PVD Talks: Sebastian Ruth, B'97

by by Alexandra Corrigan

illustration by by Katherine Entis

Sebastian Ruth started Community Music Works fourteen years ago with a small, year-long grant from the Swearer Center for Public Service. On September 28, the MacArthur Foundation named Ruth a fellow based on his work with CMW, granting him $500,000 with “no strings attached.” Ruth’s organization describes itself as “a string quartet in permanent residence in an urban neighborhood that teaches music to young people, performs locally, mentors their students, and organizes community events for entire families.” CMW currently employs twelve resident musicians to teach 115 seven to eighteen year-old students from Providence’s West End, South Side, Elmwood and Olneyville neighborhoods.
In Ruth’s words, “The problem with definitions when we talk about CMW is that often people see it through one lens and not the complex lens. Some people see it as an after school music program. Some people see it as a chamber music urban residency for professional musicians. Some people see it as a community development project. It’s all things and, yet, it’s also no one of those things by itself. It’s really the combination of these things coexisting and being part of this whole that makes CMW the experiment it is.” Ruth recently took the time to speak to the Independent.

The Independent: Congratulations on the MacArthur Grant and the fourteenth season of Community Music Works. Can you speak to any immediate or long-term plans you have for the future of the program?
Sebastian Ruth: We are taking a fresh look at our program and thinking about how our students can have a good experience in music learning. We’re also reconsidering how our resident musicians could have a more creative experience as performers. So we’re taking a new shift in how we look at things. One of the changes is that the students will come at a baseline minimum of twice a week now, as opposed to the last minimum of once a week. They’ll be still doing their lessons on violin, viola or cello but also coming in once a week for an all-play day, which is playing in an ensemble and a chance to meet with the group outside of class.

I: How do you envision “Friday All-Play” impacting the program and the students? And how does this relate the rehearsal and performance with the creative?
SR: Kids tend to influence one another in a really positive way when everyone is together. Over the years, we’ve found that when we have places of performance, a party, or a dress rehearsal where all the kids are in the building with the instruments, the kids learn from each other in wonderfully informal ways. We want to make that a regular thing every week—not just an occasional thing. You asked about the rehearsal, performance, and creation moment. What we’re trying to do is have an informal way that all the kids are in the building together. There’s certainly plenty of structured time, but there’s also a nice half-hour block of unstructured time. Like, “Hey I’m playing this piece”—“oh I played that before let me show you how I did it.” Kids tend to learn in a different way when they learn from each other.

I: How is the relationship to the community around CMW changed in the last fourteen years, especially regarding the requirement that resident musicians live in the community they serve? And, secondly, how do you envision your relationship engaging in the community now?
SR: It’s an organic process to engage and be accepted by the community we work in—especially to become an important part of that community. Over the years, the subtle thing that has happened is that families, at one level, see what goes on because we operate in a storefront. They see how we interact with their kids in schools and after-school programs. They know that there are people in town that are members of the community who are very available and visible musicians. Then there’s the level that are the 100 or so kids and their families who are heavily involved with us.
I think we are an important community fixture for all those levels. And, the basic message we’d love people to come away with is that music is a normal part of everyday life in a city. You see musicians rehearsing, working and performing, and it’s not an exceptional thing. You don’t have to be someone special who knows a lot about this experience. But rather, it’s just what goes on. I would say, going forward, we’re trying to make the visible piece more of a feature of the students’ work as well as the teachers’ work. Members of the community could see a cello quartet playing some place, but they would also see spontaneous performances of the students cropping up all over the place.
We challenge the students to each play one self-directed community performance a year, if not many. They will set up to play in a barber shop or a restaurant or church or their school—somewhere that’s not a typical concert space. We have a big beautiful map in the office of our neighborhood. Kids report back to place the location of their community performance. Hopefully over the course of the year, we’ll see the map fill up with great spontaneous musical performances.

I: Speaking of places, you chose to stay in Providence after you graduated from Brown. Why did you choose Providence, and why did you choose these specific communities?
SR: Mostly I stayed in Providence because I had a connection to this particular neighborhood, Elmwood. When I had the opportunity to apply for the Swearer Center fellowship to start [CMW], I envisioned this artists’ residency in that neighborhood for a year. I didn’t know how long it would take to get things going. I didn’t know how deeply invested I would become in this neighborhood. It became clear to me within a few months of being here that it was not a short-term project. The set of ideas I was trying to explore was really about creating an educational experience for kids that really got to the heart of the questions that people ask themselves about life, and about their place in the world. It was important to me to make the opportunity and presence available to the population of kids who didn’t have that experience.

I: Has your perspective on social justice changed in your time at CMW?
SR: My perception of this work and its role is constantly evolving. While I had an inclination to do this work in this community originally, I certainly didn’t have a very nuanced perspective on what the ins and outs of doing it would be. That grows from doing this work and living in these communities and talking with people. My perception of the meaning of this work has certainly changed. Ideas like social justice and transformation are not small issues. They are products of a series of very small interactions and very small decisions accumulated over long periods of time. Transformation isn’t something that happens when you walk in the door one day or a kid walks in the door one day and goes “pow -- my life is different.” It doesn’t work that way. What it is is a slow and somewhat unglamorous daily life of practicing and teaching and working with the challenges of running these programs and the challenges of finding time to be a professional musician. All while running a very busy socially engaged project.
Over time, there’s pretty significant change taking place. People who we’re working with are really looking at very good and competitive four-year colleges. They’re bringing perspectives on the world that have certainly been influenced by their work at CMW. They have a sense of confidence and ambition that they themselves attribute to their time at CMW as a kind of depth of musicianship that has been made in them over the years. Then you say, aha. Something big has happened here. But it’s not like something big happens on day one, day five or year three. It’s just a gradual process.
I enjoy thinking about questions like social justice. At the same time, I know they’re questions for a later reflection. They’re also questions of a guided philosophy. They’re not daily questions. The daily question is: how do you approach families with authenticity and sincerity. How do you strike the right balance between being supportive and being demanding? How do you strike the right balance between making a fun environment and making a strict education environment? How do you, as an artist, balance life between the need for self-centered study and practice and the very outwardly giving teaching families and their kids? It’s all these very fine balances that we must strike every day. That’s how things have changed over the years.