20 Stories: Jesse Holstein

Jesse Holstein

Sixteen years ago, Associate Director and Senior Resident Musician Jesse Holstein thought joining the Providence String Quartet “would be cool.” He recalls walking to a neighborhood library with cellist Sara Stalnaker, who was visiting him in Boston, and the two of them filling out applications to work as musicians at Community MusicWorks. Today, Jesse’s life of musicianship and community service is rooted in the organization he helped build. A graduate of New England Conservatory, he is an active violin and viola recitalist and chamber musician, serving as the concertmaster of the New Bedford Symphony. In addition, Jesse teaches chamber music at Brown University; performs and teaches at Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music; and is on the faculty at Greenwood Music Camp. 

The first time I got the tingles from music was through chamber music. It was a Debussy string quartet that I played with Chloe (Kline, CMW Education Director, and Resident Musician) when I was 15. I was a pseudo jock, or I wanted to be, without the athletic ability.  It wasn’t really cool playing violin at my high school. But at camp, it felt safe to let go and get into it. Well, now I’m seeing it happen with my students.

So many studies that say learning an instrument helps with math skills, reasoning skills, but for me music is about the emotion and being able to let go. I want to have an area in my life where there’s not any boundaries. I like being as passionate and as expressive with music as my imagination will allow. There are so many rules and regulations. You can’t do this, you can’t do that, but there’s no limit to how emotional or how passionate you can be with music. That feels really safe and it feels really good, and it’s really awesome to see some students who are really connecting to this music that I really connect to. It’s awesome to see kids being given the tools to do that. And that’s part of the challenge. I mean, it’s just so hard to learn the instrument in the first place, but I hope that it’s a vehicle for finding those things that they want to play and want to connect with.

Like the other day in my lesson with Jessenia, she was getting out her instrument and humming the Borodin Quartet (No. 2). I’ve never worked on the Borodin Quartet with her.  She said, “Yeah, I heard it at Apple Hill a couple of years ago and it’s one of my favorite pieces now.” Being in that environment, not just at Apple Hill but here at CMW, it’s okay to be passionate about music and it’s okay to let loose and be open to the experience, and that’s happened for some of our kids.

That’s a high point–this relationship with Apple Hill. It’s called the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music. It’s all ages, all experience levels, which is pretty unusual. My college roommate, Mike Kelley (now Apple Hill Quartet’s violist), used to talk about Apple Hill all the time when we were at Oberlin together. In 2003, I went as a counselor. I had a cabin of seven teenage boys and I had a really amazing time. The next year I was invited back as a faculty member and I started coming back every year.

Well, in 2007, Mike’s father Fred died suddenly of a brain tumor. Fred was a very close friend of mine here in Providence, in fact, we watched almost every Patriots game together—we played some golf together. I thought it would be cool to start a scholarship fund in Fred’s name to send Community MusicWorks kids up to Apple Hill so they could get the chamber music immersion experience. This is the 10th year of these scholarships.

We’ve been able to send some kids up there that ordinarily wouldn’t be able to go. Among the faculty here at Community MusicWorks, a lot of us had that immersive summer experience, which was such a catalyst for a life in music. A lot of those camps that we were able to go to are prohibitively expensive, but we want to give those opportunities to our students. That feels really good, having a number of students that have connected with Apple Hill and that are very passionate about going every year, and now they’re going as counselors and directors.

Any time I’ve had a student perform and they felt good about it, that’s been a high point as well. Just last week I had a student who has been writing her own music and writing social-justice-related poetry and songs. She sang one for me and I was blown away. She ended up singing at one of the school rallies. And that same day she said she got into college. Seeing some of my former students now in college and continuing to play, some even studying music, that’s pretty cool.

It works both ways, too. I’ve heard some things that I previously haven’t listened to. I’m trying to listen to more kinds of music. I find that the expressiveness and creativity that’s in an R&B song shares some of the same emotion and feeling in a piece of chamber music. We often talk about that, that there is this shared fertile ground. Some of the values and ideas are the same. It just comes out sometimes as a string quartet, it comes out as hip hop, it comes out as a choral piece, it comes out as rock.

A lot of the music that’s traditionally played in concert halls–it’s awesome. Beethoven string quartets or Mendelssohn, Haydn, yeah, Shostakovich–it’s really great stuff and I think it should be played. I don’t think it matters so much if it’s in a concert hall. Often, musical works are seen as museum pieces that are dusted off every now and need to be listened to in total silence. I mean, I will say that sometimes silence can help if you’re listening to a piece like a Shostakovich Quartet.

We tried to play a Shostakovich quartet in a bar. Not as powerful maybe as it could have been because we were playing the 8th Shostakovich Quartet, which has some deep meaning and symbolism. There were people off to the side having their beer and talking. Maybe in a case like that it would benefit from having some silence around it as a frame. But I think it’s great to play great music anywhere, whether it’s in a hall, whether it’s in a school, whether it’s in a café, whether it’s just a pop-up concert, and get the music out there.

I like learning about the background of the piece and the composer and what was going on in the composer’s life. I enjoy trying to communicate that to an audience and giving them a little bit of background, not for the sake of edifying them or saying, “This is great music.” I just find it interesting that Bach’s first wife had died and that he found comfort in writing the E major partita (Violin Partita No. 3), which is one of his most ebullient pieces of those six sonatas and partitas. But he wrote it in this time of grief and he found the strength to do that. That’s a human connection that we can make with people even if they’re not musicians. Who doesn’t connect with loss or grief or celebration? If you say, “This piece was written because of the birth of the composer’s child and it was a gift,” people connect. Often, say, with Bach, everything was done for the glory of God—I mean, I’m not a religious person but there’s that sense of sacredness and that sense of celebration and beauty. And that’s something I think we can all connect to or, very often, yeah, with love. So much music is about love.

We’re a small organization and we’re all doing it together. Full disclosure, sometimes I’m like, “Oh man, I don’t know if I have the energy to do this.” It’s not, “Oh, this is our set-up team, this is our stage crew team.” It’s this grassroots doing it together. There’s a sense of satisfaction that we’re building something ourselves and we’re building something with the help of the community.  So I feel very close with the families that are a part of Community MusicWorks. I feel close to the city. Providence being a small city, I run into people almost every time I go to the grocery store who are either in our program or they’ve been to a concert.

There are moments of extreme fatigue. That’s one of the biggest challenges–that the work is not just the teaching and it’s not just the playing. I enjoy even the menial tasks. I get a sense of satisfaction from shelving music and going through CDs that have been donated or straightening a bridge or gluing a seam on an instrument and learning how to do that. I didn’t know how to do that a couple of years ago and now I know how to do it, and I like that.

I went to this workshop just last week and the guy giving it said something that I was trying to crystallize. He said, “You have to teach from your excess. So many of us teach and do our nonprofit work from just vapors and working from exhaustion, and if you have some excess and you have some reserves, how much more effective are you as a colleague, as a performer, as a teacher or a connector with your audience and your young people?” And that’s so true.

Finding humor in stuff is really one of the only ways I can cope sometimes with things. It’s incredibly challenging work but it’s funny. So many of our meetings are just a lot of laughter. Even when we came back from a school break and the space that we were teaching in had been condemned, we laughed. The city inspected it and said “Oh, it could fall down and you can’t go in there anymore.” On some level it was pretty frustrating and stressful because we had to find a teaching space within a day or so, but it was also pretty funny. We laughed about it because it was a ridiculous situation.

It doesn’t just end when we go home. A lot of us think about this organization and talk about this organization in our free time because it means so much to us. It’s not a job. It’s a way of life. I think intensity is okay—I’m a fairly intense person in certain areas—but I really like to laugh too. And so we like to laugh, we like to eat. Food is a big part of it. There’s always snacks lying around and, oh God, the amount of cookies I’ve eaten over the years.

There’s a lot of care for each other and checking in and training. We’re doing more professional development training on how to be more effective teachers and people and artists and making ourselves vulnerable to each other. We don’t have all the answers. In the expert’s mind there are very few possibilities but in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, to quote Shunryu Suzuki. Just to be a beginner, all the time curious, is fun rather than, “This is how this works and young people tend to respond to this.”

We talk about how we can give back as artists and as educators and what does that even mean. I’ll frame it in the context of the latest election. A lot of us here were, “I’m upset and I’m angry, but what questions do I ask? How do I respond? How can I use my art or my being a musician as a teacher?” I don’t even know. I’d like my students to start thinking about how they can respond to certain situations, certain life situations, not just through their music but as a member of the human race.

I like hearing the students, particularly in Phase II, talk about issues that they might be confronting. It’s always illuminating to hear them talk in the Youth Salon or in a discussion about what it means to be a young person, and often a young person of color, in a society that is not balanced. Also, I’ve become very aware of my own background and how I was brought up. I’ll give you an example. When I first started teaching here, I was very frustrated sometimes with the students that didn’t practice or were late for lessons. My parents drove me to my lessons every week and were there in the lesson taking notes. I just didn’t even understand that that doesn’t work for everybody, that sometimes the kid has to get there themselves and the parents or the parent has to be at work and the student’s struggling with getting from school to the lesson space themselves. Or in the morning,  getting their homework together, they forgot their music. I was coming at it from my own experience and viewing things from my own lens of middle-class privilege. If a kid’s really struggling, it’s not just, “Oh, well, they’re not getting it so we should kick them out of the program.” Maybe that’s all the more reason why they should be in the program.

Recently we’re trying to talk more about racial injustice, gender equality, gender fluidity, violence–not just physical violence but emotional violence. These are conversations we’re starting to have more as a staff and more with our young people. I’m trying my best to keep my beginner’s mind. I don’t know often what to say. I want to learn alongside and I want to have these conversations. The day of the inauguration, I was asking my students how they felt about it and, to be honest, when I was their age, I was a little indifferent. I remember when Reagan was elected and my parents being upset, but I was like, “So? Whatever.”

I would have appreciated it if my music teacher talked about that with me rather than like, “All right, let’s work on the Mozart today.” Things that come up now are, “Why aren’t there more people of color when you go to a symphony orchestra concert? What’s the history of that, the history of classical music, and how it’s always been perceived as a high-society art? Why hasn’t there been more accessibility?” It’s really cool that we’re having these conversations together and with our students, particularly Phase II. We were just talking today that maybe we should have these conversations with everybody.

Is that social justice? I don’t know. I mean, it’s part of it, just even having the conversation, the awareness of things at play. I’m excited for the future of Community MusicWorks in that it’s much more on the surface now and it’s not just implied, like, “Oh, this is a social justice organization because we’re teaching kids that might ordinarily not have the opportunity.” Well, yes, but we’re also having these conversations that are so important right now, and it affects everybody so we all need to talk about it.

I’m also really impressed with the skills that a lot of my colleagues have.  I’m excited to learn from them about how to be a better person and how to be a better musician and how to be a better teacher. The longer I stay here the more I realize how little I know and that I’m just a beginner alongside my students. I mean, I might know how to teach a bow hold but I don’t know how to teach improvisation. I’m still learning how to teach vibrato. I’m trying to learn how to make my students much more expressive and I’m just learning how to do that.

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