Hop the fence.

Dear Musicians,

Perform for poor people. Perform for people in rural communities. Perform for people who don’t look, think, or act like you.

Places like Brooklyn, LA, and Austin will offer you inspiration. You will be surrounded by art and you will love it. You will surround yourself with other like-minded musicians who will support you at your concerts, and you’ll support them at theirs. People will talk like you, dress like you, and think like you. They will even vote like you. You will be happy.

I’m writing this to ask you to consider the effect your music can have on people who are not like you, people who don’t have the opportunity to experience art and music on a regular, or even semi-regular basis.

I ask that you consider what your purpose is as a musician, and if any part of that is to cultivate change, then consider where that change is needed. In New York City, a newspaper critic might write something nice about you, or you’ll impress someone at Le Poussin Rouge, or maybe you’ll find monetary gains gigging in and around the city. But in Victoria, Texas, for example, you won’t find any of those things. Instead, you’ll find a kid like me.

I grew up in a trailer park. The one pictured above. I was poor and loved music. I just didn’t know a lot about it, academically speaking. Lucky for me, a guy named Phillip moved into my town. He was an Eastman School of Music graduate, who, instead of moving to a big city to chase his dreams, moved to Victoria and helped me find mine. He took a job as a music teacher at my high school and taught me how to be a percussionist, how to work hard, and how to practice smart. I had no idea what classical music was, much less what a music conservatory was, until I met Phillip. In three years, eight of his students went on to study music collegiately, four at Eastman and four at University of Texas, all majoring in percussion. I was one of those eight kids. Phillip was my out, and if not for him, who knows where I would be right now. Thank you, a million times, Phil.

I share this story to get you to critically think about the possibilities your music can offer and the effects it can have on others. Maybe Phillip’s journey is not the journey you want to take. That’s totally ok. I’m not asking you to move from your arts city and take a job in rural town, USA, but I am asking you to consider how you can impact people in places like Victoria. Or Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, for example.

My friend George Clements has been hosting a percussion festival in Lewisberry for 10 years now, and it is flourishing. It’s called the West Shore Day of Percussion. I was there this past weekend. It was an absolutely beautiful event with over 50 public school percussionists participating in masterclasses, clinics and performances of some pretty elaborate music. This rural town and surrounding community has embraced our weird art music / percussion fest over the years. I met a father who spoke to me with such sincerity. “My son has been attending this festival since he was a little boy. He looks forward to it every single year. It’s truly a highlight for him.”

It’s a highlight for me too, and I know Aaron Staebell, Mark Boseman, Drew Worden and Erik Forst, all on faculty this year, feel the same way too.

I just read an article about how listening to music from other cultures helps people value diversity. This article reminded me of an earlier year at the same festival, where an elementary school student made an under-his-breath comment about me hopping over a fence to get here. He wasn’t talking about the metaphorical fence between my echo chamber and his. He was talking about an actual fence, to get to the U.S. from Mexico. Because I’m brown. There aren’t many people with my complexion in his area, and who knows what his home life is like.

Fast forward a few years to this past weekend. I coached the same kid in a music group. He was respectful and attentive, fully engaged in the music we were making. He was happy, and so was I. I’m not sure, but maybe this yearly music festival has opened up his mind to new ideas? Maybe our shared musical experiences have created a shift in his perspective, even if only a little bit? Perhaps this little festival in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania is the most important gig I do? This is why music is important.

As you go out into the world, by all means, chase your dreams. Move to a big city and make your mark if that’s what you want. But don’t forget where your music is needed the most. Perform for poor people. Perform for people in rural communities. Perform for people who don’t look, think, or act like you. That’s how profound change happens. Hop the fence.

With love,

Ivan

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