Bows glide across stringed instruments as fluent melodies fill the room. One stops, another starts. Rehearsal for MYCincinnati, a free youth orchestra program in Price Hill, begins as Eddy Kwon, assistant program director, leads the Ambassador Ensemble, a string sextet of young musicians, in their practice.
Kwon, a violinist/composer/conductor who has broad experience with a range of musical genres, including Classical, Jazz and Folk (he’s a member of local experimental Folk quartet The Happy Maladies), brings fresh perspective with him to the free after-school orchestra program based out of East Price Hill. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music with a degree in Jazz Studies, Kwon wanted to use his passion to
help children grow musically. So he became involved with MYCincinnati.
Founded by Program Director Laura Jekel in 2011, MYCincinnati has come a long way from its days of little-to-no funding and borrowed instruments in a short amount of time. As part of the nonprofit community organization Price Hill Will, the program has expanded to three levels of orchestra, now including more than 60 students from diverse backgrounds. Inspired by El Sistema, a Venezuelan national youth orchestra program that uses music as a vehicle for social change, MYCincinnati is committed to helping kids achieve personal transformation by striving for musical excellence, offering them a chance to learn violin, viola, cello or bass.
children are immediately put into a group setting with 10 hours of practice every single week to build discipline, self-confidence and social skills.
“Our mission is to use music in specifically intense, daily ensemble training as a tool for youth development and community engagement and social change,” Kwon says. “I think the unique thing about MYCincinnati and other El Sistema-inspired programs is the level of commitment it takes.”
In a rehearsal with the Ambassador Ensemble, Kwon diligently prepares the group for their five upcoming performances this month.
Comprised of six musicians from Price Hill between the ages of 12 and 15, plus Kwon, the string septet explores themes of social justice by incorporating them into original compositions of Classical chamber music over the course of a year. All are
members of the “chamber orchestra,” MYCincinnati’s most musically advanced orchestra.
Kwon’s main purpose for the Ambassador Ensemble project was to lead critical discussions through challenging questions on identity to integrate into the performance. Common themes emerged through the personal experiences shared on thought-provoking topics like racism,
sexism, bullying and patriarchy.
The musicians then worked on translating their daily personal experiences through the artistry of music to send a message to promote change in the community.
“The kind of subject matter that we were getting into is pretty sensitive and can be very challenging even for adults,” Kwon says, “so I had selected this group of six not only for their musical ability and that I trusted them as musicians and performers, but also I knew that they had very unique perspectives and also strong opinions and ability to articulate their life experiences in a constructive way.”
After working intensely as a group to integrate these concepts into music, the
final compositions resulted in a fluid, cohesive performance covering the different themes discussed. Some songs will showcase individual stories through vocals, while others use their instruments to tell their story, but the intent is to convey a unified message. Kwon notes that it was important for him to create a safe, supportive environment to talk openly and honestly about these personal experiences.
Fourteen-year-old Ziyad Tooles, the group’s double bass player, has been a part of MYCincinnati since 2013 and has made a lot of progress so far. “I liked that I can be myself and not worry about anyone judging me,” Tooles says.
Over the course of the project, world-renowned photographer Michael Wilson and his son Henry filmed a documentary to capture the process. As the performances near, audiences can expect to see a powerfully energetic, fluent piece with diverse musical styles incorporating Classical, Jazz, Folk and Pop all strung together. Kwon hopes audience members from all over are inspired to initiate change in their own communities.
MYCINCINNATI’s Ambassador Ensemble performs Sunday at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. More info: mycincinnatiorchestra.org.