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Walker West String Department

With the New Year comes opportunities to share great news and inspiring stories about the work we do and the students and families we serve. Starting with the January Newsletter we begin a new feature, called String Stories highlighting the activities of our Walker West String Department.

For generations the academy has been known for its Keyboard, Wind, Vocal and Jazz Programs thanks to its co-founders, Rev. Carl Walker and Grant West, legendary pianists and music instructors in the Twin Cities particularly adept at Gospel and Jazz music. And band music teachers like Felix James and the late Tom Zosel who established the academy’s first jazz ensembles. The jazz ensemble program includes now Walker West alumni, Jack Breen (horns) and Kevin Washington (drums and percussion), with their other gifted jazz teaching artists-colleagues, Kavyesh Kavyraj (piano), Solomon Parham (trumpet), Ted Olsen (bass) to name just a few.

Although classes in string instruments were offered in the first few years, its program was often overshadowed by the other departments. Many in our community never knew that Walker West offered lessons in violin, viola, cello and the double bass. Most still do not know that the academy has a string department. This new feature seeks to rectify this oversight by providing information about students, recitals, concerts, and our string ensemble. If you read the December 2023 Newsletter, you would have seen two items about recent performances by Kamoinge Strings: a pre-concert performance for Sphinx Virtuosi at the Ordway, and gallery performances at the Bell Museum for the opening of their new planetarium show, “Secrets of the Forest”.

Each month, we will showcase brief stories from our String Department in the newsletter and direct you on occasion to longer pieces on our Walker West website. We hope to inspire you as you learn more about what we do with our students and families. And we hope these stories will encourage you to attend string department events featuring our students, staff and alumni. Our String Department currently is comprised of four instructors – Earl Ross (violin/viola), Ernest Bisong (violin/viola), Patty Ryan (cello) and Ted Olsen (bass). Our accompanists are Franco Holder and Jack Barrett.

Now onto the news…oops…music…


Why, Kamoinge Strings, of course!

As we look forward to 2024 events, we can’t forget the incredible performances of our string ensemble, Kamoinge Strings during the holiday season. The last half of November 2023 through December provided several important opportunities for our string students to showcase their talents at high-profile events.

On November Saturday 18, Kamoinge Strings performed at The Fillmore in the North Loop section of Minneapolis, near Target Field. The ensemble was invited to perform at the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers (MABL) Scholarship Gala. The theme was “Celebrating Black Excellence”. With nearly 1000 bedazzled guests, the Kamoinge performed music as attendees arrived and networked. An organization established to promote and support the professional development of Black lawyers, judges, and law students in Minnesota, it has deep ties to the area’s legal community and the state’s largest law schools. The event was a blast for the students who hung out it the upstairs green rooms and marveled at the names of performers on the wall backstage who’d played at the Fillmore. If we play there again, we’ll have to see if Kamoinge Strings has been added! According to the folks at the event, Kamoinge Strings lived up to the gala’s theme.

Twelve days later, on Thursday November 30, Kamoinge Strings regaled guests at the National Association of Counties (NACo) Executive Committee convening in Saint Paul. County Board of Commissioners from across the country including an especially enthusiastic commissioner of Kamoinge’s performance from Montana gathered on the fourth floor of the historic Landmark Center. The coordinators of the event sought out Walker West to provide entertainment by youth musicians. The ensemble was happy to do it. Kamoinge has performed in the past at the Landmark, but in the Atrium on the first level. For this event, the ensemble performed in one of the courtrooms. To perform in an old courtroom with beautiful wooden floors and high barreled ceilings is a dream for a sting ensemble. The resonance of the rooms is made for this instrumentation. Kamoinge represented the school and Ramsey County well. The students performed an array of music from its extensive repertoire that almost always includes, We Shall Overcome or Lift Every Voice and Sing. These specific songs are performed by the students to honor the mission and legacy of Walker West, an institution, founded by African Americans. The commissioners were “wowed” by the poise and sound of the ensemble. As Ramsey County Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire, current president of NACo stated in her thank you note, “You are all amazing! I really appreciate you and your music!” Thank you, Commissioner McGuire and all of the Ramsey County Commissioners who represent our community. We appreciated the opportunity to share our music.

We ended the year on Saturday December 9 at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St Paul where we performed our annual Holiday Concert. This year was the first time we featured Kamoinge Strings almost entirely. In past concerts, solos and duets would open the first half and Kamoinge performed selections in the second half. For our December 2023 concert, we had just one student provide a prelude selection and the rest of the concert were works performed by the ensemble.

When the lights went down in the Sanctuary, the students lined up along the outside of the pews and commenced with the Ukrainian holiday favorite, Carol of the Bells. The audience was surrounded by the sound of strings. From there the students moved to front of the where the assembled to perform Bach’s, Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring) accompanied by Franco Holder on the pipe organ. The lights were still down, allowing the just the glow of the blue-lighted Christmas Tree to shine in the sanctuary. The concert was magical! Kamoinge Strings continued with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto Grosso with violin solos by Rahel Hashel and Kamau Rodriguez-Pegg, Astor Piazolla’s Ave Maria, a Klezmer piece, and A Christmas Song with jazz improvisation solo by Ernest Bisong, to name just a few. The concert was filled with familiar and not so familiar works for strings. Something for everyone. When concluded the concert as we do every year with arrangement of Silent Night where the audience gets to participate These concerts are among our most popular and most fun. Students and teachers wear holiday hats and reindeer horns as they play to humanity for peace, joy and good cheer!

We hope you had a wonderful holiday season. And we will look forward to seeing you at our future concerts!


  • Kamoinge Strings at the Ordway Music Center | MLK Reception (January 15, 2024)
  • Kamoinge Strings | Winter Concert (March 9, 2024)


Congratulations to the Walker West String Department which received a grant from one of the premier music schools in the country.

The Paul R Judy Center for Innovation and Research at the EASTMAN SCHOOL OF MUSIC will provide support funding for a project designed by the department to feature Kamoinge Strings, called Stringocracy.

The project will assist in building momentum and support across communities of color, especially the Black communities, to participate in voter registration and the presidential election. The featured ensemble, Kamoinge Strings, highlights and re-enforces the programmatic ideas of identity, democratic expression, social justice, and activism through the power of the ballot box. The project will most impact our students through their understanding of how music can be used to support civic engagement. We will know that we have been successful when our students and community are motivated to participate more directly in the election process and to correlate this work with the creative process of music. The skills engendered through this immersive process, we think, will teach participating students important tools for how to use their unique voices to affect change in their respective communities. Rehearsals for the first big event on March 9 will start in January. Students and instructors will work to create a program that includes music from the baroque period to hip hop that will convey the democratic musical expression of call and response and improvisation.

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