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MacArthur 'Genius' Uses Music To Bring Social Justice

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The MacArthur Foundation named Sebastian Ruth, the founder of Community MusicWorks in Providence, R.I., one of its 2010 "geniuses." Megan Hall, of member station WRNI, visited Ruth at his storefront music studio and has this profile.


And finally this hour to the musical project of someone recently dubbed a genius. The MacArthur Fellowships, often called genius grants, were awarded two weeks ago. The winners are given a half-million dollars each with no expectations of how they should spend it.

Well, today we're going to hear from a MacArthur fellow who uses stringed instruments to bring a bit of social justice to his community.

From member station WRNI, Megan Hall has this profile.

MEGAN HALL: Sebastian Ruth stands in a classroom at DAbate elementary school in Providence, Rhode Island. He leans towards 12-year-old Heather Argueta as she pulls a bow across her violin strings.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SEBASTIAN RUTH: Ok, can you do that?

HALL: Ruth is slender in his jeans and blue checkered button-up shirt. Today, like most days, his dark brown hair is slicked back, as if hes ready for a performance. Ruth has been teaching Heather how to play the violin for five years.

Mr. RUTH: Good. Now, on the up to the down, I want the ahh...

HALL: Sounds like a typical violin lesson right? Sebastian Ruth says its easy to miss the entire purpose of Community Music Works, the nonprofit organization he started 13 years ago.

Mr. RUTH: Yeah, I was recently interviewed and somebody said, Id like to see your students in action because after all, thats what this is really about.

And hes not wrong, and hes also not right. You know, it really is about the kids, and its really not just about the kids.

HALL: The free lessons Sebastian Ruth and nine other instructors offer to children in Providences low-income neighborhoods are just one tentacle of Ruths mission to intertwine violins, cellos, and violas with the everyday life of this community.

Ruth says the idea came to him as he was finishing his last year at Brown University when he heard a story on the radio.

Mr. RUTH: It was a story of an artist doing his work and bringing young people into the practice, literally bringing young people into his studio to show them what hes working on and then to say, would you like in, do you want to be part of this?

HALL: The concept resonated with the ideas Ruth was already having about the role of education in a community and his future as a musician.

Mr. RUTH: I thought that, you know we could do the same thing with a string quartet. If we had a street-front studio and primarily we were doing our work but in a visible way such that kids might want to come in and try it with us, that could be the basis for some really exciting work.

HALL: So thats exactly what Ruth did. He rents the storefront, assembles three like-minded musicians, and the Providence String Quartet sat down to play in the front window.

(Soundbite of music)

HALL: Today, theyre upstairs while the downstairs bathroom is being fixed.

Mr. RUTH: Yeah, what you can do is just cue in time before you come in because I feel like we're just in a no-tempo.

HALL: The group performs all over the city, for paying audiences and for free. The concerts aim to make classical music a part of everyday life, a move thats not entirely selfless.

Mr. AARON McFARLANE (Fellow, Community Music Works): Im trying to nurture an audience of people that I want to perform for.

HALL: Aaron McFarlane is a second-year fellow at Community Music Works. Like Sebastian Ruth, he teaches violin lessons to children from the neighborhood and performs in the centers second string quartet.

Mr. McFARLANE: And I guess coming out of school, I felt like playing in a concert hall for an increasingly elderly population wasnt really feeding into my passion, which is especially working with young people. So this is much more along those lines.

HALL: McFarlane says Community Music Works offers a new way to exist as a professional musician. Hes able to perform and work in the neighborhood where he lives. And theres an excitement that comes from playing for audiences that have never heard classical music before, like Jesse Woodberry.

Mr. JESSE WOODBERRY: Most of the people at my school are, like, into hip-hop and things like that. So its really kind of weird because, like, on my iPod I have, like, Mozart and things like that. And they're like, what is this? And I'm like, it's just what I like to listen to.

HALL: Woodberry is one of McFarlanes students. The eighth-grader has been playing the violin for five years.

Mr. WOODBERRY: I've been playing the violin, and I've got a feel for types of music, like different types of music. And they're just, like, wow, that's pretty cool but different. So most kids are kind of like, ew.

HALL: Jesses mom, Nicole Bush, says the discipline of practicing his instrument has influenced his performance in school. She doesnt have to nag him to do his homework anymore. But theres also just the symbolic power of seeing him play the violin.

Ms. NICOLE BUSH: I was just amazed. When I see all these people of color playing this type of music, its just amazing to me to just bring out a different side. I think were so stereotyped, where people may think that its all about hip-hop music or rap. So to see this type of music, it's just, its amazing.

HALL: But in some ways, Community Music Works has become a victim of its own success. The nonprofit now has more than 120 children on its waiting list. Ruth isnt really recruiting in the neighborhood anymore. And that has him worried about missing some kids that might need the program.

Mr. RUTH: We need to continue to forge the relationships with the social service agencies and the community centers where those families who dont have time or dont have the opportunity to think about resources for their kids will get to us.

HALL: The very neighborhood where Ruth set up his storefront quartet is gentrifying. What used to be a Laundromat across the street is now a rehabilitation center for pets.

Ruth says hes still committed to his main goal, to help kids expect more out of their lives.

Mr. RUTH: Just because a kid is growing up in an environment of limited circumstances doesnt mean they cant be citizens of the world.

HALL: So what happens now that Ruths community organization no longer exists in the center of the community he wants to reach? Half a million dollars from the MacArthur foundation may just help him find the answer.

For NPR News Im Megan Hall in Providence, Rhode Island.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: This is NPR.

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