10 Years... 10 Stories

An interview project celebrating the tenth anniversary of Community MusicWorks.

Interviews conducted by:

Fidelia Vasquez,
Community MusicWorks cellist & board member
and Chloë Kline, Community MusicWorks Fellow

Special thanks to all of our interviewees for sharing their time and their stories, to Liz Hollander for the inspiration to start this project and brainstorming help, and to Liz Cox for her transcription heroics.

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Tenth Year Violin

10 Years... 10 Stories

    Josh Rodriguez

    Vanessa Centeno

    Sara Stalnaker

    Karen Romer

    Zeeny & Patrice Wolfe

    Tae Ortiz

    Itza Serrano

    Sebastian Ruth

    Carolina Jimenez

    Jesse Holstein

Karen Romer,
President, Board of Directors

Fidelia Vasquez: Karen, can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself?


Karen Romer: Like what I've been doing all these seventy years? I was the middle daughter in a family of three girls, and I grew up in the Boston area. I was very interested in music early on, and my parents both liked music, so I started on the piano, and then a few years later I started playing cello. I grew up and went to college, and for a while I wasn't sure if I wanted to play music professionally, so I took a couple of years off to see if I wanted to do that. Then I decided I was really interested in education, and how people learned, so I decided to go that route, and eventually I came to Brown [University].

FV: How did you first find out about Community MusicWorks?

KR: I met Sebastian when he was an undergraduate at Brown. He and Minna came to my house once to play chamber music in their senior year, and I said, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” And Sebastian said, “Well, we have this quartet, and we'd really like to stay in Providence. We'd like to teach kids from the West End and South Side to play string instruments.” Well, I was very taken with that. And then, of course, they went away and started it, and every now and then I'd hear a little bit about it. Then when I retired in 2001, Sebastian asked me if I would come and be on the Board. I was interested, but I had promised myself that I would have one year when I just said no, and didn't do anything. So I told Sebastian that I couldn't commit that year. But the very next spring I started coming over to meetings and getting hooked. So my retirement has been centered around my cello and Community MusicWorks.

FV: What stands out to you the most about Community MusicWorks?


KR: From the beginning I've loved the idea of the community part of CMW. What's become more interesting to me is that it isn't one community, it's multiple communities. You have communities within CMW, like Phase II, and the string quartet, and the staff, and the Board. And then you have communities that have grown up in Providence around the house concerts. And then you also have other communities, for example in New York. There were a lot of people at the New York concert this year, who had come to the concert the year before; it made me think that in five years there is going to be a community in New York connected to CMW. Because of the way the occasions are run, people build connections with one another and with the organization, so in a way the organization becomes to link, or sponsor of the connections between people. I think that's one thing that is special and unique about Community MusicWorks.

FV: After all the years you've been involved with CMW, what is it that makes you stay with it?


KR: You're going to have to kick me out! I think it's just because it nourishes me. It is an inspirational organization. The people who are part of it are so interesting and impressive to me. I learn so much from working with people like you, Fidelia, and people who are on the Board, and the quartet, and the fellows, and the people who come to the concerts. It connects me with people who have good ideas and interesting life experiences. I just feel like it's one of those very special places where it's constantly renewing to work with the other people.

FV: So how has CMW grown throughout the years that you've been here?


KR: It has grown by leaps every year. I'll tell you one of the things that I hadn't anticipated. This year we took in fifty percent more students because of the fellowship program. Now, when I first came to a Community MusicWorks Performance Party six years ago, I was very aware that it was hard for people to sit still and listen. Sebastian was very thoughtful in ways that he reminded people about not walking around and talking. But it didn't totally work, people still got up and talked. Yet it got better and better over those six years, and people were quieter and sat still and really listened and respected the other players. Sometimes they needed a little bit of reminding, especially when the program was very long, and you could smell the potluck food. But, it really, really got better. Then when we were going to be taking in fifty percent more students last year I had this moment of dread, and I thought "Uh-oh, we're going to go back to having to teach people how to be quiet and listen." Well, I went to the first Performance Party in October, and who would have known that there were all these new students there? The place was quiet, everybody was listening, and I thought, “Hallelujah!” What a measure of growth. Somehow the culture has taken hold to such an extent that when the new people come in, they learn from what everybody's doing. It made me think about the power of an established culture to hand on important information to somebody new who comes into it. And I started thinking about having CMWs all over this country. What an impact that would have on people's lives, and their communities, and who knows what else!

FV: How have the relationships with the people in CMW affected you?


KR: I've learned from them and they've made me think about how people interact. Sebastian's ability to listen deeply is something that has inspired me. When you work with a group of people over time, you get to know them in deeper ways, and every now and then you have to deal with some difficult spell, or problem, or anxiety, and then you move to another level of relationship because you all pitch in together, and solve the problem, and make it work out. Partly because of this organization and the way it works, I think you pull together more deeply and then you have a closer bond with the other people. People are at the heart of this organization, so the relationships are likely to be particularly valuable.

FV: Throughout our conversation, you've told me how you want to see CMW do this or that in fifteen years. Where do you see CMW going?


KR: That's a really interesting question, and of course one doesn't know. I see it becoming a major center in Providence. A center of urban music education, and music as a vehicle for people's growth and empowerment. When I look ahead I assume that eventually we'll be in some wonderful, big complex of buildings like the Met School, and we will be connected with, maybe even sharing space with other programs like New Urban Arts, and the Carriage House. People will come to the center to learn, to participate, to contribute with ideas and music making; fellows may come and spend a year or more; and other people may come for conferences, periodically, to learn about it.

FV: What was your most memorable concert or Youth Salon?


KR: Well, one of the highlights for me was the last time Jonathan Biss came. He played a fantastic Brahms quintet at RISD, and it was a marvelous concert. But he also played at the West End Community Center, and one of the things that I especially loved was when he accompanied some CMW students. I was just blown away by that. It was like the totality of CMW—it's about a community. You bring somebody like Jonathan Biss who's playing on major stages around the world, and he comes here and he doesn't just play as a soloist, he also accompanies students who are in the program. It was just wonderful.

FV: What's your favorite part of CMW?


KR: I guess my favorite part is this idea of making music the vehicle that opens up so many possibilities for people, and about which you can dialogue and explore. Whether it's about playing an instrument, or music in other parts of the world, or how you connect with your peer group and how you think about your neighborhood, and what a community is, music is the vehicle for all that. That's my favorite part.


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