20 Stories: Jessie Montgomery










Jessie Montgomery

Violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery graduated from Julliard in 2003 and came to Community MusicWorks a year later. She was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, “a hotbed of cultural activity and community development,” as she describes it. She studied violin at the Third Street Music School Settlement, one of the nation’s oldest community organizations, and brought some of its innovative practices to CMW in the form of Music Lab, where students learn to express their unique instrumental voice through improvisation. After leaving CMW in 2009, Jessie helped found the highly praised PUBLIQuartet, which features its own compositions and those of other contemporary string composers. She was also a member of the acclaimed Catalyst Quartet and is affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports young African-American and Latino string players.  She is commissioned regularly to compose. Her album Strum: Music for Strings, was released in 2015.

I knew a wonderful, very entrepreneurial violinist named Quinton Morris. I was in a group with him called the Young Eight, and he had met Sara Stalnaker [former resident cellist] at the Chamber Music America Conference in New York. She said, “Why don’t you guys do workshops?” So we ended up doing a workshop. Minna Choi was about to go to graduate school and they were looking for a violinist to take her place while she was gone. Jesse Holstein pulled me aside during snack. He leaned over on the edge of his chair and put his arm on the table and said, “So, what are you up to next year? Come take an audition. ” And I was like, “Okay, sure.” I had no idea.

I remember very vividly the conversation that I had with Sebastian in my interview. I remember feeling extremely insecure. I understood it was a community organization, I understood that there was an administrative aspect to what I was going to be expected to do, and there was this whole organization that I was going to have to get to know, but I had no idea, really. He prompted me with great questions like, “What do you feel is your role inside of a community and how do you see yourself functioning as a musician within a community organization?” I just remember the feeling of looking at him and he seemed so calm and thoughtful and patient and I was clueless. The journey began, yeah.

It was my first time having my own teaching studio. I had to keep track of all of my students’ ins and outs and violins and shoulder rests and books and papers and music and scheduling. It took me about two years to really feel like I had a handle on enough of the moving parts that I was pulling my weight. There was also the huge learning curve of being in the quartet. That was my first professional quartet experience. I was younger than everyone else, and having to figure out how to fit into what they had going on. Then, musically, figuring out what I even felt–not going on autopilot.  It was musically very challenging as well and I credit Sara Stalnaker for teaching me how to play in tune. [Laughs]  She’s really a fanatic when it comes to intonation.

It took me a while to realize I wasn’t just teaching students and playing in a string quartet. It took me a really long time to figure out what my impact was going to be within the organization. I was concerned because the student level was lower than I wanted. First of all, my teaching skills were not up to dealing with that many beginning students. That’s a whole pedagogy that I didn’t have in my possession and I had to learn how to teach beginners, which was really, really difficult. And so then the frustration of my beginners being stuck at certain places and not knowing how to get over that hump. Slowly I realized that certain kids weren’t going to go home and practice. I had to accept that. Their home life didn’t necessarily support that.

I was recalling my experience growing up with music. Of course, and this is the long-term learning curve, your experience is not going to be like your students’ experience. It’s a different time, it’s a different place, different situation.  But still.  I went to Third Street Music School in New York, which had been established for over a hundred years at that point. I was brought up with the sense that you had to be excellent and have this role model of excellence and that that’s a good thing, and I wanted these kids to feel that.

I remember writing a letter to Sebastian about excellence and trying to get at excellence, what does excellence mean for us here in the community, and how important I felt excellence was within this community in particular because this is a challenged community. I was feeling like I don’t want to be in an organization where we just do the minimum. These kids need to be challenged more because they have more against them. So they need to be challenged more in order to reach a high level of musicianship.

I didn’t want to fall into the category of just another community organization that halfway does the music part. We were sending our kids out to programs in the summer and I wanted them to shine and not feel like they were less than the other kids. I knew that it was a matter of the kids feeling they had ownership over their music-making. I’d come to that understanding, thankfully, through lots of discussion and understanding more the mission of the organization, this idea of leadership and self-confidence and ownership and self-leading. And I thought, you know what? Improvisation! They should be making their own music. Let’s figure this out. I’m going to call Alice Kay Kanack [Jessie’s former teacher at the Third Street Music School Settlement and creator of the Creative Ability Development Program]. It’s perfect. It’s a loosely formatted method. Anyone can participate in any level in the beginning exercises.

So I proposed the idea to Sebastian and we just went for it and started Music Lab, which at first was mostly a music-listening lab and then started to slowly introduce the concepts of CAD. We brought Alice to do workshops. So all of a sudden I was in charge of this thing. It was my contribution. I was guided by my vision for this program that I felt very passionate about. At one point, people said, “You’re the one who knows all those things” and then they were, “I watched you do it for a while and I get it.” It’s participatory. You’re sitting there and you’re learning and you’re doing and leading all at the same time. Then everyone started shifting and taking over classes and it was really very inspiring.

I think musicianship should be what we’re going for – all around understanding of what it’s like to perform, understand what it’s like to work with other musicians, to create your own music, to organize your own performances. All musicians should learn how to do that.  Everyone should write music and perform and talk about music.

The thing about classical music is the pedestal. That just comes from people looking up to Western culture as the highest aspect of the human culture, right? Which is obviously not necessarily true. It’s extremely sophisticated and beautiful, but it’s not the only and the best. That’s what people are starting to realize now. Classical music is extremely rich and has a long history and it’s something that one should learn—I agree—like a language. Learn Russian. Learn Western classical music.  It’s one among many styles and traditions that we should learn. We have an advantage being in the United States with all of these different cultures around us all the time. There are probably parents at CMW who know way more about the traditional or classical music of their culture and they could speak on it. We have to start looking at things a little bit differently so we can start to open up our ears and allow this melting pot that we’re in to really, really get going.

I was also composing at the time, and I thought, “Oh, I could maybe write a little composition for the kids, this could be a way for me to exercise my stuff.” When Obama was elected, I created music to commemorate it. Kirby [student] wrote a poem and did spoken word and we had students and resident musicians playing music I wrote and a voice part for the kids, too. It was called “Anthem.” That was the first time that I really felt like I was doing something meaningful with my music. Playing in quartets and doing concerts for the public is meaningful and fulfilling, but in terms of  speaking about a real moment,  trying to encapsulate this collective feeling into one piece of art…that was really the first time I’d ever tried doing that and I was so thankful for the opportunity. I was pretty intimidated but really excited.

Since then, I was commissioned two years ago to write a piece called “Banner,” which was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of The Star-Spangled Banner, and I used “Anthem” to help me. They share a lot of the same melodies. Had I not had that opportunity to write “Anthem,” I don’t know how this other piece would have turned out. It definitely was an important influence on being able to write a piece that’s about a moment or about something political. It was an incredible experience.

Working with Kirby, watching her passion come through…she was always a little ambivalent about cello.[Laughs] She knew it was good for her and she probably enjoyed the challenge on some level, but “Anthem” was something else. She really, really jumped onto the thing and found her voice and knew she wanted to say something.  She just grew so much in that year. The two of us bonded. It was really special.

That’s what makes CMW so special, how well they align the importance of finding your voice within your craft so early on and being brave enough to teach that to kids. As adults, we think we have to keep kids in line all the time because they’re going to screw up. And they do, but if it’s guided right, the kind of mistakes they’re going to make are just regular mistakes. Allowing them to find their way is important. I was starting to see more how the two things could live together, this idea of being a vocal, active, contributing member and being expected to practice and perform the things that your teacher asked you to do. I started to change as I started to see that happening more. My faith in the model grew.

One of the things that I was challenged with coming into adulthood was learning how to ask for what I wanted, see things that I don’t agree with and speak up about it, gather people together if I need help. I didn’t learn that until I was at CMW. For a young person to have that sense of self and leadership is huge. I can’t wait to see how it impacts society as we go forward, especially with all this crap that we have to deal with now with this administration. There’s the sense that I can do something. I can get my people together and we’re going to figure this out, and we’re going to call our representative or we’re going to go down to their office. Maybe we’ll play them a tune and soften them up, you know, and then give them a piece of our mind.

In working with CMW, I realized how much you can align social concerns and common needs with music. Learning how that really fits together completely changed my idea of what music could–not should be like–but could be like, the potential that music has to speak to social issues. I also like the idea that music education is a platform for being a creative individual in the workforce. We need creative people in the world. We need people with brains in the world. CMW is sponsoring the development of very good humans. They’re ambassadors for music and for art, education, and for being a creative human being.

If I was to compose a piece for CMW, it would be an outdoor community oratorio where many people would participate at their own level. It would happen over the course of an afternoon or an entire day, and they could either watch or participate. There would be a rolling cast and it would fluctuate between set numbers and ambient transient music. At least one person from local government would be recruited to participate.

It’s a piece that’s happening on the street all day. There are cues and there are ways that even if you walk in and you’re confused about what’s going on, you can participate. [Laughs] But there’s always a core cast and they rotate as needed. It’s an oratorio, so they’re singing. There’s a lot of singing. Having been a part of CMW is probably the only reason I would ever come up with this crazy idea.

You never leave CMW. Come into CMW and you’re a part of the family forever. That is something that I value more than I can express. It changed my life in an extremely significant way and I can’t imagine what my life would be without it, honestly. The friendships are forever.

photo by Jiyang Chen

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