YOUNG JAZZ. There is a program on both NPR and PBS called "From the Top", which spotlights rising young virtuoso musicians. I was fortunate to catch the last third of last week's show -- for I'd never heard 16 year old Nikki Yanofsky sing before. She is a self-taught vocalist who is already a seasoned performer of jazz and pop standards. In the segment I heard, Nikki demonstrated her Ella Fitzgerald-inspired skills at scat singing -- you can hear her perform at this link. It is musicians like those who appear on "From the Top" who give me hope that creativity, discipline and originality are not lost amid the cookie-cutter jungle of pop music.
YOUNG CLASSICAL. One segment on "60 Minutes" last week featured Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan conductor and violinist who is the new conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At 29, Gustavo is the youngest person to ascend to the LAP podium. He has created a sensation among audiences and orchestra members alike, for he brings not only technical and interpretive expertise, but also energy and humor to the concert hall. Musical excellence and laughter are a rich and heady blend at rehearsals, inspiring musicians to grand heights of performance. You can see and hear the entire "60 Minutes" segment here.
Dudamel is a product of Venezuela's El Sistema, a publicly-financed program which involves young people in classical music from an early age -- in the process, not only keeping them off the streets and out of trouble, but providing a rich venue for artistic self-expression and being part of something larger than oneself (one social function of street gangs). Dudamel has started similar programs in U.S. cities, and I wish him resounding success. Like Leonard Bernstein before him, Dudamel has the opportunity to touch many, many young lives with an understanding of, and love for, music.
When I worked with young people, both as a teacher/counselor and later as a security officer, I lacked the funding to get kids involved in music. Instead I introduced my young charges to chess -- teaching them the fundamentals, keeping it fun, and eventually hosting chess tournaments which were wildly popular. A little creativity and encouragement go a long way in nurturing even a troubled youth's intelligence, enthusiasm and self-esteem. Focus, planning, and imagination are all engaged. Where music or any other art form might excel over chess is in self-expression. I was lucky to be both a vocalist and a French horn player in my youth, and later took up classical guitar, dulcimer, djembe and keyboards. Anyone, performer or conductor, who can make music not only their avocation but also their career, is fortunate indeed. Parents, it is never too early to encourage your children to learn to perform music -- it is a gift which they will treasure for all their lives.