Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musicians Initiative

By Pam Blaine

How does a large, 52-week orchestra like the Houston Symphony truly become Houston’s Symphony?  What does it mean for an orchestra to develop authentic connections to the residents of the fourth largest and most diverse city in the US?  These are the questions that the musicians, Board, staff and volunteers of the Houston Symphony are asking themselves as we strive to achieve our bold 2025 Vision – to become the country’s most relevant and accessible top ten orchestra.

We think the key to mattering more to more people is relationships; to finding ways for our musicians to personally connect, on a one-on-one basis, with members of our community.  But how, you may ask, can we establish enough personal relationships to make a meaningful difference in a city of 2.2 million residents when the 87 members of our orchestra have such a busy concert schedule (170 performances per season)?  After all, there are only so many hours in a day!  

To date, most of our full-time musicians find a way to devote 20 percent of their time to our educational and community engagement activities.  Though their work throughout Greater Houston leads to some valuable impact, it’s clearly not enough to achieve our ambitious goals.

Out of this critical need came an idea which we believe is a creative and unique way forward – one that we think will propel our efforts to increase the Symphony’s accessibility and relevance for people throughout Houston.  We announced our “Community-Embedded Musician” initiative earlier this year, and it’s designed to do what the name implies – embed musicians more deeply in the community.  To our knowledge, such a program has never been executed by any other orchestra in the country.

The four new musician/educators who have just been appointed as the first group of Houston Symphony Community-Embedded Musicians will focus on enhancing the orchestra’s growing education and community engagement activities while also performing on stage for select performances.  They will spend most of their time in schools, neighborhoods, and health care settings, beginning in the Fall of 2015. Each one of these musicians is a practicing professional musician with the complementary skills and sensibilities of an educator, who will teach and engage people in learning experiences in, through, and about music.

The new Community-Embedded Musicians are full-time, permanent, salaried employees of the Symphony, and will become part of the cadre of musicians who appear on stage and throughout the community.  While existing Houston Symphony musicians spend about 80% of their time on stage as part of the orchestra’s robust schedule of classical, pops, family, student and community concerts, these Community-Embedded Musicians will do the opposite, and devote the majority of their time to off-stage education and community programs through individual and small ensemble work in schools, neighborhoods and health-care settings.  The creation and launch of the Community-Embedded Musicians program has been made possible through the early investment of generous supporters including the Spec’s Charitable Foundation, the Robert and Janice McNair Foundation, BBVA Compass and Mr. Monzer Hourani, all longtime leadership supporters of the Houston Symphony.

The musicians were selected after a rigorous month-long audition and interviewing process that drew more than 100 applicants across the country. Candidates for these four new positions were required to be accomplished string players of all backgrounds with a demonstrated passion and aptitude for education and community engagement work.  The selection process involved live auditions before a committee comprised of Houston Symphony musicians, classroom lesson demonstrations with students from a local elementary school and in-person interviews with administrative and musician leadership.  Candidates were selected strictly based on a combination of exceptional musical ability, passion for doing work in the community and in educational settings, and communication skills.

Among other new and expanded community activities, these musicians will be part of a music and wellness program aimed at increasing the quality of healthcare through music.  In addition, they will be heavily involved in education programs targeted at improving problem solving, critical thinking, and essential life skills in students.  All four Community-Embedded Musicians will perform on stage with members of the Symphony in approximately 25 concerts each year.

We are delighted to have found just the right musicians to kick-off this new and promising initiative: Jenna Barghouti (violin), David D. Connor (double bass), Anthony Parce (viola), and Hellen Weberpal (cellist).

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Jenna Barghouti grew up in the West Bank, Palestine, before coming to the U.S. when she was 16 years old.  She has taught violin to underserved children in both the “Fairview Project” in Bloomington, IN, as well as in her home country of Palestine. Barghouti, an associate instructor at Indiana University’s Pre-College String Academy and substitute violin for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony, is fully bilingual in Arabic and English. She is currently pursuing a Performer’s Diploma in violin performance at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where she studies with Jorja Fleezanis. She received her undergraduate degree in violin performance from the Jacobs School of Music under the supervision of Mimi Zweig.

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Double bassist David Connor has worked with children with neurological disorders through residencies he completed at the Monarch School as a fellow of the Da Camera of Houston Young Artist Program. He also has experience working with students abroad while serving as a guest teacher in the New World Symphony’s cultural exchange with the Medellín Philharmonic Academy (AMFED). Connor also works with Classical Revolution, an international organization that engages the community by offering chamber music performances in highly accessible venues such as cafes, bars and clubs. Connor began undergraduate studies at the Peabody Institute before transferring to Carnegie Mellon University where he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts. Connor earned his Masters of Music at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.

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Violist Anthony Parce, also a former member of the New World Symphony, has been extremely active in recent years in the institution’s community engagement programs, including the New World Symphony’s cultural exchange program with AMFED. A fluent Spanish-speaker, Parce is passionate about creating connections, breaking down societal barriers and empowering communities through music. An experienced educator, he has worked with people of all ages, from pre-K students through seniors, and with people from all walks of life, particularly those who are underserved and lack opportunities to engage with music. Parce holds degrees from the New England Conservatory and Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, studying with James Dunham, Roger Tapping and Karen Ritscher.

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Hellen Weberpal has frequently served as a substitute cellist with the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet orchestras. Like Connor, she has served as a fellow of the Da Camera of Houston Young Artist Program. Weberpal has extensive experience as a cello teacher and sectional coach in schools throughout Houston, including Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (ISD), Klein ISD, Houston ISD, the Michael P. Hammond Preparatory Program at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the Music Preparatory School at the University of St. Thomas. She also provides private cello lessons to a wide array of students, including those with neurological disorders and autism. Weberpal received her Bachelor of Music at DePaul University, studying with Steve Balderston, and her Master of Music from Rice University, under the tutelage of Houston Symphony Principal Cellist Brinton Averil Smith.

We are confident that these new Community-Embedded Musicians will develop many personal relationships with a diverse array of Houstonians over the coming year.  Through these new and deeper bonds, plus those forged by our existing orchestra members, we expect the Symphony will start to affect the change we so desperately need to become much more closely connected to our community.

Of course we can’t stop there!  We intend to add more of these musicians over the next two seasons, providing ever-increasing levels of service and music education to the rapidly growing Houston region.  We hope that by doing so, we may indeed achieve the high level of relevancy and accessibility to which we so fervently aspire.

Pam Blaine, Chief of Education & Community Programming at the Houston Symphony, worked closely with Executive Director Mark Hanson and Chief of Strategic Initiatives Amanda Dinitz to develop and launch the Community Embedded Musicians initiative.  Blaine joined the Symphony in October 2014 after a 16-year tenure at Pacific Symphony in Orange County, CA as the Vice President of Education & Community Engagement.

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