Infusing classical musicians with a 'heart for service' in Memphis schools

Through the IRIS Orchestra Fellows program, classical musicians from around the world immerse themselves in Memphis music and education.
IRIS Orchestra has been around for 17 seasons but recently added something for the first time in the organization’s history: yearlong artist fellows.
The three string musicians were awarded the fellowships as a collaborative endeavor between the organization and the Memphis Music Initiative to increase diversity in classical music as well as bridge the transition between student and professional life. 
The organization is exploring other partnerships this year, with collaborations with the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Ballet Memphis and Opera Memphis.
IRIS began as a partnership with the Germantown Performing Arts Center and the City of Germantown and consists of musicians from orchestras, chamber groups, and university faculties from across the country and world.
While in town, the traveling IRIS musicians lodge with Memphis host families.
“It feels like they’re coming home, not just doing a gig,” said Rebecca Arendt, IRIS Director of Community Initiatives & Artist Fellows Coordinator.
This is done because IRIS wants the musicians to feel invested in the Memphis community.
And in selecting the fellows, IRIS staff looked for “excellent musicians and people with a heart for service,” Arendt said. They looked for people who had done similar work or had an interest in the work, specifically working with youth.
Playing and teaching are both equally important interests for the fellows; they are furthering their careers, as well as the community.
Having the fellows also benefits IRIS with their constant presence compared to the ebb and flow of community presence provided by the organization’s visiting musicians.
“Whenever you bring in new people to your organization, especially ones devoted to diversity, conversations change,” Arendt said. “We have to make sure those conversations represent as much of the community as you possibly can.”
Beginning in just August of this year, the IRIS artist fellows spend 15 to 20 hours per week in coaching, mentoring, rehearsals, and performances, including performing in IRIS Orchestra. They receive training and coaching from industry leaders. They also spend 20 hours a week in community-based music engagement: seventeen hours in schools a week and three hours a week in planning and training time.
In addition to opportunities for performing, practice, and providing education the program provides the participants with a stipend, a health insurance allowance, and subsidized housing. Arendt said the fellows also receive a personal growth fund that they can use to offset the costs of music lessons.
Another benefit for the fellows? Personal and professional networking with musicians working with IRIS from all over the country. Fellow Mariama Alcântara recently graduated from the University of Memphis and would like to go to graduate school next year, so meeting a musician through the fellowship could eventually lead to postgraduate study or an audition with another group.
Alcântara, a violinist from Brazil, came to Memphis for her undergraduate degree and decided to stay in the city this year because of the fellowship. She is based in Kingsbury Elementary and Snowden Elementary/Middle School. Alcântara taught for two years in Brazil where her father is a professional guitarist.
She chose the violin as her way to travel the world and gain exposure to different cultures, something that would pay off once she landed in her Memphis school.
“Kingsbury is in a Latino community in Memphis,” she said. “The first language I spoke there was Spanish, not English.”
Ashley M. Vines, a Philadelphia-native, has a background in viola performance and teaching. In Memphis she is based at Caldwell Gurthrie Elementary in North Memphis. Vines said that she is having a great time as a fellow and is appreciative of spending time with the other MMI cohort fellows who are from the Memphis-area who can provide advice about the schools and the area in general.
Memphis has been an adjustment from East Coast living; things like driving a great deal more versus taking public transportation or walking. But the journey has been positive.
“Memphis has such as rich music history; it’s been fun to get to know it in person,” she said, speaking about visiting Stax Museum and learning the origins behind songs that her family played.
Because of her upbringing in of South Philadelphia, Vines said that she relates to her students from North Memphis, and because like her students she was introduced to music in elementary school.
“They have music in them all long,” she said. “They have great rhythm. It’s up to me to give them an instrument.”
Ajibola Rivers, a cellist, is from a suburb of Philadelphia. He is based in Douglass K-8 optional program.
Rivers is from a more suburban area so the idea of Memphis is less foreign to him. His biggest change is being the furthest he has been away from family in his entire life. The town where he attended college was only about 15 minutes away from his hometown.
Being an educator is also a new experience for Rivers, but one that he has enjoyed so far, learning about himself along the way. Coming prepared for class means not just bringing materials, but preparing mentally. He said that students can tell if he’s nervous or holding back.
“(The students) are looking for someone to learn from and to bond with,” he said. “I love that environment.”
As part of the fellowship, the three perform as the chamber group/ensemble c3strings. They are coached by IRIS musicians as they come into town. The fellows are considered full IRIS members.
Currently the fellows are involved in four to five concerts a month, a schedule that will increase as the program goes on.
The Fellows’ first public performance is during Shelby Farms’ 30 Days of Celebration from 5:00-6:30 p.m. on September 29, followed by a performance at the Levitt Shell the next day during Opera Memphis’ 30 Days of Opera.
“Near and dear for everyone at IRIS is using art as a healing tool in a lot of projects we’ve done,” Arendt said. “Using community for the good of the world should be important to all of us. We see the fellowship as our way to enter that conversation.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Memphis Music Initiative; it is part of a series highlighting the impact and importance of music on the community in neighborhoods across Memphis.

Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program. 
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