Sebastian Ruth is the Founder and Artistic Director of Community MusicWorks. Twenty years ago, Sebastian was a Brown University student with a passion for music and social justice and an idea about creating musical opportunities for musicians and young people in Providence. He never imagined leveraging a one-year grant of $10,000 into an award-winning non-profit organization that redefines what it means to be a classical musician embedded in the community. Sebastian is a 2010 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and received an honorary doctorate degree from Brown in 2012.
It would be artificial for me to even make a distinction between CMW and my personal life. I started it when I was 22, so my entire adult life has been lived through this project. It is the defining element of my professional identity and the defining element in many of my friendships.
In the beginning, I did not think this little project I came up with my senior year at Brown, to give free violin lessons to kids in Providence, would go past a year. I had a public service scholarship for $10,000. One year. (laughs). I had no idea.
Maybe this is a factor of entering my 40s, but I’ve started to realize that you live a life and it lasts only a certain amount of time. I feel so lucky to have work that helps me develop as a person, as a musician. It challenges me constantly. I can’t think of much else I would rather be doing for the world than thinking about how the condition of our world intersects with art. I can’t think of a better way to be of service.
Early Model for CMW
An early, really central thread that led to CMW is my high school in Ithaca, New York, which was called the Alternative Community School. It was part of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which (educator) Ted Sizer started in 1986. They’re wrapping up the organization and had the final Fall Forum in Providence. All of these amazing educators from all over the country were here recently, including my high school’s founding principal and his wife, Dave and Judy Lehman. I brought Dave and Judy to Phase II. I tried to impress upon the Phase II kids how influential they were.
The school trusted that young people can be in control of their own learning. From sixth grade–I started in eighth–but from sixth grade on it’s like college. You get a course book at the beginning of every quarter and a grid of what kind of credits you need to fulfill for graduation and you choose your courses and fill up your schedule however you want. You also have the equivalent of one whole day a week for special projects. One of the incredible strengths was giving kids practice deciding what’s important to you and figuring out how you’re going to go about soaking up that thing.
By high school, music was becoming very important to me. In my last two years, I was studying with this teacher, Rolfe (Sokol). He was deeply spiritual. He had a photo of Vedran Smailovic on the wall, the cellist in Sarajevo who played for 22 days for the 22 victims who died in the bread line. Smailovic was under siege and he was still out there playing the cello. That was what I looked at on the way out of every lesson. Rolfe felt that you get to the really deep musical place by bringing something personal and meaningful to the world.
The other thread, of course, comes from my family. My parents both went to Cornell—that’s how they got to Ithaca—and in the late sixties started going to classes at a downtown bookstore taught by an independent student of philosophy (Anthony Diamani) who led classes in the back room. He was consuming all of this Eastern philosophy, all of this Western philosophy from Plato and Plotinus. It’s a little silly but the closest comparison I can think of is to Socrates and his students. It was this intensely active scene, like living philosophy. Anthony bought some land outside of Ithaca and built what’s called the Wisdom’s Goldenrod Center for Philosophic Study.
My parents bought a 250-acre farm out about 10 minutes from the center, which was not just to be close to the center but was also part of the back-to-the-land movement. They weren’t whole hog back-to-the-landers though. My dad was a scientist and a biochemistry major in college. He started working as a dairy farmer, and then as an apprentice to a woodworker. But he had to make a living so he went back to the university and started working as a research technician at Cornell, which was what he did my whole life until he went back to graduate school in education and started teaching high school.
My mom was even more involved in the philosophic study. Both my parents were very clearly intentional about pursuing truth, pursuing meaning. My mother’s lifelong work, starting in the seventies when she studied with Anthony Diamani, was the tradition of astrology as a practice of philosophy. The legacy of having been brought up that way is when you go into the world, you can’t walk into a mold. You can’t say, “Sure, now I am a banker.” It just doesn’t work. You are driven to say, “What is this about? What am I living?”
Personal Lens on Social Justice
My aunt and uncle lived next door to us. They bought five acres of my parents’ land and put up a house. They adopted two girls, black girls, and we were living in this very rural, very white, largely poor school district, living there by choice because it was a beautiful piece of land and close to the center. Being in that school district was challenging for all of us: my sister and me and our cousins. Apart from being ridiculed for all the ways that we were different, my cousins were visibly different. We could hide a little bit more than they could. But we were all Jewish and we were all vegetarian, our parents meditated, and my cousins were black. They were two of the three black kids in the school.
One day one of my cousins came home and said that a kid on the bus called her something or said something about her skin color. The next day the bus pulled up, my aunt marches on the bus [laughs] with my cousin and says, “Which kid is it?” and then sets him straight. That’s the kind of righteous response you hope for. Middle school kids just do this, they just pick out anything that could be different. Sometimes I think about that now and say, “Well, that might have been formative” because I was consistently the ‘other’ in that context.
Meanwhile, I was so into music and the beauty of the lineage of great violinists. Then when I got to Brown, the consciousness was: you have to critically take apart the tradition. There is the kernel of inspiration in great music that’s deep and divine and amazing. But then there’s this aspect that not everyone owns the canon: you have to unpack the canon and rewrite the canon, and see who’s in the canon. I was also exploring moral education as an independent study and working with Ted Sizer. That’s why Maxine Greene and her book Releasing the Imagination was such a light bulb for me. Her idea is that art is not removed from the world and in its own “preserve”, that’s her word, like a zoo. She said: No, actually, art and the issues in the world are intricately connected. People find liberation through the arts.
I’d been trying to pursue this idea through independent study and make a thesis out of it. It was slow going. Then there’s Maxine Greene’s book: “That’s exactly what I mean. I don’t have anything else to say. All I have to do is learn this now. Music can be about beauty and aesthetics and justice all at the same time.” That was huge.
The most difficult challenge over the years was getting everybody going in the same direction together. In the beginning, I was surprised that it was an issue. Later, I started to realize this is actually the work. This is the work! And it’s not glamorous. Ted Sizer had a great metaphor. He said, “Leadership is not standing in the front and everyone’s following you. Leadership is more like being a shepherd of the sheep. If everybody’s vaguely going east, you’re doing fine.” You’re standing in the back and trying to keep people from the edges or from wandering off. As long as basically you’re heading east, that’s as good as you can hope for. [Chuckles]
It’s funny, I heard an interview the other day with David Brooks, the columnist, and EJ Dionne, and one of them was saying, “I have friends in politics who do it because they feel they are called to service.” We think of politics as this nasty business that doesn’t contribute much good to anybody, but in fact politics is public service and it serves a higher ideal of making the country good for people. The thing the politicians say is, “Day by day it’s crappy. But when you take a step back you realize you were doing something important and good.” And I thought, you know, there’s something to that in my work too. Some people will say, “Oh, that work you do must be just so rewarding.” Day by day that’s not my experience. There can be stress, there can be problems of any kind–you name it. Day by day I might not say, “Yeah, this is so uplifting,” but when I take two steps back I say, “What else would I rather be doing in my life?”
In this 20th season, I’ve felt all this new energy. We need to be really clear about some of the things that have been vague. Trying to find that clarity is super-energizing. It’s fun to try to make the mission clear and to tease out where it’s not clear. For example, we have unselfconsciously absorbed our way of teaching music just because it’s the only way we could think of and because it’s the way we learned it. But is it consistent with our goal of social justice practice or of challenging convention or of getting kids to do divergent thinking?
This year we have an experiment that’s going on every week with every student at every age and every ensemble level from total beginners to Phases II and III with the “We Shall Overcome” project. We are unpacking what it means to overcome, what it means to walk hand in hand, how you write a new verse of this song based on what you’re trying to overcome. And that’s one piece. That’s the content. But the process is important. We’re asking ourselves: have we not done enough to examine the questions of privilege as a critical part of our own practice as teachers? How are we becoming conscious of these issues? How do I carry baggage into classrooms about race and difference?
We’re focused on the commonality of musical expression and the relationship and the love–that’s the strength of the community. But actually, wait a minute. Those issues, while we may not foreground them, are present, visible, perceived. And so how much more interesting to put it on the table alongside everything else and have a conversation with a group of white, black, brown parents and say: What is the intention of this organization?
Future Directions for Community Through Music
Community built around love and respect and curiosity and common enthusiasm for something, which is music in our case, is a source of strength. It creates bonds that can grow ever tighter and give people a feeling of safety and solidarity. That’s something this organization can offer to people now. In a lesson, where you are looking for something beautiful, working on something athletic, it can be a beautiful space. Recently Chloe and I put on a piece of music so we could hear if it would be right for this one project. Then we just sat there and went, “You can’t talk about this.” Music brings you to a different place emotionally that’s very special. And that’s what Maxine Greene is about. She says that these aesthetic experiences are openings to a different place. From there you can look back on the world and see it differently.
Life as a Musician
One through-line I’ve been working on more intentionally as a musician has to do with spirit. The performances that I value as a listener and as a player are the ones where a real sense of the moment is contagiously shared and felt. Music can tap into something that’s true and can be felt regardless of your level of knowledge. If it’s really true, if it’s really good, if it really embodies the spirit, everyone feels it. As a performer, I’ve been trying to clear away some of the obstacles so that that authenticity can be present. For me, one obstacle is when I’m either trying too hard to show the thing I’m trying to show or physical tension in my body prevents the music from flowing.
If somebody gives me feedback like, “Oh, I liked your playing. It was really nice,” well, I don’t know whether they experienced what I did. But if somebody says something that leads me to feel they had some experience similar to what I was having, then, “Okay, maybe we actually got somewhere.” It’s mysterious. Something may have transmitted even if I am obsessing over this one shift that I blew. It’s really magical when everybody has felt something.
If I had to choose a piece of music to represent CMW it’s the Bach Chaconne. It’s part of an old if not ancient tradition. There is a kind of mystical unknownness about it. You can’t quite put your finger on everything it means because it’s aspiring to attain within it something more than the sum of its parts. There’s endless variation; it takes endurance to get through it or to listen to it; and you can keep working at it for a long time and still feel like you’re always starting.
This story was edited and condensed from two separate interviews conducted by CMW Fellow Josie Davis and “20 Years, 20 Stories” project director Linda Daniels. For more information about the series, see: Talking and Listening: Behind the Scenes of 20 Years, 20 Stories.