“Don’t play the notes. Play the meaning of the notes.” – Pablo Casals
When Richard Young was invited to join the Vermeer Quartet in 1985, he felt he had reached the pinnacle of the chamber music world. Just 39, he had played professionally for 13 years, first with the New Hungarian Quartet and then the Rogeri Trio. But the Vermeer was in a different, more elevated class, one of the top performing ensembles in the world. Based in Chicago since its founding by Israeli violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi in 1969, the Vermeer had recorded and performed throughout North and South America, Europe, Australia and the Far East. Their records and performances routinely drew rave reviews. “The superlative playing of the Vermeer Quartet has to be heard to be believed,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. “Their performance was magnificent; majestic in style, technically without flaw, and utterly persuasive,” wrote Melbourne’s The Age. “The Vermeer Quartet’s interpretations seem so nearly ideal that one can more easily appreciate music as universal harmony,” said the Polish music magazine Ruch Muzwczny.
As Bernard Zaslav, the violist Young replaced, wrote in his memoir, The Viola In My Life: An Alto Rhapsody, “[C]ritics from every corner of the world seemed to swoon over the Vermeer.”
Young considered himself neither religious nor deeply spiritual, but he sensed in the Vermeer invitation a special kind of gift, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for which some kind of payback was appropriate. “I felt I had to justify my success,” he said. He just didn’t know how.
But a chance came shortly after he joined the quartet. The Vermeer players were invited to give a demonstration to students from one of the tougher neighborhoods in Chicago’s impoverished south side, and every Saturday for a year he gave free lessons to four of the school’s students.
It was one of those Saturdays when Young – who is white, slim and youthful-looking (he resembles the actor Alan Alda) – was working with one of the students, an African-American teenager, when she interrupted him with a question.
“Hey Richard,” the girl said. “My mama asked me why these lessons are free.”
“What’d you tell her,” he asked.
“I didn’t know what to tell her. My mama says nothing in life is free. You’re going to want something.”
Young was taken aback: there was no doubt what the “something” was. “She looked at me with these trusting eyes,” he recalled. “But I knew when a lot of your maturing takes place on the streets, you grow up fast. Thirteen years old and she’s asking about that.”
An idea occurred to him, an unusual compact between teacher and student. “You know your mama was right,” he said. “These lessons are not free. You’re going to have to pay; you should pay, because you’re the one benefitting. But there are ways to pay other than with money, and that can sometimes be more important than money.” The girl’s eyes widened. “It may take you years before you can pay off these lessons,” he continued. “It might be in music, it might be in some other field. But whenever you’re ready to share your knowledge or skills with someone else, you do it. And do it for free.”
Thus was born “the deal,” which became the basis of Young’s extensive outreach work. Whenever he had the chance he acted to help poor but deserving youngsters, always reminding them that it was crucial to repay his help with help of their own down the road.
Despite the Vermeer’s punishing schedule – 40 to 60 concerts a year and dozens of recording sessions, a residency at Northern Illinois University, a teaching fellowship at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, plus summer residencies throughout America and Europe – he always found time to teach and advance scores of promising but impoverished music students, finding them teachers, scholarships and performing opportunities. He never took a penny, but his guidance came with one condition: his students had to commit themselves to the “deal.”
“He changed my life, and the lives of many other kids,” said Deborah Wanderley dos Santos,” a violinist with the São Paulo State Symphony whose career Young guided after meeting her in Brazil.
Young’s help, said Sarah Gomes Mateus, another Brazilian student he worked with, was part of her divine plan. “God’s purpose for us in life is to be fulfilled. Richard Young was God’s instrument.”
“I’m glad you’re writing his story,” one of Young’s colleagues told me. “It’s important to get out.”
I knew just what he meant. Aside from chronicling Young’s fascinating life, his story raises important questions about altruism and empathy. Very few people bestir themselves to help others in any long-term, rigorous way, despite our culture’s pronouncements that to do so is to do well and good. Perhaps by studying those who practice “benevolent love and compassionate care,” as Steven G. Post, the recognized expert on altruism, calls it, we can learn how to help people help others.
But how Young came to that practice is a little mysterious; nothing from his early years would seem to offer any clues. He grew up in Port Washington, New York, on Long Island’s affluent north shore. Both his parents were amateur musicians. His father, an airline pilot, hailed from flinty New England stock and was distantly related to Daniel Webster. As a young man his father had played piano in a dance band. Young’s mother had gone to music school and became, when he was 4, his first piano teacher. He took up the violin a year later. Though he was good at the violin, even playing for the queen consort of Belgium on a student exchange when he was 13, he didn’t see himself advancing toward a music career. Graceful and athletic, he preferred sports and had designs on succeeding Duke Snider as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ center fielder. His attitude about music changed in high school, when he began studying with Aaron Rosand, one of the great violinists of his day. “That’s when I got the bug,” Young said.
“He was 15 or 16 but seemed older, more mature,” recalled Rosand, who now lives in Connecticut and commutes twice a week to Philadelphia where he teaches at Curtis Institute. “He was extremely bright and a remarkable violinist. His musical ability, sense of phrasing and his instincts were all so good.”
Rosand encouraged him to apply to Indiana University’s music school, and he auditioned for the famous performer and teacher Josef Gingold, a member of the violin faculty there. Gingold accepted him immediately. “Mr. Gingold was warm, encouraging, nourishing,” Young said. Former concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, Gingold taught not only technique and musicianship but also, by example, how to nurture talent through positive reinforcement, an attitude that Young later adopted in his own teaching career. Like Rosand, Gingold had a huge regard for the young violinist’s talent. “I have nothing to teach the boy, he’s so well-prepared,” he wrote to Rosand.
When Young graduated in 1969 the war in Vietnam was raging, and his lottery number was 3. With the draft looming, he auditioned for the U.S. Army Band’s “Strolling Strings” and spent three years in the Washington, D.C. area playing at the White House, where he saw President Nixon “all the time,” and at other government functions. “It was an easy job,” he said. “We checked in every day, but didn’t always rehearse or perform.” He felt guilty about having it so easy – playing background dinner music for the president and his guests while his contemporaries were fighting a dirty, faraway war. “So I tried to use my time constructively. I practiced a lot. I went back to school. I performed around town.” Always a hard worker and highly disciplined, he continued to study with Rosand, commuting to New York, while taking a master’s degree in music at Catholic University.
Within a month of his discharge in 1972 he was invited to join the New Hungarian String Quartet, in residence at Oberlin College, as the second violinist. His seven years with the New Hungarian were, he said, a great learning experience. “For a kid right out of the Army it was a huge chance to learn and perform with one of the better touring ensembles.” It was while on faculty at Oberlin that he met his future wife, Jenni Cawein, then a piano performance student.
The quartet broke up in 1979 and Young moved back to New York, while continuing to teach at Oberlin. A year later he joined the Rogeri Trio. The pianist was Barbara Weintraub, a former student of the legendary Leon Fleisher, and the cellist was Carter Brey, now the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic.
Brey was playing in the Cleveland Orchestra at the time. He had started the trio in 1978 to indulge his love of chamber music, but in 1980 the violinist left, and he was looking for a replacement when he turned on his radio one evening and heard a soaring, magisterial performance of the Mozart A Major violin concerto. The soloist’s playing was gorgeous, he thought; the phrasing, magical. “I went bananas.” When he learned the soloist was Young, on faculty and performing live with the student orchestra at nearby Oberlin, he thought, “We’ve got our man.”
Brey called their years together a “great musical and instrumental match.” He considered Young an inspiring influence, who by virtue of his experience and musicianship could teach through discussion and example. “I learned a lot playing with Richard. His playing was so wonderfully imaginative and full of flair. He was unlike anyone I had ever played with before, and he made me think in ways that I had never done.”
For Young, the trio was another great learning experience, performing with two top musicians and learning the rich and varied literature for piano trio. The Rogeri went on to play together for five more years, with Young as violinist, before breaking up due to Brey’s expanding schedule of solo concerts. A few weeks later Young was in Australia subbing for the first violinist of the Muir Quartet when he got a fateful phone call.
On the line from Chicago was Marc Johnson, the cellist of the Vermeer Quartet. They had known each other at Indiana University and played together in Washington. Johnson knew Young had performed a lot of chamber music over the years. “I always had it in my ear that Richard was a violinist with a dark tone and deep vibrato who would sound great as a violist,” he said. “When Bernie [Zaslav, the Vermeer’s then-violist] left, Richard’s was the first name that popped into my head.”
“When I reached him in Sydney,” Johnson said, “he said he was very interested, but there was this one problem. He said, ‘I don’t play viola.’ I told him: “Well, you’ve got six weeks to learn.”
To a casual observer the violin and viola might seem almost alike. Both instruments have similar hourglass shapes, and are small enough to be held under the chin with the left hand and bowed with the right. The viola is slightly larger than a violin, and is tuned down an interval of a fifth, that is, five notes.
But to performers, there are big differences. Some experts consider Renaissance violas to be the model for the violin. “It has generally been alleged that the viola evolved as parent member of the violin family, preceding the violin and cello,” wrote Maurice Riley in his definitive 1980 book, The History of the Viola. For one thing, the viola sounds more like the human voice, played in a range from deep baritone and tenor at the low end right up through alto and low soprano on top. That’s no accident, proponents of this theory argue: the earliest string instrument makers would have been striving for a sound that resembled church vocal music. Additionally, there are many more surviving violas than violins from the mid-16th century, the earliest era of the modern string instrument, suggesting their antecedence and popularity. Other experts disagree, and there is no consensus on the matter. What’s not in dispute is that as string playing grew more florid and demanding in the Baroque era, the lighter, more agile and penetrating-sounding violin superseded the viola in popularity.
Eventually, violas were relegated to a simple harmonic role in the evolving symphony orchestra, sandwiched in between the higher violin section and the weightier cellos and basses. The viola section of 19th and early 20th century orchestras became the retirement home for old and superannuated violinists. Violas even developed their own category of humor, the ubiquitous viola joke. (Q: What’s the difference between a dog and a viola? A: The dog knows when to stop scratching. Q: What’s the difference between a viola and a trampoline? A: You take off your shoes before you jump on the trampoline. Q: Why are orchestra intermissions only twenty minutes long? A: So the violists don’t need to be retrained.)
For a violinist, a viola will seem heavy and clunky. And it is harder to bow, requiring a firmer and more disciplined stroke to draw a good tone. Nevertheless, many violinists grow to love the throatier, mellower sound. Viola was said to be the favorite performing instrument of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Some world-class violinists, such as Pinchas Zukerman, routinely concertize on both instruments. And 20th century composers, prizing the unique melancholy tone of the instrument, helped promote a resurgence of interest in viola music. Shostakovich’s last composition, completed a month before his death, was a magisterial and elegiac viola sonata, and Britten, Walton, Bartok and Hindemith wrote beautiful and demanding works for the viola.
Today aspiring violinists usually play some viola at music school; it’s required at most leading conservatories. At Indiana, however, Young missed the chance in his senior year when the viola teacher from whom he was scheduled to take lessons went on sabbatical. Focused as he was on the violin, he didn’t mind. Nevertheless, when he got the call from Johnson, he was intrigued by the possibility, and given that the audition wasn’t for six weeks, believed he might be able to pull it off.
The key, aside from getting hold of a decent-sounding instrument, was practically memorizing the notes in the audition pieces, because he didn’t know the alto clef violists read and didn’t think he could learn it in such a short time. The audition required candidates to play unspecified excerpts from eight quartets – by Schumann, Dvorak, Bartok, Berg and two each by Mozart and Beethoven. That meant penciling fingerings over almost every note, and there were thousands.
Despite the fact that he would be competing against top violists who had been playing the instrument most of their lives, Young felt he had several advantages. He loved the Vermeer and knew their style well, having heard them often in concert and on recordings. He knew the music too, since he had played most of the audition pieces as a violinist. And he figured he could work harder than anyone else. “I had to believe no one would outprepare me,” he said.
He borrowed a beautiful-sounding Brescian viola (and years later purchased another Brescian instrument, made around 1560 by Peregrino di Zanetto, which he still uses today) and practiced eight hours a day. At the audition, after a slightly shaky start bowing the very exposed opening notes of the Mozart “Dissonance” quartet, things went well. With one piece, the thorny and challenging “Lyric Suite” by Berg, Young clearly outplayed the others. “You know this piece better than we do,” said Ashkenasi. “Let’s move on.”
“The feedback I got from them afterward was that the quartet sounded good with me,” Young recalled. So he was thrilled but not altogether surprised to be invited back for the second and final round, facing off against just one other candidate, a lifelong violist of serious repute.
The second audition was more of an actual rehearsal, as opposed to simply playing through the pieces, to determine how the candidates might fit in. During Mozart’s “Hunt” quartet, Young even hazarded to disagree with the other players on a matter of phrasing. “I thought it was important for them to hear what I had to say. In any serious ensemble, disagreements come up all the time. I wanted them to see how I could contribute to the process of resolving those disagreements.”
This is crucial, because practicing together is what professional chamber ensembles do most of the time, as much as 40 or 50 hours for every hour they perform on stage. (And much more for complex modern pieces. When the Vermeer later performed Elliott Carter’s highly demanding First Quartet, they rehearsed more than 400 hours before giving their first performance.) So practice sessions had better be amicable and productive if the group dynamics are going to work.
Some chamber music ensembles are notorious for their infighting. Members of the Budapest, the first full-time professional string quartet, founded in 1917, had frequent rows and sometimes didn’t speak to each other for weeks. “It is much easier to be married to one person than to be married to a string quartet,” said the Budapest second violinist Sasha Schneider, whose brother was the quartet’s cellist. The Moscow-based Borodin Quartet, famous for premiering many of Shostakovich’s masterpieces, consisted of two Communist Party members and two non-members, which often resulted in bitter ideological as well as musical disputes. And the first violinist of the Virginia-based Audubon Quartet sued and won a six-figure judgment against two of the other players, forcing them into bankruptcy court.
The original Vermeer players, with Ashkenasi playing first violin, Pierre Menard on second violin, Scott Nikrenz on viola and Richard Sher on cello, were no strangers to discord. “There were a lot of stormy times, if we’re to believe the stories,” Young recalled with a laugh. “Pierre would say, ‘Why are we killing each other over this fly shit on paper?’ even though he could be just as difficult as the others.” In his memoir Zaslov concurred. Menard, he wrote, was “…extremely intense, often hot-tempered, and, like Shmuel, was a perfectionist to the nth degree.”
With Young the Vermeer players sensed they were getting a mature, experienced and polished professional with an even disposition, who could play beautifully, knew the music inside out and understood how to stand up for his opinions – respectfully. He got the job.
Firmly established in the viola seat, Young enjoyed 22 years of teaching, touring and recording with the Vermeer. The quartet was known for a fine, polished sound and incredible sensitivity to nuance. Recordings of works by Haydn, Schnittke, Shostakovich and Bartok were nominated for Grammy awards.
The Haydn piece, The Seven Last Words of Christ, was a labor of love for Young, who pulled together a large cast of well-known religious and civic figures – including the Rev. Billy Graham, Chicago Archbishop Francis George, Dr. Martin Marty, Father Andrew Greeley and a young community organizer named Barack Obama – to write or narrate brief meditations for the seven movements, based on Jesus’s last utterances on the cross. By one estimate the quartet’s recording, broadcasts and performances of the Haydn piece reached 75 million people worldwide. A single broadcast on WFMT drew 10,000 new listeners for the classical music station, and live performances on Holy Week became an annual highlight of Chicago’s musical calendar.
The work itself had a profound effect on Young. As he described in his 2005 book, Echoes From Calvary, about producing the Haydn concerts, it took him on a spiritual as well as musical journey. “For many of us,” he wrote, “life’s important answers are elusive…But even before the destination is reached, we appreciate that the process itself can yield a certain assurance. As we discern which questions to ask, as we learn how to ask them more intelligently and creatively, we see that the answers become not only more obvious but more valuable.”
Young was considered by his colleagues to be a strong, stabilizing influence on the group. “His dedication and preparation set a high standard,” said Ashkenasi. “And he had a great sense of humor and was good at defusing tension and finding compromise.” Mathias Tacke, who replaced Menard as second violinist in 1992, appreciated how Young insisted on insuring that everyone’s point of view was heard. “In the beginning I was a little shy bringing something to the group’s attention. Richard was always very concerned about fairness, that everyone should get a vote. In that sense he was an advocate for the weak – just like he is outside the quartet.”
“I felt very lucky to be doing what I was doing,” Young said about his years with the Vermeer. “It was like a dream job.” His younger brother once gave him a coffee mug inscribed, “Success is doing what you love. Success is loving what you do.” Young thought that aptly summed up his life.
Still, there was the missing piece – the need to give back, to balance the equation – that seemed to amount to a passion or even an obsession. Part of it was the importance of humility he learned from Gingold at Indiana, and perhaps another part was a kind of survivor’s guilt for having the good fortune to land so many prestigious jobs in a brutally competitive field. “I was well aware of talented people who worked every bit as hard as I did, and might have been just as deserving,” he said. “But maybe they weren’t in the right place at the right time. I felt I had to justify my success by paying back.”
Serious payback began in 1986, when he heard about a new music school for poor kids on Chicago’s north side. Founded by Rita Simo, a concert pianist and former Dominican nun, the People’s Music School provided lessons for underprivileged youngsters and, reflecting Simo’s religious and moral philosophy, accepted no payments. Instead, students and their parents were asked to pay back their lessons through light cleaning and secretarial help.
Young read about the school in the newspaper and immediately volunteered to help. “He was the most enthusiastic musician I ever saw,” said Simo, now retired. “He had a strong desire to help students who didn’t have money. He’d come by every week to teach string classes and chamber music, judge the student recitals, organize master classes and juries, recruit and train teachers, and bring in guest performers. And he never accepted a penny.” He also raised significant sums of money for the school’s new building and promoted the school throughout the city’s music community.
Young’s enthusiasm for the School and its mission was reflected in a speech he gave at the building groundbreaking, in which he cautioned: “…let’s be frank: the People’s Music School is not going to remove a single one of the obstacles that seriously jeopardize the futures of too many young people. But it can illuminate a path around some of these obstacles. It does so not just by offering free music lessons, but by stressing discipline and initiative, by encouraging excellence, and by demanding responsibility” – themes that he would emphasize again and again with later students and mentees.
Around the same time Young discovered another outlet for his volunteerism. The International Music Foundation was founded in 1979 by Chicago businessman Al Booth. The son of a cantor, Booth had been so inspired by a sing-along version of Handel’s Messiah he heard while visiting England that on his return he started one in Chicago, called the Do-It-Yourself Messiah. Under the Foundation’s auspices he also started a free weekly recital series, the Dame Myra Hess concerts, to provide a showcase for musical rising stars. Both the DIY Messiah and the Hess concerts are now in their fourth decade. Booth also launched “Live Music Now!” concerts for Chicago Public School students. Booth died in 2007, and was succeeded as the Foundation’s executive director by his assistant Ann Murray.
“Richard is like a camel,” Murray said of Young’s involvement. “Once he’s under the tent, he’s in.” He started quietly enough, showing up at Messiah concerts to sit in with the first violins, sometimes bringing along one of his students as a stand partner. “He was low-key and modest, in the typical Richard way,” said Murray. Eventually he was moved up to concertmaster, where he could help lead the ensemble and conduct string sectionals, a role he still performs every December. “Richard brings a very special professional attitude,” said DIY Messiah conductor Stanley Sperber, former music director of the Haifa Symphony and currently conductor of the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir. “The players respond immediately to his coaching. He communicates the nuances of string playing better than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
From the Messiah, Young “jumped in with both feet,” Murray said. He arranged for violinist Pinchas Zukerman to join the Vermeer for a Foundation benefit. Working with WFMT music director Norman Pellegrini he helped revamp “Live Music Now!” school outreach programs. And he formed the Bootinsky Piano Trio, named in honor of Booth. Demonstrating a flair for educational programming, Young put together a number of highly imaginative recitals for thousands of Chicago students. The trio performed the TV themes from The Simpsons, Arthur the Aardvark and the Peanuts Christmas special, in free-spirited sessions that connected the students to more serious classical music.
In addition, Young selected and coached advanced students for the Hess recitals, and convinced young musicians to play in nursing homes in another Foundation-sponsored program. “He was always concerned about getting them to give back, to be aware of folks without a lot of advantages,” said Murray. “He felt strongly it shouldn’t just be about ‘me me me and my career.’”
She added, “He’s been an angel, no question about it,” a comment echoed by many other program administrators, students and fellow musicians.
During his Vermeer years he also started mentoring promising string students he’d find at competitions and elsewhere. One of them was Lindsay Deutsch, now a soloist on the concert circuit, then an aspiring 14-year-old violinist when she met Young in 1998 at a competition he was judging. She didn’t win, but Young approached her afterward to congratulate her on her performance. As she recalled, “He was very encouraging, and had good suggestions. He said, ‘You have it in you, but you’re not getting it out to the audience.’ It was kind of a turning point for me.”
They stayed in touch and when Young learned later that she was “freaking out” over an upcoming chamber music performance, urged her to come to Chicago to play a Hess concert. In preparation, he arranged a two-week “chamber music boot camp,” as she put it. Deutsch and her fellow players, whom Young recruited, practiced every morning, and he joined them for intense coaching sessions in the afternoon. “He made me a more well-rounded musician. I was much more confident about my music-making after that, both as a chamber musician and as a soloist.”
The pianist Young invited to Deutsch’s boot camp, Tomo Matsuo, viewed the experience a little differently. As usual, Young took no money for his coaching services but asked the players to commit to the pay-it-forward deal. Matsuo was cynical about Young’s service ethos. “I was young, brash and a little rebellious,” he said. “I didn’t give a crap about the humanitarian stuff. To be honest, it sounded like hippie B.S.”
After the midday Hess recital downtown, Young gathered up his charges and headed up to the city’s north side. Matsuo assumed they were going out for a celebratory meal. Instead, they spent the rest of the afternoon working with kids at a school for the severely handicapped. “My upbringing was very tame; I really had no first-hand experience with the inequalities in the world,” Matsuo said. “Richard was a teacher in the larger sense: he connected the music, the standing ovations, the adulation, to the bigger world. It made a deep impression on me.”
Another student Young helped was Deborah Wanderley dos Santos. She grew up in Brasilia and left home at 17 to study violin in the south of Brazil. For a time she played violin on the streets, an experience that was both difficult and edifying. “On the first day I could not hold back my tears, I felt alone and humiliated,” she said. “But as people stopped by to listen to my violin I could see how much they enjoyed it. It was a huge transformation for me; that’s when I realized what it really is to be a musician.”
A few months later she met Young while auditioning for the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. “I wasn’t advanced technically, but he saw the potential and the passion,” she recalled. Young arranged for dos Santos to study with a colleague in Vancouver, and eventually brought her and a violinist friend of hers from Brazil, Sarah Gomes Mateus, to Chicago for advanced studies with him at North Park University. To smooth the way at North Park, he met with Mark Olson, then Dean of Enrollment.
“Richard was someone at the top of his game, professionally and globally,” Olson said. “I was impressed with his vision, his discipline and his extremely high standards.” When Young explained the obligation he expected his students to fulfill – to pay back their good fortune – Olson bought in. “North Park’s mission is ‘to prepare students for lives of significance and service.’ This clearly matches up with what Richard tries to do.”
Dos Santos has worked hard to live up to her end of the deal. While at North Park she started the YOURS Project, three youth orchestras at a school in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood in partnership with the People’s Music School. Lessons were free, but the effort to launch the program was daunting. “At the beginning I had to sell my blood to be able to purchase the chocolates we sold for fundraising. I worked night shifts at the emergency desk in the university, where I would spend the evening answering phone calls, making plans for the YOURS Project.”
“Richard said his father taught him: ‘If you want people to be generous, you need to be generous,’” dos Santos said. Aside from giving her free lessons, Young’s generosity extended to showing her how to launch and sustain the program. He helped her connect with local music shops to get instruments and arranged a benefit concert to raise funds.
Young’s deal resonated with dos Santos because it dovetailed neatly with her own vision. “Giving back is the right and fair thing to do, it is what all of us should be doing. It becomes so easy for us to bury ourselves in our own little bubbles and forget about those outside. Living life only for oneself is too little, too boring, and too selfish. Some people say that the generous people are also selfish because doing good makes them feel good and that is why they do it. Well, the process of starting up the YOURS Project, developing it, watching it grow and then separating from it was the most difficult and painful thing I ever did.”
Nevertheless, her hard work paid off. When she left Chicago to return to Brazil in 2011 the YOURS Project had 165 students and 24 paid teachers. Since then the program has opened a second location with another 45 students.
Another protégé of Young’s was Fusun Alpakin, who came to Chicago from Turkey in 1999 and met him a year later when she started teaching violin at the People’s Music School. With Young’s encouragement and support Alpakin and her husband, a ballet dancer, opened their own school, the Southport Performing Arts Conservatory and Entertainment, with two campuses on Chicago’s north side. “Richard trusted and inspired me to accomplish my dream,” she said. “When he sees that you have the passion and dedication, that’s when he’ll want to work with you.”
Violinist Mariana Fernandes’s experience was similar. Forced to drop out of school when her mother lost her job, Fernandes scrounged enough money to attend a music festival in Curitiba, Brazil. When Young heard her play, he said, “You have such a big passion for the music. I want you to develop that along with your technique.” He arranged a scholarship with free room and board for her to study with one of his former students at the University of Missouri. “Nothing would have happened without Richard,” she said, “because he was fighting for me.”
Young’s intense commitment to his students – his helicopter approach to mentoring –sometimes landed him in dicey situations. One of his promising violin pupils at the People’s Music School started showing up with bruises on his arm. The boy shrugged them off as a series of playground accidents, but Young suspected otherwise, and finally felt he had to call home to confront the boy’s father. “You know your son is really doing quite well, you should be proud,” he started off the conversation. “Oh yeah?” the man responded. “It’s because I’ve been so tough with him at home.” This was the opening Young needed. His heart pounding, he ventured on, “You know, man to man, let me tell you something. You don’t have to do that anymore.” There was a long pause on the line, and finally the man said, “You know, you’re right.” The bruises stopped; the boy’s playing and confidence soared.
Working privately with promising young students was only part of his teaching regimen. At Northern Illinois University the Vermeer coached some of the music world’s finest young ensembles, including the Shanghai, Arianna, Miro, Avalon, Pacifica and Atrium quartets. Founded in 2000 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Atrium has gone on to win several major international competitions. Second violinist Anton Ilyunin recalled that on first hearing the group, however, Young told them, “You are a good quartet, but not enough of a good quartet.” Ilyunin went on to say, “Richard helped us so much; he taught us how to be excellent. He talked not just about music but about life.”
What with the Vermeer’s busy performing and teaching schedule and his work with his young protégés, Young was happily busy year-round. His wife Jenni had switched careers, and as an environmental engineer she traveled frequently for her employer. As a result, the couple decided not to have children – work was paramount in their lives.
That changed drastically in 2007, when the Vermeer called it quits. Faced with Marc Johnson’s pending retirement, founder and first violinist Ashkenasi decided he did not want to go through the rigors of finding and breaking in a new cellist. But even after almost four decades, the group showed no signs of decline characteristic of many veteran groups. Quite the contrary, according The New York Times, which said in a review of the quartet’s farewell tour, “Clearly in this case disbanding is a personal rather than a musical decision: the Vermeer’s characteristically rich, warm sound, with its firm base and velvety top, remains as polished and seductive as ever.”
Despite the immense psychic rewards he derived from his students, whom he continued to teach in North and South America and Europe, Young found this to be a deeply trying time. His father had suffered a serious depression after he reached mandatory retirement age with American Airlines, and Young feared he might face the same kind of post-career letdown.
“He was very afraid of not doing something. He needs to be engaged, to be contributing,” said his wife Jenni.
Fortunately a life-changing opportunity was beckoning from afar, one that would call on all his skills as a musician, teacher and mentor.
Young first visited Brazil on a South American tour with the Vermeer in 2000. It was the beginning of an intense love affair with the land and people. He was thrilled by the breathtaking scenery and the breadth and flavor of native cultures. And the Brazilians’ love of music, he felt, was equaled by their passion for life, and this excited in him an interest to return some day.
The chance came in 2005. Alex Klein, former principal oboist with the Chicago Symphony and a guest in concerts and on recordings with the Vermeer, had moved back to his native Brazil to start a festival in Curitiba, not far from the Atlantic coast. “Alex and I are on the same wavelength,” said Young, especially regarding their strong commitment to helping poor but deserving students. At Curitiba, Klein recruited Young to play in chamber music groups, teach master classes and give lessons. “The kids were hungry for any crumb we could give them,” Young said.
The next year Klein started another festival, FEMUSC (for Festival of Music in Santa Catarina), in nearby Jaragua do Sul. Young joined him there and again played and taught violin, viola and chamber music. It was there he developed an innovative approach to teaching large groups of students.
The problem Young faced, when he arrived at FEMUSC was that, like a one-room schoolhouse, students ranged widely in age and ability, from raw beginners to prodigies. But there weren’t enough instructors to segment them into proper levels.
Eager to reach as many students as possible, he began developing an innovative system enabling him to teach all the students, while training the better players to help the others. He dubbed it Projeto Serioso, or “Serioso Project.”
Under this approach, the students were first divided into quartets for intensive coaching, after which they were combined to form one “super group” of eight violinists, four violists and four cellists. Not only could he train more students, with this method, but the students in turn could train and help each other. “That way we could expose a large number of people to a high level of teaching,” Young said. Each day the group would study and perform a movement of a famous string quartet. They started out with Beethoven’s Quartet in F minor, known as the “Serioso,” which gave the program its name. In succeeding years they studied challenging pieces by Shostakovich, Ravel, Britten, Bartok and Janacek.
The Serioso Project has a lot in common with the philosophy and teaching methods of the famous El Sistema program begun in Caracas in 1975. The founder, a remarkable Venezuelan economist and musician named Jose Antonio Abreu, believed that early classical musical training could transform society by teaching poor children the value of discipline and a passionate commitment to excellence. Abreu started the program with 11 children rehearsing in a garage. He charged no money and took students with no musical experience whatsoever, but insisted they learn and then teach each other, to encourage peer discipline and training. The goal was utopian as well as musical. “The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself ends up overcoming material poverty,” Abreu said. “From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor.” In a speech accepting the B’nai B’rith Humanitarian Award in 2008, Abreu summed up his vision: “Let us reveal to our children the beauty of music and music shall reveal to our children the beauty of life.”
The program does more than instill an appreciation of beauty, however. In many cases, it’s a means to survival. As Young said in a 2009 speech on musical outreach to a symposium of 2,000 music educators in Chicago: “Most of these Venezuelan children come from incredibly dangerous environments. Because their home lives are often totally dysfunctional, street gangs provide the only true family for many of them. But for those lucky enough to have joined El Sistema, their gang families are replaced by their orchestra families. Since the life expectancy of gang members in Caracas is short, it is no exaggeration to say that the decision to join El Sistema can be a life-and-death decision. Their motto is tochar y lucar – to play and to fight. Not surprisingly, these children fight for the privilege of playing classical music.”
Currently there are 125 Sistema orchestras, or nucleos, in Venezuela involving some 350,000 youngsters. The best-known alumnus, Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a strong advocate of El Sistema-type music education. He quotes Abreau as saying, “Put an instrument in a kid’s hands, and he’ll never pick up a gun.” Beyond Venezuela, there are Sistema programs in more than 25 countries, including the YOURS nucleo that dos Santos started in Chicago.
The Serioso Project took the El Sistema approach of providing free music lessons to large numbers of impoverished youngsters and extended it to chamber music teaching. “El Sistema gave me a new appreciation of the power of the group, of working together as a team, of helping and disciplining and inspiring each other in a way that would otherwise not be possible,” Young said.
Young’s role, said Charles Stegeman, chairman of strings at Duquesne University and a fellow FEMUSC teacher, was all-encompassing. “He spent every waking minute with the kids – sometimes he didn’t even stop for dinner – teaching, coaching, even writing letters on their behalf. Richard was a tireless ombudsman and advocate for dozens of kids who are talented but don’t have the resources.”
Another musician teaching at FEMUSC was pianist Ricardo Castro, who with Klein and Young recorded a CD, “Poetic Inspirations: Works For Oboe, Viola & Piano” on the Cedille label. Castro invited Young to teach at his youth orchestra project in Salvador, a city of 3 million that is the capital of the east coast Brazilian state of Bahia. The program, called Neojiba (for Núcleos Estaduais de Orquestras Juvenis e Infantis da Bahia), is sponsored and funded by the state of Bahia. Neojiba follows El Sistema principles – its web site says students are “expected to contribute to social and urban developments once they learn the idea of responsibility, teamwork, respect and discipline.”
When he arrived in Salvador for the first time in June 2009, however, Young found an instructional hodge podge, due to the crazy quilt mix of teachers flying in for short spells from North and South America and Europe. “Though the students were playing lots of pieces, their schooling in technical fundamentals was virtually non-existent.” But Young saw plenty of potential. “There was a lot of raw talent and almost unlimited desire.” What was needed, he realized, was a consistent, unified approach to technique that would enable the students to develop their raw talent, and provide a framework to empower them to teach future Neojiba students.
So he developed such an approach, which combined classical training from the Franco-Belgian school he learned under Rosand and Gingold with social elements of the El Sistema system. He called it Metodo Neojiba, or the “Neojiba method.” The key, he said, was to harness the passion of group settings to build technical discipline. This is considerably different from the conventional conservatory approach, where students are linked closely with and take their inspiration almost solely from their teachers one-on-one.
As always, he threw himself into the project, beginning a three-year stint of flying to Brazil for 14-day teaching sessions every four to six weeks. Classes of 90 minutes began by rigorously working students through scale, arpeggio and etude exercises, instructing them on the proper way to stand, position the hands, align the fingers and hold and use the bow. The idea was to instill time-tested basics of the classical teaching tradition but in a group setting, with students of varied abilities and interests. “The goal was to keep it challenging, exciting and even cool.”
The atmosphere was demanding but non-threatening. When he called on students to demonstrate a phrase or technique, they were usually in groups of three or four. Humor was critical to keep the classes loose and fun. “This horse made a huge sacrifice for you,” he’d tell the students, to encourage them to use all the bow hair. And pointing to his own thinning scalp, he’d say, “It’s not so easy to grow hair!” To describe a thick, beautiful and round tone, he’d use the term popozuda, which in Portuguese means “big butt,” a la Jennifer Lopez. “It always got a laugh. But the kids totally got it. And most important, they remember the technique, and they do it.”
Young’s Neojiba colleague Emmanuele Baldini, concertmaster of the São Paulo State Symphony, one of Brazil’s leading orchestras, says that what they were doing was “completely new, a new approach to music and instrumental technique,” combining individual lessons and section work, which yields “incredible results in only a few months.” And as fellow Neojiba teacher and conductor Eduardo Torres said, they were taking it a step further, along the lines of El Sistema. “To find the music’s passion, the students have to have discipline,” he said. “They must search deeper to find their deeper spiritual life. The final goal is not just producing better music, but better people.”
A video on the Neojiba web site from November 2010 shows Young at work, leading a string chamber ensemble of 40 or 50 students in a Handel sonata. Young, wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, stops the piece after a few measures and, waving his bow for emphasis, encourages the students to use a different type of bowing to obtain a different sound. “When you want to change the color, you have to change the technique,” he tells them in English, and waits impatiently while an assistant translates into Portuguese. Then he embellishes: “Here, because we want a silkier sound, we go a little bit to the side of the stick, further from the bridge and draw the bow faster.”
When he spots a younger student squirreled away in the back, he asks, “Can you see? You’re so small. Come up to the front.” The boy, all of 10 years old, reluctantly inches his way next to Young, who to the boy’s chagrin, pulls his music stand even closer. The students laugh, but Young, all business, moves ahead with the lesson. However the boy’s music stand is too high, he can’t see to play, so another student nearby, a head taller, stops, bends down and makes the adjustment. It’s a small but telling instance of Metodo Neojiba, empowering students to help each other.
Later in the piece, Young stops them to point out they are rushing. “It sounds like a train going downhill,” he explains. “Remember what I’ve taught you: keep the fire in your heart, but keep the ice in your veins.”
When their energy appears to ebb, he reminds them: “You are Brazilians, you are the most passionate people in the world! But you still have to prove it every time you play.”
And he challenges them. “Take control of what you can control, but do your best, sem drama, sem lagrimas, sem desculpas, sem problemas (no drama, no tears, no excuses, no problems).”
Though he was paid only a modest stipend for his work, the payback from students was priceless. Fatherless students would tell him, “Richard, you are my father.” And there was the time a handful of younger pupils burst into tears when told he might not return if they didn’t try harder.
Fofo is a Brazilian-Portuguese word meaning soft and delicate, like a baby’s skin. Young would use it to indicate a softer, warmer pizzicato tone. A few students started calling him Professor Fofo.
But despite these deeply rewarding experiences, three years of commuting 8,600 miles a month took a toll. “It was time to move on,” he said recently. “And in any case, if I have done my job well, the kids have become empowered to progress for themselves and to teach others, which was always our goal.”
In mid-2012 Young began work on another El Sistema-like venture, in Colombia, called Batuta. According to its web site, Batuta is “one of the largest arts programs of any kind in Latin America, and the largest in Colombia, and has gained much international attention.”
The program’s reach is massive for a small country: some 44,000 students in 284 orchestras in more than 100 cities. Young’s role is to teach the teachers, thus leveraging his skills to reach the maximum number of students.
Recently he emailed, almost breathless: “I’m in Bogota now, traveling also to Cali & Medellin, teaching for Batuta. I’m setting up a string pedagogy that will be used throughout the entire project, which is huge. The phase now is to train the teachers, which is non-stop work through the end of the month. I have almost no free time here these days.”
In other words, business as usual.
But when the business is helping others, tirelessly and relentlessly, it begs the question: what drives this kind of altruism? Can it be captured, like lightning in a bottle, and taught so that others can become more giving and selfless?
These were questions I asked myself playing in the Do-It-Yourself Messiah orchestra in Chicago, where I first met Young. I admired his fingerings and edits to the score, which made playing the parts so much easier. I loved taking part in his string instructional sessions, where his decades of experience and musical intelligence shone through. I was intrigued by his apparent selflessness.
But when I asked him whether I could take a few private lessons, he laughed and replied, “Only if you’re poor.”
We are raised for the most part to think that helping others is deeply good. Better to give than to receive. Love thy neighbor as thyself. The philosophy of brotherly love is espoused everywhere and throughout history, from the Golden Rule to the Sermon on the Mount, even if it is honored more in the breach than in the observance.
There’s even a considerable body of science to support the notion that doing good is doing well. “Pay it forward” chains, drivers who spontaneously pay for the person behind them in toll booth and drive-through lines, make the nightly news and are the subject of doctoral dissertations. In his many books, Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, cites study after study of “solid evidence” supporting the personal benefits of helping others. “Although genuine benevolence must be chiefly motivated by concern for others, it also has the side effect of nourishing the giver.” As Post says at the top of his website: “In the giving of self lies the unsought discovery of a deeper self.”
Similarly, in a new book called Give and Take, which studies the benefits of “extreme giving,” Wharton Business school professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant posits that “prosocial behavior” yields far more benefits to the giver and society than selfishness.
Not everyone is convinced, however. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins points out “…universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts which simply do not make evolutionary sense.” Is it even necessarily and always a good thing to be good? Maybe the world would be better off if people were expected to help themselves, bootstrap style, a la Ayn Rand and Adam Smith. In any case, as Mark Twain said, it is very tiresome to be good.
A similar debate by Young’s admirers is equally inconclusive. Some see in his outreach work a compulsion, almost a genetic need, to employ his talents for the greater good. “Maybe it’s his New England work ethic,” says his wife Jenni. “He feeds off helping people who deserve help; it’s what he loves to do. It’s what made him a great musician – always wanting to be better. Now he’s driven by wanting to make his students better, in ways that go beyond music.”
Others see his giving ethos and efforts more as spiritual expression and fulfillment, along the lines of the Dalai Lama’s aphorism, “To experience peace, provide peace for another.”
“If ever there were a demonstration of the power of the God within us – the God which is the universe and with which all art seeks to commune – your Brazilian ‘family’ and efforts seem to be it,” said Tim Jones, a violinist who studied with Young at Wichita State University in 2008 and 2009. To his tribute to his teacher, Jones added a heartfelt postscript: “To think I may someday reach out into the world with music in such a way encourages and inspires, for art is not only entertainment, but clearly also God in the form of hope, in the form of joy, in the form of sound.”
“He is “a profoundly principled person,” said his fellow FEMUSC teacher Charles Stegeman. The theologian and author Martin Marty, Young’s partner in the Seven Last Words project, would agree. “Richard was born with a spirit of generosity that is very rare.”
Ego, too, plays no small part. It is always gratifying to be adored and admired – especially by young people. Young’s youth crusade might seem self-serving. “Adulation is nice,” he admits, “but it’s not the real motivation. It’s to strive make things better for others.”
So is it all these things: a spiritual drive, a communal ethos, a genetic need or gratitude for continuous success?
Then, one day, the answer showed up in my email. It was Young’s new Batuta Comprehensive String Pedagogy & Curriculum, an instructional manual covering all aspects of string teaching. In the introduction he writes, “…in even the most dry and predictable exercises, every note should be expressive. For this reason, vibrato is encouraged – not so much that it masks the pitch, but enough to suggest that beauty is never an afterthought. Indeed, there is enough ugliness and chaos that surrounds us in our everyday lives. And all too often we have little control of these things. But at the moment we put the bow to the strings, we have the power to dictate the beauty in our immediate environment.”
There it is: altruism as an aesthetic choice – the talent and will to help others by creating beauty in the world. Who wouldn’t follow this course if they could?
But when I asked him directly, he shrugged it off. In the final analysis, he says, it’s all about the deal. To illustrate the point, he relates a story. One of his violin students at the People’s Music School was a Colombian teen named Lina. Young recalled that though she was not unusually gifted, “she was very bright and had a lot of potential. But she was unfocused and unsure of herself.” As usual, he made the deal with her. “I said to her, ‘Beyond our work with the violin, I will teach you how to be excellent. And you will transfer that excellence to whatever you decide to do in your life.’’’
As for Lina’s eventual contributions, he told her, “They don’t have to be high profile. But they must be important.”
The goal, he said, was not to push her toward a career in music, but to enable her to eventually contribute meaningfully to society, using her developing talent. In that sense, music was a means for growth and development, a model for constancy and discipline, and Young was a mentor as much as a violin instructor, teaching not just the notes but their meaning. That meaning, he seemed to say, was the meaning of life: the more we give the more we grow. The more we grow, the more we live fully, and help others to live fully. It is the best of all virtuous circles.
Lina studied with him for a year in Chicago, then returned to Colombia.
“She really got her act together,” Young said with satisfaction. “She wrote me that she had decided to become a doctor. And she married a doctor, and every Monday they devote the day to providing free medical care in a clinic in the poor part of town. So every Monday Lina pays me back.”
“Which makes me,” he said, “an incredibly rich guy.”
Posted March 12, 2014
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