Neighbors Helping Neighbors: Interview with Sebastian Ruth, Part 1

I am very excited to present to you the first of a two-part interview with Sebastian Ruth. Mr. Ruth is a violist, violinist, music educator, and an incredible visionary. After graduating from Brown University in 1997, he founded Community MusicWorks (CMW), a non-profit based in the West End neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. For fourteen years, CMW and Sebastian Ruth have empowered the lives of urban youth and families through classical music.

Source: From MacArthur Foundation Website

String Visions: We very much appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. How did you first conceive of the idea of Community MusicWorks as a force for social justice.

Sebastian Ruth: I was sure that I wanted music to be a big part of my life, and I wasn’t sure in what form that would take. I wanted to be able to include a commitment to social justice and a commitment to public life as part of my musicianship. Particularly, I was concerned about the all-too-common scenario of who gets to go to a concert. What is the demographic of a typical concert goer? Is there a way to be a musician in the world where I could include, in the people I’m performing for, those who are not necessarily in that demographic… and for whom the experience of hearing music could in fact be transformative.

Certainly, anyone in anyplace could be transformed. But the particular synergy that I was interested in exploring was:

  • Young people growing up in a challenged neighborhood
  • Musicians seeking a career in performance, 
  • An experiment in education whose real outcome was social justice or community change.

What is the synergy among those three things?

String Visions: That is fantastic. What continues to drive you? Would you say that those remain the core values of your mission and the work of CMW, or did you discover new questions as you developed?

Sebastian Ruth: Those are definitely the core questions. Is it possible to make an educational situation for kids that focuses on a process of expanding their idea of the world they can inhabit… giving them a good introduction to a world of ideas they might not have previously considered… and doing it while defining it as a group of musicians actively performing and actively working for their own satisfaction as musicians.

String Visions: Before you started CMW you never really had a full-time job. You were fresh out of college, and this was your first big endeavor. What empowered you to build CMW? Did you have a mentor figure, a community partner, or some other source of inspiration?

Sebastian Ruth: First of all, I didn’t know I was starting any non-profit organization when I started this. What I knew was that I had gotten a post-graduate fellowship from the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University. It really challenged me to define a year-long service project, and I fleshed out the scope of the program, the role of the musicians, and the daily/weekly activities. Then from that, it became clear that it was going to be more than a year-long project. There would be a fundraising component, an administrative component, etc.

The then-director of the Swearer Center was a man named Peter Hocking, who was a very important mentor for me especially during those early years… intellectually because he himself was an artist and we shared many hours of conversaton about what the intersection is among education, the arts, and social change. We also shared a common respect and fascination with Maxine Greene (the philosopher of education).

But he was also very savvy with organization building and so when it came time to incorporate, form a board, establish by-laws, and take other important steps he was definitely a big mentor for me in those years.

One of the first things he said to me after I got the fellowship was: “I think you should start looking for three year funding.” At that time, the idea of three years was alien. The idea of finding funding was alien. The idea of where I would be, let alone whether I would still be in this work was completely foreign. But he was right. I didn’t look for three-year funding, but it would have been the right time to do so.

So what empowered me? Did I know it was an entrepreneurial venture? I did know… I had this ambition and I knew what I wanted to accomplish and what I wanted to achieve with it. But in terms of a venture, I didn’t recognize the scope of what it would become.

I guess a little dose of naivety was good.

String Visions: Looking back now, what advice would you give to younger musicians and entrepreneurs who may be faced with similar situations in terms of creating their own opportunities. Specifically, we know some people who are looking at building their own education programs from the ground up. What would you say to them?

Sebastian Ruth: There are many facets to that.

Philosophically there is an orientation that I think is very important. And that is, consider very carefully what role you have in the community, in any community setting. Consider what people’s perceptions are of you, and of classical musicians. Don’t assume that you will be embraced as offering a good thing. And be very conscious to think about how your interests and the interests of people living in the community you want to work in align.

(Rather than offering them a way out ) my interest was: I would like to be a resident of this neighborhood and be thinking about how we can grow an organic musical community in this neighborhood together… and have it be all about the quality of our interaction and the quality of the programs we’re developing… so that sense of belonging to something right within their community that was of quality starts to spread into other areas of their life. And (then) they can start to perceive their neighborhood as having some inherent and important qualities, and not that their neighborhood is something that they have to leave……

(The motto of the first community service center that I partnered with was) neighbors helping neighbors… that couldn’t have been more philosophically aligned with what I was hoping to be. I was myself striving to be a neighbor in this community……

(And the director of that community center said) just because a kid grows up in limited circumstances doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be citizens of the world……

Then there’s practical advice…

Be prepared to be a generalist, and think carefully about the role YOU want to play

There is a certain downward curve that is common to most businesses and non-profits, which is that the first three years you expect to lose money… Being in that gap (between start-up and fully established) is hard… and knowing that it exists before you go in is an advantage……

The reason that I stuck with it was that it didn’t become bigger than I imagined, it just started to fill into what I imagined… It took years to develop a group of kids who were committed and ready to dive into a program (where music could be a reflection of life experience), and it took years for us to learn what it took to run such a program… the short version is it took seven years to get to the Saturday of that original plan… and I think that’s why I had the patience for it……

String Visions: How would you evaluate your own progress in the area of connecting to an audience outside of the traditional setting, impacting the lives of those who might not normally have access to classical music? What do you think your greatest accomplishments in that area are?

Sebastian Ruth: I think the greatest accomplishment is seeing our students go beyond their own expectations for themselves. That happens in many areas.

The rate in which students are graduating and going to college is one of the most satisfying achievements of the organization at this point. All the students who have gone through our program and stayed with us throughout high school have gone on to college in some way. And, that’s big in a neighborhood where 50% of the kids drop out of high school.

It’s not something we can take credit for. We can correlate that they are in our program and they go to college. But we can’t say this is the cause.

But there is a breadth of thinking I’m seeing in the kids that’s really cool: taking initiative, doing the college process for their own reasons, taking Community MusicWorks as a context into their college applications and into their college careers in ways that are totally self-directed…

Sebastian Ruth: There’s a couple other dimensions: one success and one challenge…

It’s easy for people to see what we are doing and say “that’s nice, it’s this group of classical musicians teaching in a community setting.” They can grasp that it’s a performing ensemble. But, what I think is very nice and starting to come into fruition now is the idea that there is a particular context that we are making music in.

In a lot of ways the repertoire we play and the concerts we play could look and sound like a regular string quartet or a chamber music ensemble. But in another sense we are really trying to find a voice, or a style, or a music of the context we are in —commissioning music that has some relationship to our mission, that we perform here, and that could have a performance life beyond Providence… but also has some real relevance to this place and this program. People are starting to recognize that.

To me, what is so interesting about that is you think of great music from any time as having come from a composer living in some context. And I like the idea that it’s not just that we’ll play a Beethoven string quartet, or a Brahms sextet, or something and say this is great music and we so enjoying playing it (which we do). But, also to say we’re fostering a creative ferment so that young people are making new music, established composers are writing new music for us, and we are having a feeling that this is not simply about preserving old traditions, but creating new ones based on who we are……

In my imagination that is the most sincere relationship a musical institution could have to music.

Sebastian Ruth: (That’s the success but) the challenge always remains: is it really possible to wear all of the various hats we want to wear and succeed at each of them?

We want to be excellent performers, we want to be excellent educators, we want to offer students a very high-level educational experince, and we want to be doing a very interesting community development initiative.

To do all of those things well simultaneously has always been a challenge. You have to compromise somewhere…

Our interview with Sebastian Ruth continues in part 2, “Reflections of a Musical Visionary.”

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