Passing it forward: In Philadelphia, young musicians who are participating in Project 440, a mentoring and leadership program for teenagers, lead a music workshop for elementary school students as part of their Doing Good service-learning project, May 2023. Photo by Susanna Loewy.

In Brief | Participating in classical music presents young people with opportunities to change their lives, opening doors and offering new ideas about what is possible. Role models are important at every stage of the process, but what does that mean? Musicians say it ranges from offering encouragement to sharing skills to modeling positive behavior—and always showing up.

Think back to your childhood and try to remember a moment when an adult saw something in you, took action that had real impact on your future path. Maybe it was an elementary-school teacher who bumped you up a few levels in math or saw your passion for storytelling and tailored homework assignments to include writing short stories. Maybe it was a teacher or parent who demonstrated through example why it’s important to have self-discipline and not give up.

Conductor Na’Zir McFadden, who became assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2022 at age 21, says he will never forget a teacher named Miss Colon. McFadden comes from a family of church musicians, but when the time came in fifth grade to sign up for band at his Philadelphia school, Miss Colon told him he hadn’t been selected. “I did what any other student my age would do—I threw a temper tantrum,” he says. “I refused to do my work. At the end of the day, she asked me, ‘What’s wrong? You’re such a good kid, why aren’t you doing your work?’ And I said, ‘I know music. My family is in music. I think I should be a part of the band. My voice is just as important as the students that were selected.’ She didn’t say anything. But she wrote a letter—to this day, I don’t know what this letter said—and she told me to hand it to the band director. All I know is that the next week I was signed up for band. I think Miss Colon was teaching me the importance of self-discipline. But she also saw that I had the drive and the curiosity, and she gave me an opportunity. That one opportunity completely changed my life.”

Conductor Na’Zir McFadden, on the podium Orchestra Hall, is assistant conductor and community ambassador of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra. He says that playing in the high school band “completely changed my life.” Photo by Sarah Smarch.

Hattie, a nine-year-old from rural Avon, Colorado who is studying piano, watched her father struggle to re-learn to play the piano after a gap of 25 years, at a community recital given by parents of young students in Bravo! Vail’s Music Makers Haciendo Música program. “I watched my dad learn to play Beethoven’s Für Elise,” she says. Hattie’s mother, Ann, says her husband had not played piano since he was 13 years old. “Our girls had been listening to him practice every day,” Ann says. “At the recital, he started his piece, and he messed up at first—he hadn’t played a recital in so long. He started again. He said he was so happy that the girls could see him make a mistake and start over, because that’s part of learning anything. That was a very meaningful experience.”

Young musicians in Bravo! Vail Music Festival’s Music Makers Haciendo Música program, sisters Hattie (left) and Austin with a family friend. They take part in Bravo! Vail’s Music Makers program for youngsters; not only that, but their father played the piano after a gap of 25 years at a community recital given by parents of young students in Music Makers Haciendo Música.

We often talk about the importance of role models and mentors, but in classical music what does it mean to be a role model? Showing up consistently is key, as is understanding when to give advice to those too young to know how to ask for it. It’s also important to let young people see the struggles that are often hidden from public view, even—or especially—when the musician is spectacularly successful. Violinists Ray Chen, Midori, and Hilary Hahn all make a point of reaching out to young musicians. Chen created an app designed to “get real-time motivation and feedback from supportive listeners while you practice” because, Chen has said, the best motivators for regular music practice are “supportive friends and peers.” Midori founded and manages several non-profit organizations, including Midori & Friends, which provides music programs for young people in New York City, and MUSIC SHARING, a Japan-based foundation that brings Western classical and Japanese music into schools, institutions, and hospitals. Hahn created a #100DaysofPractice challenge on her Instagram page. In her words, “It takes at least 100 days to drop old behaviors and to make new, positive, practice habits. The only rule is: Practice for 100 days in a row. After 100 days in a row, you’ll find the new habit will largely be formed.” Her challenge gained a large following, particularly during the pandemic; watching someone at her level rehearse a phrase over and over is a valuable lesson for a process that is often isolating.

  • Violinist Hahn created her #100DaysofPractice challenge on Instagram to help musicians at all levels develop positive practice habits. The site gained a large following, particularly during the pandemic; seeing an accomplished artist like Hahn practice is inspiring for a process that can be isolating.
  • Violinist Ray Chen’s Tonic app helps musicians of all ages “get real-time motivation and feedback from supportive listeners while you practice,” Chen says, because the best motivators for regular music practice are “supportive friends and peers.”
  • On November 30, Midori & Friends, which nurtures young minds through music education, was celebrated at a “Season of Lights: Benefit for Bright Futures” event. With young musicians are, far left, violinist Randall Goosby, who received the organization’s Harmony for Change Award, and, at far right, founder and violinist Midori.

In 2019, Hahn gave $25,000 to support Project 440, a mentoring and leadership program for Philadelphia teens founded by Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Bass Joseph Conyers. The gift stemmed from prize money she received from Germany’s Glashütte Original Festspielpreis award, which requires that the accompanying $25,000 grant be donated to a music-education initiative. Hahn chose Project 440 because of its view of music as a stepping-stone for teaching high schoolers to make an impact the world on their own terms and gain essential skills for their lives outside of school.

“Music educator Scott Lang pointed out to me recently that 93 percent of students who pursue music in high school don’t continue [to pursue music] in college,” Conyers says. “Focusing on the concert stage can be an endgame. I think we miss an opportunity in music education to talk about it like sports: you can get anywhere from here. The interpersonal skills, the collaboration, the compromise, and then, of course, the discipline that it takes. They’ll have these life skills that they can use to thrive in any discipline that they choose.” A lot of the process, he says, is just about “planting the seed in music. How can we use music as this tool?”

Joseph Conyers, principal bass at the Philadelphia Orchestra, founded Project 440, a mentoring and leadership program for Philadelphia teens that uses musical training as a way for young people to gain skills that are applicable anywhere and to make an impact the world on their own terms. Photo by Nicole Roche.

Opening Doors

Music can be a lifeline, especially for young people who may be struggling academically, or whose living circumstances are far from ideal. Na’Zir McFadden’s work as assistant conductor at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra includes conducting the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra and leading programs in the orchestra’s Educational Concert Series, Young People’s Family Concert Series, PNC Pops Series, and DTE Community Concerts. For his work with the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra, he arrives every Saturday morning hours before rehearsals. “I always worked super-hard, and I had my struggles in school and studying and completing my coursework,” he says. He cites not just his fifth-grade teacher but the many people who helped him as the reason he is “the first person in the door in the morning. I can show students who may share the same background or struggles I did that there is a way not to continue down a particular path, show there is a way that if you set your mind to it, you can achieve it.”

McFadden is an alumnus of Conyers’ Project 440 for teens. “Joseph Conyers always said, if there’s a door in front of you, knock on the door. And if it doesn’t open, kick it open,” McFadden recalls. “That’s something I tell all my students. I choose to take the time for those students who really need it.”

In Detroit, McFadden describes stepping in at the last minute to conduct a concert with one of the younger ensembles last season. “I had never worked with this ensemble before, but I knew the students from seeing them every week,” he says. “After the concert, one parent hugged me and cried. She said, ‘I want to thank you for taking the time to get for getting to know my child.’ She said he wakes up in the middle of the night to gunshots, and that when she was at the concert, ‘The only thing I could hear is peace.’ She said when she saw her child on the stage smiling, she knew that gunshots wouldn’t be the only thing he’d hear in his life. I had to sit for a couple of minutes to take that in—this little child hearing gunshots in their neighborhood, and now they’re making beautiful music on the stage. And to be a part of that and to show them that there is light, there’s life, there’s joy.”

“After a concert, one parent hugged me and cried. She said that her child wakes up in the middle of the night to gunshots, and that at the concert, ‘The only thing I could hear is peace.’ When she saw her child on the stage smiling, she knew that gunshots wouldn’t be the only thing he’d hear in his life.” – Na’Zir McFadden

Rural Challenges

Far from Detroit or Philadelphia, the Bravo! Vail Music Festival takes place every summer in the resort town of Vail, Colorado, with residencies for four major orchestras, plus chamber music concerts and more. But not all year-round residents in this rural Rocky Mountains area are jet-setting sports-and-arts enthusiasts. There are also working families seeking cultural experiences for their children; most people live miles from their neighbors and co-workers, and public schools for the most part do not provide music education. Bravo! Vail offers year-round group music classes for students in a large geographic area. Before the summer festival, Bravo Vail also offers an intensive music program for young instrumentalists, plus free community programs such as Little Listeners at the Library featuring musicians from the festival.

Last July I met two Music Makers students, sisters Hattie and Austin (age 8), who had just completed the summer music intensive. Hattie plays piano and Austin plays the violin. Neither one had studied a musical instrument before enrolling in the program. One of the benefits of the program turned out to be social. “I made some friends in group lessons,” says Hattie. “Sometimes the music is super-easy, and sometimes it’s super-hard.” When the family moved to the area from Denver during the pandemic, Hattie got a keyboard for her group lessons—instruments are provided to families who don’t have one, and for those on scholarship the instruments and lessons are free. Her mother says, “Living in a mountain community can be hard and isolating. For us, Bravo! Vail has been an outlet. My daughter keeps her keyboard in her bedroom. She is so proud of that—she has this relationship with her keyboard, where she’ll sit down for ten minutes, and play before she brushes her teeth before she goes to bed. She’ll play many times throughout the day. Music has become part of her childhood.” Hattie has two music lessons a week: group lessons from the Vail program, and her family found a private teacher. Hattie idolizes two 14-year-old pianists in the program, who are serving as role models. Hattie’s sister Austin started group lessons on violin this year, and did her own research to locate a private teacher for violin and fiddle lessons.

  • The Bravo! Vail Music Festival may be best known for summertime concerts by prominent orchestras and soloists in a spectacular setting, but the organization also offers year-round group music classes for local students, an intensive music program for young instrumentalists, and free community music programs for youngsters.
  • Making music at Bravo! Vail Music Festival’s in the 2023 summer intensive program.
  • Aspiring musicians react to an intimate performance during the intensive program for young instrumentalists at Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Music Festival.
  • Getting tips on how to play an instrument is up close and personal at Bravo! Vail’s summer intensive for young musicians.
  • Bravo! Vail Music Festival’s activities for young music lovers include the Little Listeners at the Library series, here with the Viano Quartet.

Letting Young People See the Work

Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, artistic director of Bravo! Vail, has had a long, successful performing career, including acclaimed recordings of the fiendishly difficult Prokofiev Piano Sonatas. Her career did not proceed along conventional lines. “In those early years, I was a rebel,” she says. “I got thrown out of the Manhattan School of Music—I was doing what I wanted. I’m not saying that was good. But it was that spirit that [pianist and mentor] John Browning inspired in me, to be fearless, courageous. He was that way in his career, and I think what he saw in me was a fellow fearless, courageous spirit.

“What I recommend to young musicians is that having a career isn’t about practicing 12 hours a day,” McDermott adds. “Of course, you have to have that discipline, but you need to know how to practice well. You need to nourish yourself in other ways. This is critically important personally. You can’t have a one-track mind, because music is not one track. Music is about emotions and feelings. The more a young person can input into themselves—through reading, interacting with other people, taking long walks, experiencing everything that gets into your psyche as a musician—really helps.

“I like to say to young musicians, there is not one path to have a career,” says Anne-Marie McDermott, artistic director of the Bravo! Vail Music Festival in Colorado. “If a door opens, walk through it, even if you don’t know what’s on the other side.” Photo: Opus 3.

“For 90 percent of careers for young musicians, there’s a lot of up and down, success, failure,” says McDermott. “That can be hard to live through. And that’s where it’s so important to have belief in yourself. I like to say to young musicians, there is not one path to have a career. If a door opens, walk through it, even if you don’t know what’s on the other side. That’s been kind of the definition of my career. When the position of artistic director at Bravo! Vail Music Festival opened, I didn’t have any experience as an artistic director. But it was a wonderful opportunity. I trusted myself, and I had courage.”

Giving Back

Karisa Antonio worked professionally as an oboist before moving to a behind-the-scenes role at the Detroit Symphony. In her current role as the DSO’s Senior Director of Social Innovation and Learning, bringing music instruction to Detroit students is her way of giving back, much as adults in her life helped her earlier on. “I grew up in farm country, in a really small town, and picked up the oboe by accident—I was pretty much self-taught at first,” she says. “In the eighth grade, I’d been playing just over a year, and one day my band teacher said, ‘I think if you work hard, you might be able to make first chair next year in the high school band.’ ” To Antonio, that was the encouragement she needed. Later, she says, “A lot of different people pushed me to believe that I could do the things that I did.” She decided to major in oboe performance in college without even owning an instrument; someone she didn’t know personally bought an instrument for her. “It was all of those people saying, ‘I believe in you, and I think that you can do this.’ ”

Karisa Antonio, senior director of Social Innovation and Learning at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, chats with community members at a Detroit Neighborhood Initiative event. “Our education programs are significantly growing and we’re looking to have 50 to 70, maybe even 100 more students this upcoming year than we did the year prior,” she says. Photo by Sarah Smarch.

At the Detroit Symphony, Antonio says, “Our education programs are significantly growing and we’re looking to have 50 to 70, maybe even 100 more students this upcoming year than we did the year prior. We want Detroit students in our program, starting with the bottom ensemble and growing up to be leaders in our top ensembles. We’re finding ways to support that growth. Music programs in Detroit have struggled over the past few decades. We have lessons and scholarships for Detroit students, and programs like Senza”—which offers courses, mentorship, cultural experiences, community engagement, practical experience, and networking—“for high school students who want to spend a lot of time with music.” At the other end, she recently helped produce a six-week workshop on Detroit’s west side for children under ten. “It’s very natural for all young children to express themselves musically. That natural, full-body experience is the sort of thing that we incorporate into early childhood workshops, incorporating both fine and gross motor skills and cross-body movement, which is associated with brain development. We’re thinking about the science of it as well.”

Detroit Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor Na’Zir McFadden backstage with Civic Youth Ensembles musicians at Orchestra Hall before a May 2023 Wu Family Academy Showcase concert. Photo by Sarah Smarch.

Na’Zir McFadden leads Civic Youth Ensembles musicians at Orchestra Hall during a November 2022 Wu Family Academy Showcase, which featured works by Florence Price, William Grant Still, Adolphus Hailstork, Omar Thomas, and Antonín Dvořák. Photo by Sarah Smarch.


A diverse range of role models—seeing someone who looks like you onstage—is important so young people can visualize possibilities. Hillary Simms, the first woman to become a member of the American Brass Quintet, said in a July New York Times article that she’s often been the only woman playing trombone in an ensemble. “It’s lonely and isolating,” she said. When you’re “that token female trombonist, you feel more competitive with other women. We are pitting ourselves against each other, which is the absolute opposite of what we need to do.” The answer, she said, is having “more women, trans, and nonbinary brass players in leadership positions: teaching at more universities, leading more studios, being in top positions in orchestras and members of notable brass ensembles. The more leadership we have, the more it’ll encourage people to start the instrument and carry it forward.”

  • Joseph Conyers, founder of Project 440 and music director of the School District of Philadelphia’s All City Orchestra, conducts the All City Orchestra, which consists of young musicians from throughout the School District of Philadelphia as well as Project 440 students, at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, July 2023.
  • Project 440 musician Anna Zhang with Joseph Conyers at the Project 440 Doing Good graduation. Zhang is the 2023 recipient of the Manhattan School of Music’s Project 440 full tuition scholarship. Photo by Kayla John.

Joseph Conyers agrees about the importance of representation. “On my Instagram account, my students write to me directly from all around the world,” he says. “They appreciate seeing someone who looks like them. As a person of color in this space where there are not many, I have been told many times it’s been inspirational just seeing me on the stage.

“We miss an opportunity in music education to talk about it like sports: you can get anywhere from here. The interpersonal skills, the collaboration, the compromise, and then, of course, the discipline that it takes. How can we use music as this tool?” – Joseph Conyers

“This is a missed opportunity. Young people are smarter than we give them credit for. They ask, ‘Mr. Conyers, you’re in the orchestra. Why? Why do you conduct All City Orchestra? Why are you starting these [education] programs and giving access to colleges and bringing in speakers? Why are you providing all this? The only conclusion we can come to is that you do it because you care.’ We’re all about equity—we provide funding so students get a participation stipend as a point of equity for being in our programs. Young people see that. They see when the investments are made into them, then they want to be part of that more.”

Some of Conyers’ students are already making investments back into the field. “The first students in our programs are beginning to graduate from college, and it’s exciting to see what they’re doing,” Conyers says. Clarinetist Marquis Lindsey-Bradley, who graduated earlier this year from the Cleveland Institute of Music, was previously “a star student with Project 440,” Conyers points out. This past summer Lindsey-Bradley participated in the League of American Orchestras’ Essentials of Orchestra Management program, which prepares current and aspiring orchestra professionals with the tools and mindsets they need to grow as leaders. “In Project 440,” Conyers says, “Marquis was always very active, but he really ran with the idea that ‘I can make a difference.’ ”