By Roman Cho
Vijay Gupta is a busy man. He holds the Mark Houston Dalzell and James Dao-Dalzell first violin chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a position he’s held since age 19 when he won his very first audition. He’s also well-known as the violinist who met and tutored Nathaniel Ayers, a former Juilliard student, now a homeless man on L.A.’s Skid Row whose life became the basis for the book and movie The Soloist. Based on his experience with Ayers, Gupta founded Street Symphony, connecting musicians from the L.A. Phil and Los Angeles Master Chorale with men and women from Skid Row and county jails. The program uses music as a vehicle to foster community engagement and reparative social justice. He is also a TED senior fellow who has been described by the New Yorker as “one of the most radical thinkers in the unradical world of American classical music.” And this was all before he was named a 2018 MacArthur Fellow.
The MacArthur Fellowship was awarded to Gupta in honor of his social-justice advocacy work with Street Symphony. This has turned Gupta’s already busy calendar into something bordering on chaos. So I was glad he was able to carve out time to speak with me about his work. Still a young man of 30, friendly and quick with a hearty laugh, speaking in a rapid fire but clear manner, Gupta spoke candidly and generously about his work with Street Symphony, difficulties in his life, outreach versus engagement, and the healing power of music.
Tell me about Street Symphony.
Street Symphony is a grassroots network of over 100 professional musicians who present monthly musical engagements in clinics, shelters, and county jails. The goal of the Street Symphony engagement is to offer really excellent musical performance, but also to engage the audience in dialogue and storytelling. And for the musicians we meet who have been impacted by homelessness or incarceration, we make as much room as we can to make music along with them. We have a teaching-artist program that works with instrumentalist, singers, and even composers. So now we focus on presenting music that’s not only performed by but also curated by members of the Skid Row community or people recovering from incarceration.
What makes Street Symphony different from other music outreach programs?
When it started, it was very much outreach. And I want to highlight the difference between “outreach” and “engagement.” Outreach allows us to stay in a position of privilege and power. We get to choose the program and say, “OK now, because you’ve heard Beethoven, you’re better people.” And we started to grapple with that myth. We made a very conscious effort to move from outreach to engagement. This is not charity. This is a two-way street where we are acknowledging the humanity of our audiences, not just by playing music for them but by taking the time to sit down and say, “What do you care about in your community? What are the issues that matter to you? And how do we make music around the issues that matter to you?” So that music is not a form of entertainment, but a lifeline.
It was the audiences who challenged us to really get real with what we were doing because the audiences we would meet in a Skid Row clinic or a homeless shelter were incredibly engaged. They were some of the best audiences we could ever play for. They would ask us really detailed, personal questions about what we felt in a
very particular poignant movement of a Beethoven quartet. Of course, as professional musicians of the L.A. Phil, we were focused on the sort of technical perfection of this music, not necessarily on the emotional content. So the audience would kind of challenge us and say, “Well, why are you really here? What are you saying through your music?” We would kind of do a double take and tell stories to our audiences that the musicians hadn’t told each other yet. That was the kind of interaction that we didn’t have in the concert hall. I’m questioning now what “excellence” is. We had to throw our so-called expertise out the window when we went to Skid Row because we had to start showing up with stories of why these pieces mattered.
One project we do every year is a singalong performance of Handel’s Messiah in Skid Row. We present excerpts but in the middle of the excerpts are stories, performances, and solos by members of the Skid Row community who tell their own story. They stand in front of an audience of hundreds of people who are our donors, L.A. Phil musicians, and their own community members and say, “This is who I am. This is what I care about.” To me, that’s what really sets Street Symphony apart—to say every single person has a story. And every person has a story that matters. And when we listen to that story and acknowledge that story, then their life matters, their histories matter, and then their neighborhood matters.
We truly are striving to create a pathway from arts engagement to civic engagement. We pay our artists who are members of the Skid Row community and we pay them the same rate that we pay our artists from the professional roster who are members of the L.A. Phil and Master Chorale. The economics of this is really important because we see members of the Skid Row community who are living in single-room-occupancy housing going back to school or reinvesting in their lives. They are getting their license to pour concrete but still show up for choir rehearsals. Or they’re finishing a degree in music therapy. They are musicians from Skid Row who are formerly homeless still living in the neighborhood who are now on our staff. And I eventually want to see them on our board and running our organization.
That’s a very different approach than what I would call “drive-by Beethoven,” which is often what the outreach programs look like. Often, outreach programs are more about the organizations presenting them than the community they are trying to engage.
Sometimes I wonder about how much good those kinds of outreach efforts really do.
Look, I don’t want to knock that. If that’s the place where people start, that’s where they start. But we have to acknowledge that that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
You famously won the L.A. Phil audition when you were 19, as you were preparing to go into medicine. Were you torn between the two?
My parents pushed me to practice those 6–7 hours a day and then suddenly when I went to college they said, “No. Music’s done. You’re gonna be a doctor.” So there was always a part of me that felt totally heartbroken by this but then I also genuinely did fall in love with neuroscience and the ways specifically that music could affect the brain. I also fell in love with the idea of being a doctor. Service was very important to me in the household I grew up in. Part of spirituality of Hindus is that service is worship. And I was always trying to find a way to serve. So I did have that heart and I still have that heart, but when I won the audition, moved to L.A., and saw Skid Row for the first time, I felt like a hypocrite. I felt that I had chosen a career in music because it was what I wanted to do and suddenly it felt very selfish.
If you felt that way, would it be correct to say that the famous incident of meeting Nathaniel Ayers, giving him lessons, and getting integrated into the Skid Row world through him and others was an evolutionary moment rather than a revolutionary moment for you?
Oh, 100 percent! That’s exactly it. Because when I met Nathaniel, it was like my world broke open. This man was ridiculously talented. He deserved to be on any concert-hall stage in the world, but he was homeless because of a confluence of factors, such as the fact that he had mental illness. And undoubtedly as well because he is black. And that is something I couldn’t fathom. I had this interaction with Nathaniel where he was having episodes and he wasn’t there with me. He was experiencing something that took him away and music brought him back. If I really believed in the healing power of music, it happened in that moment with Nathaniel.
So the question became, how many more Nathaniels are out there? And can we actually heal through music? What does healing mean? Does healing mean that someone who has been having a manic episode no longer has that episode? So I started to wonder about the social medicine of music.
We know that music changes the brain. We know that music can heal. We feel that inside ourselves. But if music is medicine, then how do we get that medicine to the people who need it the most? That really became the question of Street Symphony; if music can actually heal, then why on earth are we not playing music to people who might need that healing the most? And how do we make music as accessible as possible if we truly believe in that healing? So at Street Symphony we started focusing on that social medicine.
“I had this interaction with Nathaniel where he was having episodes and he wasn’t there with me. He was experiencing something that took him away and music brought him back. If I really believed in the healing power of music, it happened in that moment with Nathaniel.”
What I didn’t factor in the beginning is how much I needed that healing myself. The truth is I also grew up around mental illness and abuse. My childhood was really hard. I know I wouldn’t be here without my parents, but I also feel like I’m kind of here in spite of the house I grew up in. And music was very much a refuge for me. Music protected me from my own serious bouts of depression that still happen now. It’s my way of interacting with and understanding the world.
And it wasn’t just me. When I talk to my colleagues in the L.A. Phil or Master Chorale, they’ll often share very vulnerable parts of their own stories or lives with me, about their own abuse or even honestly the pressure of what it means to be perfect. The pressure of being commodified into an artistic product is its own kind of trauma as well.
Which the classical-music world is famously tight-lipped about.
It’s not only tight-lipped, classical music is actually predicated upon the silence of the musicians that perform it. In conservatory we’re told, “Just practice your excerpts; practice your concertos,” without acknowledging that the world doesn’t need another Yo-Yo Ma, because even Yo-Yo Ma said that the world doesn’t need another Yo-Yo Ma. And that, well, is there really room for another soloist in the world? Is that what we should be aiming for? The moment that we “fail” by not getting into that orchestra or not winning auditions or not becoming a soloist, we assume that it’s our fault. We don’t look at the fact that the system is actually predicated upon us sort of believing that all we can do is just play our music and go home.
We don’t focus on the larger systemic issue that often as musicians we’re kind of told not to care about, especially as classical musicians who are told, “Just practice your excerpts. Just practice your concertos. You don’t have to think about the world around you.” And that’s [something] I want to challenge. We have to do a lot better in the
I’m on the faculty of the Colburn School and I have this conversation often with conservatory students at the very highest level, where somehow they’re not seen for who they are. They are not valued for who they are as people. In a sense, these students and professional musicians are in as much need of the social healing and of the social medicine as people on Skid Row. And often it is the people on Skid Row who will call us out and say, “You are hurting today. We can see that you’re hurting. What’s going on?”
There’s no pretense with them.
One hundred percent! And they say, “Why is it that I actually enjoy making music and you don’t but you’re the professional musician?” Then we do a double take and we begin to ask ourselves those questions.
So it sounds like Street Symphony is as much for you as it is for the people in the shelters and prisons.
I think that is the nature of true engagement. I believe that engagement is the willingness to change. Engagement for the performers is the willingness to be as transformed by the nature of the event we present to our audiences as we hope the event is transformative for our audiences themselves. Outreach doesn’t challenge us to change. Outreach just says here’s the musical product and now you get to have it, whereas proper engagement is to say, “This is something that’s more for questions than answers. We’re both here to discover what this music is really about.” It’s a conversation. It’s not a product. It’s a process, not a product.
Can you talk about your own struggles with confidence through the process of starting Street Symphony?
When it comes to believing in myself, this is not easy work. This is part of the personal demons I often grapple with, asking myself, “Am I enough? Am I doing enough? Am I worthy? Do I belong here?” And those are the kinds of things that are sort of that “committee of judgement” inside my head that I’ve known [since I was] a very young child. Those are often the voices of my parents but there’s also voices of my teachers and voices of the system that said, “You’re a failure because you couldn’t become a soloist.” I used to think if I judge myself harder than anybody else, then I’ll never be caught off guard. I would rather be brutal to myself so that I’d never be hurt by anybody else. But when I hear my students say something similar my heart breaks because I love them. Only thing I want to do is just give them a big hug and say “Oh my god. Sweetheart! You beautiful, talented, brilliant, lovable person.” Yet I catch myself because I do the same thing to myself. So for me, the biggest challenge is interrupting that committee inside my head and saying I actually deserve to believe in myself.
What kind of perspective can you offer about life outside of the practice room and the concert hall, and what a musical life looks like beyond the sheet music?
I don’t think the young people or the professional people who are obsessed with perfecting the musical product are using their gifts in the greatest service of music itself. I know that’s a controversial thing to say. But
I think that’s more about engineering. That’s about athleticism. Virtuosity is important and I will say a standard is very important because standard is tied to our integrity. But that’s not all of what music making is. Culture and art and music are about connection. And connection is about being. You know, “B.” Being. It’s deeply spiritual. It’s not something that we do and can judge.
In very ancient societies, indigenous and shamanistic societies, artists were the truth tellers of their time. Artists were the ones who were the social bridges, the healers, the connectors, the ones who provoked as much as they healed. I want to reclaim that definition of what it means to be an artist. And I think that what we need to do actually is to get out of the practice room and understand that learning the sheet music is not what it means to be a musician but to connect with people is why we do what we do.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Strings magazine.