20 Stories: Karen Romer






Karen Romer

Karen Romer has been one of Community MusicWorks’ biggest fans right from the start. An accomplished amateur cellist, she first met Sebastian Ruth and Minna Choi when they were undergraduates and she was Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Brown University. They played chamber music together one night and as Karen puts it, “I was enchanted.” At Brown, Karen promoted collaboration between faculty and students to design courses responsive to social change. She saw a clear connection between her work and the project Sebastian was in the process of launching. After retiring in 2001, Karen joined the CMW board, served as president for four years and is now an honorary board member. She is a regular at concerts, Performance Parties, meetings and seminars, and recently became a mentor at the Daily Orchestra Program. She continues to play chamber music and has a special fondness for Bach’s Second and Fifth Cello Suites and the Andante in Brahms’ Piano Quartet, Op. 60.

I first knew Community MusicWorks when it was an idea. I’m a chamber musician myself. Through some lucky thing, I was introduced to Sebastian and Minna, who came to my house one evening to play chamber music. I was getting close to retirement that night when we played. The following year, I followed from a distance the star of CMW. I was still working pretty intensely, so I didn’t get to any of the events. But I was on their mailing list, so I would read when they sent a message about something that was happening that first year.

When I retired in 2001, Sebastian asked me if I could now come and get on the board at CMW. I said “Well, I just promised myself that I would say no to everything anybody asked me to do for one year while I recuperated. But I would love to come to things and be in touch.”

The word “board” for years intimidated me as an image of these, oh, gosh, people who had years of experience in finance, business and community things, and so forth. I had a number of times been asked to join some board. Mostly, because of time, I couldn’t. But also, the thought of all those people sitting around a table and making decisions about who knows what that I might not have known very much about.

Well, eventually, I went in for that board meeting just to visit and see what it was. There were maybe five or six people sitting around a little table in the office. It was very informal. There were none of those people with huge corporate connections that I was imagining would be on the board. I already had an impression of Sebastian from having known him when he was still an undergraduate as a very remarkable young man. But it was very fine for me to see how the discussion went that first day, how open it was, how everybody shared in it, how there was very careful listening to what people were contributing, and the business was accomplished, and in such a delightfully civilized way and very productively. There was concentration. I’m sure there was something to eat. [chuckles]

The other thing that was interesting about that board experience for me is that during the first few years, there were several members of the board who were super active. They did a lot of things that people don’t think a board would be doing. They organized what the program was going to look like for the concert, they Xeroxed, they did mailings. It was a very creative process and a very engaging one. Typical of what I think is one of the hallmarks of CMW is that they’re not bound by what other people do, what other organizations do, what’s been established. They carve out their own way of being.

One of the things I remember so clearly about the Performance Parties in those years was that they always started with the (Providence String) Quartet playing. There were these four  beloved teachers and runners of this program up there on the stage. They never played for too long. They played a well-chosen movement or two. Everybody was listening. It was the first time many people had ever heard quartet music. It was great.

At the early Performance Parties, a lot of the people who came weren’t used to going to concerts. The kids would often be running around and the grownups talking. It was quite a process by which gradually Sebastian would make some gentle comments about listening. He would talk about when each person was playing for the performance part of the party how it’s really important to listen, because they too would be playing in a little while, and everybody could hear better and so on. Each time there was a Performance Party he had to begin with little comments of that nature.

One of the things I remember thinking when the Fellows came on and we doubled the size of the program was, oh dear, because the Performance Parties had gotten quite quieted down. The kids knew not to get up and walk around to check out the food, or go to the toilet during the concert. They knew to sit and listen. It wasn’t that they had to, they had gotten caught up enough in the music that they wanted to listen. They wanted to hear how so and so was playing. They wanted to hear that piece, because they had played that piece two years before.

It had become quite a pleasure to be at the Performance Parties. Now there was this possibility that oh, if 60 new kids are in the program, we were going to go back to square one. Anyway, the first Performance Party arrived, and all the kids were sitting there, and new ones were all interlaced with the older ones. The Performance Party began and, lo and behold, it was just the way it had been. It was very quiet. Everybody was listening. We were riveted by the fact that the culture of this organization had gotten established. The new kids who came in, they followed the behavior of the ones who were in it. The whole thing went forward.

That to me became such an icon of the development of the whole program over 20 years, because one of the things that they’re wonderful at doing is listening, that organization. I mean that in their discussions and their process and in their planning. They had great skill at incorporating ideas that came into the program through new members, Fellows, or just because somebody had reflected on something as a result of being there, or being part of the seminar discussions. Then they would hear about it and incorporate it. That was one of the ways in which new ideas kept coming into the program, and then, would be developed in such a way it became a new aspect of the program.

One of the classic cases is when some of the kids were getting into middle school years. Their friends were saying “Well, why do you go and do that stuff with Community MusicWorks? Why do you play this instrument? Why don’t you come and hang out with us?” They were feeling a little too old for those Friday workshops. They wanted to do their own thing.The staff felt the need to create something special for those kids who were feeling the pull from their peers. That’s when Phase II came into being. What if on Friday nights we all got together and we talked and we did interesting things? It’s that sort of organic process of the organization, which is listening in such a way that it has the opportunity to grow. It’s young in spirit. It’s attentive. It can hear and see things that are possible and go with them, and build them, and then they become really strong and vital parts of the organization.

In my professional career, and raising children, Brown was primarily the community that I attended to. I didn’t know the West End at all or the South Side. But once I joined CMW, I not only went over there because the office was there, but then, again, to meet people in the community who were there. It’s one of the things I’m grateful to CMW for.  

The bottom line for me is that it’s all about the people. The people are so wonderful. CMW connects you with people that you don’t normally have an easy access to meeting and finding. The friends I’ve made from families who live beyond my neighborhood have just meant so much to me. I just love that, being able to meet people whose lives have been put together in a different way than yours was, and who have different interests. They also have such talents. That’s the first thing and then, the music. People care about music. They’re willing to go across a lot of different lines to get to hear it.

When CMW began, they were exclusively classical. But then they started having kids playing music they particularly wanted to play for their Performance Party, which wasn’t necessarily classical music, but there was often a connection to be made. They’ve been unusual in their ability to be very open to interesting things musically. It doesn’t have to have the imprimatur of classical on it to make them interested. They don’t have any borders or walls that they’ve put up that prevent that from happening. It’s one of the things that just makes me feel so heartened by what CMW has launched because I think it’s such a model. You start out with that openness that music has many dimensions, just like human beings have many dimensions and come in different shades, and different colors, and different types, and have different cultural backgrounds and religious connections

Music is like that. It has all these different veins in it. If you become a good listener and interested, then you latch on to what’s good in something that’s quite different from what you’ve known. Music is a vehicle for transformative vision. I think CMW is transformative for the individuals who are part of it and are touched by it, people like myself on the edges, but also for the communities that benefit from it. It opens their edges. It expands their possibilities.

I recently began mentoring. I’ve been on the board. I’ve been on the Honorary Advisory Board. I’ve been drawn in and done stuff. It’s nice to add something new. I’ve visited the The Daily Orchestra quite a lot because I find it fascinating to see. So this is a new thing for me and it’s very exciting.

I’m working with two cellists, Serena and Ricky, and they’re both seven. They had been working on “We Shall Overcome.” We were looking for things that we could play together because they’re still only on open strings. I said “Serena, why don’t you play that, and Ricky, would you like to sing the song”? He was thrilled at the idea because he loves the words. I was going to reinforce the tune, or whatever needed to be done.

We did it. We played it a couple of times. At the end, Ricky just sat back and he said, “That was so beautiful.”  It was a passionate statement of what he felt had happened. Serena was smiling, with stars in her eyes. It was just wonderful, amazing.

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