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MAY 2024  Newsletter String Stories

Notes from the Walker|WestMusic Academy String Department

May is one of my favorite months. We celebrate Cinco De Mayo, early graduations  and most important, Mothers! In May we can feel with confidence, we’ve survived yet another  Minnesota winter and we can look forward to beautiful summer weather that makes living in the  Upper Midwest oh so worth it! While it is true, this year we didn’t have the long frigid winter we are  accustomed to, it is still great to see late spring approaching, knowing that summer is just around  the corner. The unofficial start of summer is Memorial Day Weekend when folks in these parts make  plans to head “Up North” to the cabin by the lake or pull out the bikes for the first time in the season  to spin around the amazing bike paths in the Twin Cities Metro.

The String Department continues to build on its accomplishments this year. On April 4th,Kamoinge Strings was the featured performer at the home of Pat and Gary Sauer of the Sauer Family Foundation. The twelve mostly violin students performed an array of music from the ensemble’s extensive and diverse repertoire for a private fundraiser for Walker|West Music Academy. From a stirring Tarantella to the moving Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. Kamoinge Strings played for nearly 45 minutes in the living room of the Sauer’s home. Many of the guests who know of the academy’s Advanced Jazz Ensemble experienced Walker West’s outfacing string ensemble for the first time in this beautiful intimate setting. I think it is fair to say that the hosts and guests were not expecting such a range of music performed by such accomplished students. Co-founder, Rev. Carl Walker, provided a rousing introduction for the ensemble, and co-founder, Grant West, rounded out the entertainment for the event with music before and after Kamoinge’s performance.  

A week later on Saturday, April 13th, Kamoinge Strings performed at Allianz Field for Minnesota United’s (Soccer Team) “Celebrate Black Excellence” Day. The ensemble performed the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which was followed by the National Anthem, Star Spangled Banner performed acapella by former Walker West voice student, Chelsea Phillip. Prior to the game’s kick off, Kamoinge Strings performed an hour pre-game concert in the floor-to-ceiling glass-filled Stadium Club. Students performed with everything for Irish jigs to jazz standards with a hip-hop selection thrown in for good measure! The ensemble had VIP status that allowed them access to parts of Allianz that most of the general public rarely sees. Although Minnesota didn’t win their game against Houston, Kamoinge Strings and the parents who attended had a fantastic time. And we could not have asked for a more perfect April night. The Advanced Jazz Ensemble performed in the stadium’s Field Club and during half-time.  

The opportunity to share the talents of our students in  front of thousands of soccer fans garnered many positive responses! Congratulations students! And  thanks to the folks at MN United and Allianz Field for making it all possible. And thanks to String  Department alumna, Ream Hashel for performing with Kamoinge Strings in this event and at the  fundraiser. Founders’ Award recipient, she is currently a first-year student at the University of St.  Thomas and longtime member of the ensemble. 

Chicago-based visual artist, educator, vocalist/musician, Damon Locks visited the academy on  Friday April 19th. He was in the Twin Cities with his Black Monument Ensemble as part of the Walker  Art Center’s performance artists series concert held the next day.

Damon’s genesis story as a musician and visual artist probes areas of cultural agency, creative  exploration and, interestingly, records. In conversation with the Walker|West community, Damon  took questions from DeVante Jackson, Events Coordinator and moderator, and from the audience about his music philosophy and development as an artist. An illustrator by training, he spent his  twenties employed at music stores where his love for punk, jazz, and hip-hop spurned a devotion to collecting albums. It was this immersion in music and the inspiration afforded by his record collection that led to an interest in sound in all its forms. His music merges sound from across a spectrum that includes everything from music to documentaries. And these “sound collages” form new musical expressions not easily defined or classified. 

His work involving prisons and social justice combined with his improvisational music style through  sound connect perfectly with the department’s STRINGOCRACY project. (see String Stories from  March and April for more details). And students from Kamoinge Strings were present to learn about  Damon Locks and explore these ideas. Most of the audience comprised Kamoinge students which  allowed the ensemble to ask questions and try out Damon’s sound equipment. As Damon said to the students, he is not a musician in the traditional sense. He doesn’t play the violin or the horn, but what he has talent for is creating music through this sound equipment and newer technologies. Because of the excitement of the students, we may need to invest in sound equipment for Kamoinge. As we explore the new ways in which Kamoinge Strings creates and performs “string-centered” music with “call & response” and improvision this year, as part of STRINGOCRACY, we have used digital music sampling to (re)shape music from our repertoire. After this event with Damon Locks, students are clearly interested in learning more about “sound collages”. Big thanks to Mr. Locks and the folks at Walker Art Center for thinking of Walker|West as a host location for this  great discussion. We hope we can arrange a future event with Damon and Kamoinge!

Sisters, Wacheke and Mukuhi Njoroge, played duets and answered questions about their instruments on Saturday April 27th at the Schubert Club Music Museum. They participated in the Schubert Club’s Family Jam in conjunction with international artist and violinist, Daniel Hope and the Air Ensemble Family Jam Concert. Mukuhi is a current recipient of the Schubert Club’s Musical Promise Scholarship. A 10th grader, she plays in Kamoinge Strings and the MYS Repertory Orchestra. Wacheke is a high school senior and a Roderick Cox  Music Initiative Fellow.

Kate Cooper of the Schubert Club had this to say about the Njoroge sisters’ participation at this  event:  

I wasn’t even sure exactly what I wanted them to do, yet they went into their roles with such grace and confidence and completely did exactly what I was hoping for. Ndugi, your daughters are so beautiful, inside and out and not only play their violins so well, [but] they also have a gift of sharing their love of music with others. I have to confess, I even shed a few tears (of joy) on Saturday as I stood back and watched them interact with our museum visitors.

May has many of our string students of all levels preparing for their final string recital for the school  year. The next recital takes place Saturday May 11th at 6 pm at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer Students from Earl’s studio will present their pieces.

Students currently in the Minnesota Youth Symphonies (MYS) and the Greater Twin Cities Youth  Symphonies (GTCYS) and those who hope to gain a spot in one of these orchestras are preparing for  auditions in addition to the recital. Ten string students in the 2023/2024 season participate in these  ensembles with two also participating in Ataria String Quartet’s Chamber Music School. Our very  own cello instructor, Patty Ryan, is a member Artaria String Quartet and coach for the chamber  music school.

Walker|West has proudly included a fairly large number of its string students in these organizations compared to its overall string student enrollment. Most of the students who participate are students of color, making Walker|West consistently the largest feeder  of Black students to these programs in the last 10 years. Our students, most of whom are in Kamoinge  Strings, participate in all levels including the collegiate level Symphony Orchestras. We’ve even included a number of students selected as section leaders of their orchestra. As we hope to continue  this legacy, we would be remiss if we did not encourage support for our scholarship programs,  especially those for string students. Without financial assistance, many of our students could not  continue their private music instruction over the course of many years that ensure students develop  to the point where they are prepared to compete for and progress through for these youth orchestras.  

Finally, for our most accomplished students they have the opportunity to perform in the Junior and  Senior Honors Recitals. (see April’s String Stories for details about this opportunity). Videos are  being submitted and selections will be made for this year’s students soon. At the Senior Honors Recital, Walker West bestows a senior high school graduate with the Founders’ Award who demonstrates the highest qualities of musicianship and music curiosity by a student. The award has been given annually since 2014. In some years, the student selected is a “no brainer”. In other years the awardee is not so obvious.

Or more often as is the case, there are several students who could be awarded. Nevertheless, whoever the graduating senior selected for this esteemed award, it is student who has committed to years of music participation in their lessons and ensembles. They are accomplished musicians whom Walker|West  recognizes for their potential as ambassadors for the academy and their teachers irrespective of their  future career. Most will either major or minor in music. As an institution we have been extraordinarily  proud of the students selected over the years. Several were string students who began their training at Walker|West and while at the academy took full advantage of the opportunities available to them.  Consider attending one or both honors recitals!

When thinking about the Founders’ Award recipients and all of the seniors who have graduated from  Walker|West we marvel at what our alumni/ae have done post their time at the academy. Some have  gone on to successful careers in music while others retain fond memories of their time as a student.  Some are now parents of current students and alumni! Some have come back to teach, and others  have joined our Board of Directors. As an institution that fosters “growth through music” at any age,  Walker|West encourages a lifelong commitment to and connection with music. However, only until  now, have we considered establishing a formal way for our alumni to stay connected and supportive of the academy’s mission regardless of what stage in life they are and where they may reside in the world.

The String Department has actively remained in touch with its alumni/ae. A few have even come back to perform with Kamoinge Strings. But we can do more. This year we plan to create an Alumni/ae group. We want to know what our Walker West alums are doing. Let us know what you think. If you are an alumni/ae or know where one is, please contact the Earl at earl@walkerwest.org. If you have any questions, or ideas, please contact us. In May 2024, the String Department will see two of its students graduate. We are excited for them and can’t wait to see what they do. We are so proud of them. But we don’t want to lose touch with them. Because more than ever we need those who know the power of music and what it can do, to be ambassadors for institutions like Walker|West  Music Academy. If I am sounding like a mother, well, fine. Mothers are among humanity’s greatest  gifts. And with that… On behalf of the String Department, Happy Mother’s Day!  

Without mothers, grandmothers, aunties, mother-teachers, where would we be? THANK YOU!! 

– Earl 

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