Community-Embedded Musicians Rise to the Challenge

Community-Embedded Musicians Rise to the Challenge

Since the Houston Symphony launched its Community-Embedded Musicians initiative in 2015, the musicians holding these specialized, hybrid performer-teaching artist positions have improved thousands of students’ and community members’ quality of life through music. As highly skilled musicians with a special passion and skill for community engagement, the Community-Embedded Musicians (CEMs) work in many different settings—schools, hospitals, senior centers, traditional performance venues, and more—so being flexible is critical for their success. There is no such thing as a “typical day” for David Connor, double bass, and Rainel Joubert, violin.

Community-Embedded Musician David Connor, double bass, speaking with a student.

This has been especially true during the 2020-21 Season, which presented significant challenges to serving Greater Houston during the pandemic. But the CEMs found creative ways to make personal connections with students and other community members, critical to their success in increasing people’s engagement with music. As we have all learned this year, it’s exceptionally challenging to establish that kind of rapport in a virtual setting. Drawing on their exceptional community engagement skills, however, David and Rainel quickly learned to adapt to this tough, new environment.

“Rainel has been a breath of fresh air during COVID,” MD Anderson music therapist Melissa Sandoval said. “He is flexible and shows patience with our patients. An example of this was when he was providing a virtual visit to a twelve-year-old girl with high anxiety surrounding medical procedures due to fear of pain. Rainel played in a comforting and grounding way, providing a moment of relief to the patient and her mother. By allowing the patient to choose preferred music during this medical intervention, it allowed the patient a small sense of autonomy, during a time where she did not have much choice of what was happening. The patient and mother both expressed their gratitude after the visit, expressing that his playing reminded them to breathe.”

Community-Embedded Musician Rainel Joubert, violin, performing for elementary school students.

All of us have suffered in the last year from isolation and the lack of social interaction, and this is especially true of the students and older adults with whom David and Rainel work. So, they made it a standard practice to open every interactive concert, workshop, and lesson with a brief chat with participants. Whether in hospital bedside visits, classroom music lessons, or student mentorship situations, taking the extra time to check in with the students and ask community members how they’re doing helped establish a safe space to explore and create music together.

The CEMs also acquired and developed the technical skills necessary to produce pre-recorded videos. Increasing their expertise in this area enabled them to dramatically expand the Symphony’s reach, serving thousands more students than in previous years. Teacher responses have been overwhelmingly positive to these new and impactful resources, designed specifically to help them address the unique challenges they faced during the pandemic. The CEMs have brilliantly crossed the digital divide to serve our community’s needs.

The whole Symphony family can take pride in the work of these remarkable musicians and educators. In a challenging environment, they have creatively and flexibly adapted their work to serve the Houston Symphony’s goal of becoming the nation’s most relevant and accessible orchestra.

Pam Blaine

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