taken the initiative of launching a composition mentoring program called Junior Bach. He had partnered with the Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy, a school serving middle-school boys from low-income families. Kevin was now petitioning the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University to make the program available to composition majors as a for-credit course. In order to make this happen, the program needed a faculty advisor. Kevin, along with various administrators at Peabody, invited me to take on that role. I said no.

I turned down Kevin's offer in part because I was still finishing my doctoral degree, and was concerned about spreading myself too thin. I don't like taking things on when I can't commit to them 100%. But in hindsight, I declined because I didn't see the value in what Kevin had created. Why were Peabody composers notating music for middle school students? What did our students, or theirs, get out of this arrangement? What would I get out of it? I was focused on writing music, on running my concert series in Baltimore, and on teaching, and I didn't think Junior Bach aligned with those goals.

Junior Bach certainly didn't need me. My colleague Steve Stone devoted himself to the program for the next four years, and it thrived under his leadership. Kevin graduated in 2008, with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins, and bachelor's and master's degrees in composition from Peabody. He has since gone on to a career as a successful composer and speaker, now serving as Director of Platform at New Music USA. I finally finished my doctoral degree in the spring of 2011. It was then that Steve mentioned, in passing, that he was planning to step down as director of Junior Bach. This time, it was my turn to ask whether I could be considered to take his place.

What had changed? Sure, I had finished my degree. But more importantly, I realized that I had missed an opportunity to be part of something special back in 2006, something more powerful than any composition, commission, or diploma. Junior Bach was about new music, it was about community, it was about teaching, it was about Baltimore. In short, it was about everything that mattered to me. Why were our students helping middle schoolers write music? Because those middle schoolers had great musical ideas, and only needed time and guidance to develop them into full-fledged compositions. Along the way, our composition majors were getting rare and invaluable teaching experience. 

As for what I would get out of it, that should have been a no-brainer from the start. Meeting the St. Ignatius students -- along with students from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, who joined the program in 2014 -- at the main entrance to Peabody every Monday and Wednesday is one of the highlights of my job. The only thing I love more is handing them their completed scores, signed by their teachers and performers, after their original music has been premiered in front of all of their classmates. It's hard to imagine anything more empowering, for the students, or for their mentors.

I think that's what I missed about Kevin Clark's instincts and vision nearly 10 years ago. Like many people involved in community engagement, I don't use the word "outreach." In part because it implies people in need of something that a more privileged person or institution can bestow upon them. But moreover because, when you're engaging with your community in meaningful ways, you get more than you give. The music that these students create at Peabody is a much greater gift than virtually anything else we could be doing with our time as artists. I count myself fortunate not to have missed a second chance to receive that gift.

Please join us for the Junior Bach Program's 10th Anniversary Celebration on Friday, April 29 starting at 1pm. Details here.