With the economy teetering in uncertainty, the art world has come to a standstill. Cinemas, museums, and performing arts theaters have closed their doors indefinitely, putting thousands of artists out of commission and compromising the important arts institutions that we recognize as cultural pillars. While older, more established institutions may survive the crisis, buoyed by a strong support network, many younger, smaller institutions will suffer. In my home state, the Oregon Symphony had to lay off their musicians, conductors, and several staff members in an effort to avoid total collapse. During the days that followed the announcement, posts and comments choked with anguish flooded my Facebook feed as Oregonians and musicians mourned together in solidarity.
The floundering of arts institutions in the midst of the coronavirus recession not only reaffirms their paradoxical dependency on capital, but also emphasizes how little we prioritize the arts. The arts are often the first to go in public schools due to financial strain imposed by budget cuts, with athletic extracurriculars taking precedence. In America, we see the arts as a luxury, not a necessity. This rhetoric defines our poor treatment of art as a disposable extravagance.
Yet as we search for ways to keep ourselves entertained while sequestered in our homes, we have become increasingly dependent on art. We dive headlong into the fictional worlds of writers, immerse ourselves within the vitality of cinema, and override the sounds of the present with music from the past. Perhaps our ambivalence toward the loss of the arts in public spaces derives from an awareness that we can still access the arts through our laptops. Those of us from more privileged backgrounds — and I would argue that as Princeton students, we inherently belong to this category — take the arts for granted due to ease of accessibility, and many of us who identify as artists likely have deeply personal and intimate experiences with the arts vividly alive in our memories.
However, not everyone can easily engage with the arts, as participation demands a high premium, particularly for performing arts such as classical music and ballet. I volunteer as a violin coach and teacher for the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO), a string orchestra run by Princeton University students serving high school students from Trenton who may lack the resources for music education outside of school. During the academic year, TYO organizes weekly rehearsals in the Lewis Center for the Arts and provides free coaching and private lessons. For the TYO students, Princeton’s closure means the loss of both music and a vibrant community. In particular, the graduating seniors will miss their last opportunity to perform as a group together in the orchestra, as several of them will be attending college in the fall
Before leaving Princeton, I briefly chatted with TYO’s graduating class of seniors during what would become our last rehearsals together, asking them to share some of their favorite memories in TYO. I initially conducted the interviews with the intent of profiling each senior in celebration of their graduation, but after COVID-19, our conversations have taken on a more heartfelt meaning. Their incredibly insightful comments and lighthearted stories emphasize the importance of music and remind us that we should never take the arts for granted.
This year’s graduating class of seniors includes Nayely Rivas, Michael Martinez, Andy Dilone, Collin Thompson, Edgar Cambara, and Aariana Flippin, who all attend Trenton Central High School (TCHS). The following quotes document some highlights from our conversations together, including reflections on their memories with TYO and their thoughts on music in general. Unfortunately, I was not able to speak with Cambara before leaving campus, and therefore his comments will not be included in the following excerpts.
Rivas has played violin for the Trenton Youth Orchestra for three years, starting from its founding in the fall of 2017. She began playing violin during her freshman year in high school when she joined the TCHS orchestra. Since she was a lifer at TYO, I asked her to share some of her memories during the developing stages of TYO. At the beginning, there were only six students in the orchestra.
“It was a really small group, and we rehearsed in this little Anchor House back in Trenton,” she stated. The Anchor House Nayely speaks of is a modest brick building located in Trenton, which belongs to a larger organization founded in 1978 to serve youth in New Jersey. “We didn’t really have practice rooms, so [during private lessons] one person would be in the kitchen, one person would be in the living room, one person would be upstairs in the bathroom.”
Martinez, also a TYO lifer, started laughing when I asked him about life in the Anchor House.
“God, that was…” he chuckled. “All of us crammed into a tight spot — it was funny… We had a lot of fun. I remember when [my private lesson teacher] let me use her baroque bow... It was so cool. It was insane,” he said, smiling. Martinez described how the cramped space meant that everyone would jostle elbows during rehearsals, and students could not fully extend their bow arms.
That would quickly change, however. Over the past three years, TYO has grown from only a handful of students to the Saturday Morning Arts enrichment program facilitated by Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP), which includes dance and singing programs. Rivas noted how TYO’s rapid growth seemed to correspond with changes in location, from the Anchor House to Princeton’s Woolworth music building, and, most recently, to the new Lewis Center of the Arts, where TAP currently resides.
With the growth of TYO, students have had more opportunities to engage with music outside the weekly meetings. At the beginning of the year, the students visited New York City to watch Venezuelan-Spanish conductor Gustavo Dudamel conduct the New York Philharmonic at the Lincoln Center. After the concert, the students had the chance to greet Dudamel backstage and take pictures.
This was not the first time TYO had met Dudamel. Last year, he visited the students at TCHS during his Artist-in-Residence stay at Princeton. Rivas recounted the experience with sharp clarity.
“When we first met Dudamel, he came with his wife, and [Lou Chen, TAP Program Manager and TYO founder and director] was giving him a tour around Princeton. He came in, and we played the ‘Harry Potter’ theme for him,” she said. “At the end, he was complimenting us, and he came up to me and was like, ‘Oh, I had a violin just like yours when I was a kid!’ He asked to see my violin, and then he was holding it, and they took pictures... I actually have the picture on my wall,” she recalled fondly.
Meeting the conductor was also a memorable experience for Thompson, who plays violin in TYO but also plays saxophone and flute in the TCHS orchestra. He described meeting Dudamel last year with TCHS as his favorite music memory.
Flippin had a more introspective reflection to offer. “I would say my favorite memory in TYO would be me growing as a person,” she said. “When I first started, I was shy, and I would only really give personality to my music at home, but now I’ve started translating that in practice, too. I guess I realized that if I want my music to be good, I can’t be shy. If I want to play good, I have to put it out there,” she added thoughtfully.
For all of the students, the tight-knit community made their experience at TYO particularly memorable and enjoyable. Since almost all the students also attend the same high school and play in the school orchestra together, they developed close friendships through music.
“I’ve met a lot of cool friends through music, joining the orchestra and all that. It’s a nice way to connect with different people,” Thompson remarked.
Dilone, who plays violin, also commented on the communal effort involved in playing in an orchestra: “Every Saturday, I think ‘Ugh, I have to get here so early,’ but then when I get here, we start playing music, and I listen to it, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is actually such a beautiful thing we are creating right here.’ I really appreciate it.”
Dilone said that, at TCHS, all of the first violinists are seniors this year, so there was a real sense of camaraderie between them.
Beyond friendships, music bears significance for the students in their personal lives. Several of them stated that they use music to express their emotions as a kind of “language.” For Rivas, music allows her to feel an emotion more potently. She chooses to listen to music that reflects her current mood in the moment. “No matter what happens, there’s always music that will go with any situation. When I’m sad, I play sad music… and it makes me feel more of whatever emotion I’m feeling… I like that. When it adds to your emotion,” she explained.
Flippin had a slightly different approach to music and emotion. “I see sadness and happiness as the same thing…” she said. “When I’m sad, it’s because of a happy moment, and when I’m happy, it’s because of a sad moment… For example, a happy moment would be spending time with your friends, but it becomes a sad moment because you’re not spending time with your friends anymore [when you’re not with them]. My music is the same.”
Flippinalso said she uses music to relieve negative emotions.
“There’s always a calm place... I guess I’ve kind of picked up anger, and playing music helps me get my frustrations out. It just lets you know there’s always a calm place — or a safe place,” she said. Flippin remarked that she expresses herself primarily through music, sometimes finding it frustrating to only rely on verbal language to communicate her feelings.
For Martinez, music is a direct expression of one’s individuality. “It’s mostly a feeling that you get whenever you touch an instrument. You always make a sound with it — whenever you touch the instrument, you feel like you’re connected to something else… You’re playing from your soul. Everyone has a different tone, nobody has the same sound as someone. Every time you pick up the instrument, you make a new sound… I love improvising, just messing around, because it expresses your soul, it expresses who you are in that moment,” he reflected.
Promoters of music education often tout the benefits of learning to play an instrument. They emphasize that the skills learned through music — discipline, perseverance, and collaboration — can be applied to other areas of life as well. As a result, music has the potential to become an invaluable asset, influencing many aspects of life. In our conversations, many of the TYO students shared how learning an instrument has impacted their lives outside music.
“When you join things like TYO… join clubs like that and try new things, and you do different activities, it gives you something to live for,” Rivas said. “It gives you something to do in life, instead of just: go to school, go home, go to sleep, wake up.” For Rivas, the opportunity to play music is particularly special, as she plans on incorporating music into her career: “Whether it’s conducting or playing or singing or whatever — anything that has to do with music, that’s what I want to do… I’m starting to see more how music is involved with everything.”
For Dilone, who does not plan on pursuing music as a career, learning an instrument has given him the self-confidence to go into STEM: “I want to study clinical lab science… I know it sounds hard, but I want to give it a try. I mean, I think the violin is the one of the hardest instruments to play compared to others because intonation-wise, it’s really hard to get the right note.... so if I can take on a challenge like that, I think I could take on something else… as long as you put your mind to it, you can do it!” he said.
Similar to Dilone, Flippin does not plan on pursuing a career in music. She wants to study environmental biology and conduct research and eventually own her own plant shop.
In the fall, Dilone will be attending Monmouth University in New Jersey with Flippin. Both Flippin and Dilone would like to play chamber music in college, and Dilone also said that he wants to continue playing in TYO if he can.
Martinez plans on taking a gap year and will continue to play violin for TYO. He said that he would love to continue performing and possibly begin dabbling in composition. Additionally, Martinez said that he wants to go back to TCHS and help the violinists who are just starting out, now that he has several years of experience.
Thompson will be taking a gap year as well, as he will be moving to Florida with his mother. He expressed interest in attending art school or music school. In addition to playing three instruments, Thompson is also a phenomenal visual artist.
In myth, art holds an important role in our society, reminding us to pause, slow down, and appreciate the minor details in our fast-paced lives. But it rarely seems like people actually internalize this as a daily practice. In my conversations with the TYO students, it seemed like music had allowed them to gain a heightened awareness and approach tasks and decisions with greater intentionality. Their reflections illuminate the importance of engaging with our passions outside the work that defines our livelihood and serve as important reminders of the incredible value that music and the arts have in our culture — especially during times of crisis.