symphony 21 on tour

This past March, I spent a week with Symphony 21, an organization that aims to promote and inspire young people through music. It’s a brave mission fueled by seemingly endless ambition and energy from the founder, Daniel Bowen – someone I am honored to call a friend.

This isn’t a music education program that gives kids glockenspiels or ukuleles and attempts to connect some dots via Mary’s little lamb. No, Symphony 21 flies in world class musicians from around the country to give a multi media performance and presentation of original content with lighting, sound, visuals, with full interaction and participation from the audience. The bar is set high, with the idea to get young people excited about music and thinking creatively.

Not only that, but the targeted schools are located in underserved communities. These programs aren’t presented in cities with access to music and live performances everywhere. The programs are presented in areas where students might not be able to identify each instrument being played, let alone hearing a live performance of those instruments.

The work feels important, and the response from the students has been incredible. During the hour long presentation, Daniel has the ensemble perform his own compositions as well as compositions of members of the group. The students get to see that a violin can be electric (literally), and it can be hip and modern. They get to see how technology and music interact through the use of live looping an instrument. We even present a song where we live sample the students stomping and clapping and loop them into a track while projecting the whole software process on the screen. It shows these young minds the limitless possibilities of many disciplines in the arts, and hopefully opens them up to considering directions they didn’t know existed.

I have to share a particular high point during the tour. During one school program, I could feel someone staring at me. Even while the ensemble was playing full blast (we’re loud) with backing tracks, projected visuals, and dramatic lighting, someone continued to stare at me. I looked over and saw that a little girl was seemingly mesmerized by the mixing board. I motioned for her to come over and put my headphones on her so that she could listen to the mix up close. That moment was such a great reminder of our obligation to share what we know. While the school tour is pretty draining and demands my full attention to help present the programs effectively, that moment is exactly why we do this.

The weeklong tour culminated in a community concert at the end of the week. We presented an expanded version of the school tour program with more music, different presentations, and oh yeah, a 30 piece orchestra and full rhythm section. As previously mentioned, we go for cinematically loud, so mic’ing up strings to get them to show volume can be a real challenge with feedback. This year, we rented 30 special microphones that mount on each string instrument. To some, spot mic’ing every instrument might seem like overkill, but I am here to say that the result was incredible. We really rocked that concert hall. It was easily the largest show I’ve ever mixed (especially as a studio rat who infrequently mixes live sound). Between the orchestra, rhythm section, and electronic backing tracks, we were well over 50 channels of audio. With the lighting, haze, and celestial theme to much of the music, I felt like I was at the helm of a space ship.

I’m incredibly grateful for this week of music. My body was exhausted by the end, but my soul was full.

All photos by the fantastic Sarah Murray.