String Players Making a Difference: Social Justice and Change

Mike Lawson • String Section • May 11, 2018

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Individuals driven to create, (film, music, dance, written word and the visual arts) tend to be both inspired and somewhat physiologically affected by one another’s work – more so when an emotionally charged message or subject is involved.

I imagine that the innate “sharing” aspect of our chosen field of work makes us likely to respond, to be hyperaware (perhaps vulnerable), and to receive well a message integral to any given expressive piece created by persons in our peer group, as well as those made available for public digestion.

Though this is admittedly a massive generalization, it is, to some degree, the aim in all that we do and study when used in a social, economic, political, humanitarian context and directed by strong, personally relevant missives.

The very best artists are able to effect large numbers of diverse individuals into organized action (or reaction). Change in a society often involve musicians, our voice, and our skills. Although there is nothing assigned, what serves our position and abilities best tend to fall at the beginning and end. We are naturally set tasks which get an audience, which enlighten and interest and inspire solidarity.

It is no small part to play, it is exhausting to influence and educate those receptive and willing. For cause, benefit, and forward movement in issues deserving of the attention.

We are, as a community, an especially effective voice of delivery. With these articles, I generally prefer to avoid relying too much on Internet research for content [with the premise that anyone can easily find identical information with the same search perimeters].

For this article, I originally wished to feature “unsung” musicians who are making a difference — by way of submitted personal stories. Alas, time constraints dictate a different approach for this piece. That said, I am still interested to present the stories of those in our midst who are doing unique, honorable work. To that end, I invite your input in hopes of sufficient response to run a second, similarly-themed article to cast focus on the less visible musicians making lives better at the local and individual level.

In the meantime, I would like to share with you some of the inspirational stories that are part of our history and our present, as members of the strings community and as members of society.


One of my favorite stories is one that frames a venture not terribly successful (in its original aims) but illustrates an awesome spirit of faith in his own ability to help others by doing the unexpected (not without significant effort expended).

Menuhin was an impassioned humanitarian with strong views about social justice, unafraid to speak out on issues. In 1971, he gave a speech in Moscow, using his platform as the president (of UNESCO’s International Music Council) to protest against an atmosphere of cultural repression. He wrote a speech “which would expose the policies and tactics of the Soviets and sound a clarion call for change.” He plotted to deliver it in Russian (he didn’t want his message watered down in the translation).

In his hotel room the night before the speech, he furtively practiced his Russian while his wife talked loudly over him to throw off eavesdroppers (“the room was wired as all rooms are”). Although a page of Pravda was to have covered his speech, not a word about it was ever published or broadcast (by his hosts or otherwise).


In researching the more contemporary issues and how string players are lending their voices to them, I had, within hours, cycled through pride, worry, sadness, hope, and general awe.

Artem Kolesov/Bruce Koff

Artem Kolesov is a Chicago-based (but Russian-born) violinist who offered an inspiring example of hope and courage to LGBTQ youth trapped in unaccepting cultures. His story came to the world’s attention last spring with a coming-out video he taped in Chicago as part of the Russian “Children-404” online forum (in which teenagers are able to tell their stories) which was posted on YouTube.

It quickly went viral. His inspiring story, intended for the many gay Russian youth forced to hide their sexual identity due to officially condoned persecution, prompted established Chicago gay activist Bruce Koff and his friends to organize a benefit concert to help pay legal fees for Artem to obtain a green card.

In addition to the individual efforts of string players the world over, there are also many valuable and noble ensembles for whom the political climate and the problems of others is where they place the focus of music making together. Interdisciplinary unions of talent also have notable achievements in the ever-available issues of improvement and betterment.

The Street Symphony of Vijay Gupta

There is a wonderfully managed organization in Los Angeles called the “Street Symphony.” Their aim is to tell the stories of marginalized communities, to foster a dialogue through the power of musical expression. The founder is violinist Vijay Gupta (also a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic). One of his recent personal activities in has been a pilgrimage of sorts to Baton Rouge in which he gave concert to the memory of Alton Sterling. His violin had joined in the larger song sung with the growing shout out against police brutality (Alton was a victim of needless and perhaps racially motivated police violence).

The Way Is Hard, and There Are No Guarantees

It is potentially-inspiring to watch and recognize those who can take the unavoidable reality of failed efforts and not give in to discouragement. So many of the stories I found were resilient and driven to return again and again to the stages, to the streets, to the String Players Making a Difference screens, to the offices, and to the page- with hope and vision. It is unequivocally easier to continue working at a problem when it is visibly moving in a forward direction with obvious evidence of success along the way.

In my experience, when we complete a project and release it to the world: what feels like a lack of response becomes amplified. It is, I think, unavoidable that at some point, we tire. We struggle to make sense of just exactly “what is the point” of our efforts and work. I think this is not unique, but a universal existential reality for most who put their creative energies into something that seems to disappear, seems to get swallowed by void, by silence.

It can seem that if we were to do nothing at all, no one would really notice the difference. So why do we do it? In these dark periods of motivational and creative plague, we must look to those around us. We can use those hyperaware responses to our fellow musicians’ enthusiasm and intensity to find our way.

As is the case with most difficulties in life, the experiences of others not so unfamiliar. It is cool, really, that in taking initiative to make the world and your surrounding communities better, the strength in which we do it is also beneficial to other artists in need of a strength beyond their own sense of responsibility or ability. Like a contagion.

The nature of success as performers vs that of a successful activist are not so different. The majority of what artists do is not going to be widely heralded, make breaking news, be controversial or create obvious noise that we can grasp for proof of creative meaning (its reason for being). But…

I am sure you have heard it said before: if there is one person in an audience that takes away something important, if just one person is stimulated in any other number of ways as a result of your performance, you have done something valid. If only one person shows up to attend as an audience, it is still a performance worth doing.

In an environment where there are many ways to record and store our work for untold future consumption, I think there is a very real chance that at some point later (sometimes a LOT later) there will be opportunity in which you will have material already available to use. Additionally, there is no way to predict who might, at some point, see your work, find the message they need, and use the inertia to take that message to something of wider scope and momentum.

You never know.

I suggest developing a habit in ways to save your ideas, your program, your projects, your voice and hope in a way that is accessible for unpredictable future use.

Jennifer began studying violin at age three. After receiving a B.M. in violin performance and a M.A. from Middle Tennessee State University, she returned to university to properly study the viola. Currently, she performs with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, the Murfreesboro Symphony, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra, the Parthenon Chamber Orchestra, Wire Cabal, and with her quartet the Tulsianni Ensemble.

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