McArthur Fellow An Advocate For Music Education

Violist, violinist, and music educator Sebastian Ruth is among the 23 new MacArthur Fellows for 2010. He was awarded for providing richly rewarding musical experiences and education for urban youth and their families while forging new roles beyond the concert hall for the 21st Century musician. Host Michel Martin speaks with Sebastian Ruth from NPR member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we are going to go back to school for much of the program. It's part of our month-long education series. We've been focusing on what is outstanding, what needs improvement and what is incomplete in this country's efforts to provide an excellent education to all students.

Later, we will talk about why hundreds of thousands of international students continue to come to American colleges and universities despite the global recession. And we'll have a roundtable of dads who will tell us what role they play in supporting their children's education.

But first, we want to turn to an educator who has just been named one of this year's MacArthur Foundation fellows. These awards, or so-called genius grants, recognize visionary work in an array of fields.

Sebastian Ruth is a violist who founded a music education program in Providence, Rhode Island. It's called Community MusicWorks. The program offers free music instruction to students from elementary to high school age and provides all of them with instruments and mentoring. And he's with us now from Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome, and congratulations to you.

Mr. SEBASTIAN RUTH (Founder, Community MusicWorks): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: How surprised were you to get that call?

Mr. RUTH: It was a pretty good call. I was driving to work, and the phone rang, and the caller from the foundation asked me to stop the car, that he had something to tell me.

MARTIN: That was probably a good idea. Let me just read how the foundation describes your work. In contrast to many arts outreach programs, Ruth and his fellow quartet members have taken up residence within the inner-city community they serve in keeping with their vision of music as a nurturing neighborhood necessity, similar to a library, a church or a health clinic. How did you get the idea for this?

Mr. RUTH: So I was an undergraduate at Brown here in Providence, and I was both working in a string quartet with three close friends, including my now-wife, Minna, and also pursuing a philosophy of education concentration.

And I was thinking about how I could meaningfully make a career in music in a string quartet that would enable me to be performing in a way that was combining music with service and also to experiment with ideas in education and specifically how music education could become a transformative part of kids' lives.

MARTIN: Well, I want to hear more from you, and I hope you'll come back and visit with us a little bit more to tell us more about what you're doing. But I would like to ask, I think a lot of people would like to ask, what difference will this award make in your own life? What do you think you'll do with the grant?

Mr. RUTH: Well, you know, I'm it's all fairly new information, and I'm still thinking through what the money will mean. I know there are some fun things I'd like to make possible with Community MusicWorks that this will certainly help with.

And, you know, generally, as this organization has grown from its infancy into now our 14th season, we've had an opportunity to continue to ask ourselves, what are other ways that music and education and social change come together? And we continue to reinvent ourselves and reinvent our programming, albeit with the same loyal body of students.

And I think this fellowship is a really nice opportunity to think what other ways are there. What are ways these ideas combine, and how can we manifest them into the world?

MARTIN: Well, I know that this is new news, but please tell me you did something to celebrate. Did you just have a nice glass of wine, something?

Mr. RUTH: You know, the agonizing thing is that they say you can tell one person. So my wife and I had a sort of quiet celebration because moments after hearing the news, we walked into a quartet rehearsal with our two colleagues and couldn't say anything.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. RUTH: So she'd look at me, you know, during rests in the music and sort of exchange a smile, and I'd have to keep playing. So it was a funny moment to be in.

MARTIN: All right, well, congratulations once again, and we will play just a teeny bit of you playing a piece of Bach in G Major, I believe it is, from the quartet as we say goodbye. That is musician Sebastian Ruth. He is the founder and artistic director of Community MusicWorks. He is one of the winners of the 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. He joined us from member station WRNI.

And I do want to mention we will be introducing you to other MacArthur fellows over the next couple of weeks. Mr. Ruth, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RUTH: Thanks for having me.

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