This fall, MMI partnered with IRIS Orchestra to launch the IRIS Artist Fellowship. Focused on increasing diversity in classical music and creating a pipeline from academia to professional life, the fellowship brought three string players to Memphis in August for a one-year program. They’ll perform with IRIS, play as a stand-alone ensemble (C3 Strings) and work in schools as Music Engagement Teaching Fellows. This month we sat down to chat with the Fellows (pictured at left) – here’s the full conversation. 

How did you each learn about this opportunity with IRIS Orchestra?

Ajibola Rivers: I was just making plans for the upcoming year, talking with my mom about work and everything. I had just finished my senior recital, and my teacher in college, my private teacher, Mr. Udi Bar David emailed me and said that there was this new fellowship that was starting, and he actually found out about it through Ms. Elizabeth Hainen and Mr. David DePeters. So, even he was still kind of new on the information, but he put in a recommendation for me. Then Rebecca Arendt contacted me directly. Actually, a few minutes after the email was sent. So that was just over the summer. Then I applied and auditioned. So, it was kind of through word of mouth in a way.

Ashley Vines: Yeah, mine was about the same way. One of my mentors in the Philadelphia orchestra, her name is Kerri Ryan, and she sent me an email about the fellowship. She just kind of was like, you know this is a new job opportunity and it seems like something you would be a great fit for. I think she’s played with IRIS Orchestra in the past so she knew a lot about the group and was very familiar. So I looked up the information that she sent and was able to be in contact with the folks at IRIS and sent in a tape and interviewed and before I knew it I was accepted. So, I was very excited to get that email. It was really great.

Mariama Alcantara: For me it was also from my teacher, Marcin Arendt, from the University of Memphis. He is also one of the concert masters for the IRIS Orchestra. So, he knew about the program, he told me about it and we worked together on the audition pieces. So then I applied and he encouraged me that this program would be a great fit for me.

What did you about Memphis before you came?

MA: I came here four and a half years ago from Brazil and I really didn’t know anything about Memphis. It has been great for all of these years and I am happy to be here.

AR: Before I came to Memphis, I knew it had something to do with Elvis and then I think the week before, a few weeks before I came they were telling me about barbeque. So that was about the extent of my Memphis knowledge. And that it used to… I think it used to be a hub for a major airline that it no longer is anymore. So I knew nothing, nothing about Memphis except that it was near Nashville.

AV: I knew, I’d heard about Memphis and Memphis barbeque. And where I’m from in Philly, Philly is another food-town, so when I would talk about Memphis to other Philadelphians they related to the food part. (others laugh) which I guess is cool. Um, I also knew that Memphis had a really cool music culture—country and especially soul, and R&B music. So that was really interesting to me. I also knew that Tennessee is the South, but it’s not the South South- the deep south. And once I got here, I learned that this is the Midsouth, and so I got to know a lot about Memphis upon arriving, but Barbeque and music, that’s about it.

AR: Actually that’s a good point. I didn’t know. I feel that up north it’s all about everything below the Mason-Dixon and then the Bible belt. And it was funny because I drove here; actually Ashley drove here too. So, as I was driving here there was this big cross on the highway. And I was like, okay, we are now in the south. But, yeah, there is a distinction between the Midsouth and, I guess, the Deep South, and the different degrees. So much that’s not really explained to us up north.

You’ve been in your schools for several weeks now. What has the experience been like? What has most surprised you?

MA: The thing that really surprised me was how much the students are really interested in, they really love music. I don’t think I was expecting that much love and commitment to it. You know, you think oh it’s just music class. Let’s just have fun, but no, they are working hard, especially at Snowden Middle School where they have orchestra. It’s a great program.

AV: My school experience has been pretty great. I work in an elementary school and I learned that you need so much energy to work with that age group. And it’s been a really great challenge. What most surprised me is I wasn’t sure, I worked with kids in Philadelphia where I’m from. I’ve done some work as a teaching artist, but I wasn’t sure, I was still nervous when I got here. I was like will the kids like me? What are the cultural differences with the South. And it turned out that the kids are all the same. You know, only the accent is different, but, you know, the kids, the students are all really amazing, and they have the same kind of energy, and they like the same kinds of things. So I was surprised by that, but also really relieved and really happy to experience that with them.

AR: Yeah, if I could put it into one word, I would just say transformative., the whole experience. I’ve had teaching experience before, but it was kind of limited and I never really settled in to the classroom environment. So, to be here and to get used to that and to really feel at home  in the classroom, I mean that whole, it’s been a huge change for me. I mean, I remember the first few weeks I went in there, I was a mess. I was so concerned about getting things just right and just being perfect that it was difficult even for me to reach me. So then, over these few weeks, I’ve really had a chance to relax and get to know the students. To get to know them by name and for them to get to know me by name.  It’s a much more friendly, open, welcome, familiar place for me. And, like Ashley was saying, the kids, apart from the accents, it’s all very very familiar. And really, like Mariama was saying, they really to take to the music you bring to them.I mean, of course they’re familiar with today top rap artist and to what’s going on now. You know, realistically speaking, our music comes from a preceding time period, butI mean they take to it so, so eagerly and energetically

And what about your performances with IRIS and together as C3Strings? How has that been going?

AV: Our first IRIS concert just passed. It was the second weekend in October. And it was really amazing to meet Michael Stern, the conductor, and it was really comforting to get to know the IRIS family. It seems like everyone there is really close knit and very supportive of each other and we learned that all the musicians stay with host families and it just seems like they’re, even though the musicians come from all over the country, they have a family here in  Memphis. That was a cool thing to be part of. And they also seemed to work really hard to include us, the IRIS Artist Fellows, into that family. You know, we felt right at home. It was very comfortable and it was just a great experience for me. It was a great challenge to play such high level repertoire with great musicians. I had a blast that weekend. I thought it was really cool.

MA: The same for me. I think I learned a lot from the rehearsals and performances with such high level musicians. And also playing as C3Strings, we all work hard, we all have the same goals, and we all have been learning together.

AR: I’d have to agree. I mean there’s been a lot to learn, but it’s been fun. And especially playing with IRIS Orchestra was awesome and just like everything from the pace to the atmosphere. It was just on a totally different level.


Has the fellowship been what you expected so far or totally different?

AV: For me the fellowship, going into it, I expected it to be very busy and for us to have a lot of performance opportunities which was exciting to me. I knew that we’d be learning a lot along the way and I was excited for the learning opportunities. But as far as what I expected, I expected a very busy life and that is what I got. (Mariama and Ajibola laugh and nod heads) I’m very thankful that I’m learning so much and having a blast here.

MA: I have to agree with Ashley. It’s really what I expected, to be busy and to be learning  and playing and teaching a lot.

AR: I guess. I mean, I don’t think I had too many expectations. There were certain things in the fellowship that stood out to me, like working within the schools. I’ve had numerous conversations with my private cello teacher in college about giving back to my community, especially to people who helped me get to where I am, but just giving back in general. So the opportunity to teach in schools and to perform in different venues around town rally stuck out to me. The opportunity to play with IRIS Orchestra was huge too, but after that I tried to go into it with an open mind so that there’d be room for me to be really surprised and intrigued by the stuff we’re doing. And we’re doing some really cool stuff. Like I couldn’t imagine that we played with Opera Memphis earlier this month. The last time I played something in opera it was, actually it was also Mozart, but we were just in a pit orchestra and we were under the stage. Very literally separate from what was going on all around us, but here we had a private rehearsal with the singer, the soloist that we performed with . We got to be part of some really cool stuff that was happening right nearby.

Why do you think this fellowship is important?

MA: I think it’s important because going from a university setting into a professional musician setting is very two different realities. I think the fellowship makes the transition easier. Since we have a mentor figure, like Rebecca, and playing for a professional orchestra but kind of mentorship with the other musicians.

AV: We feel very supported. Mariama: Yeah Ashley: We’re having this experience as professionals but there is definitely an element of mentorship like Mariama said. There’s a lot of support; we’re not just out here by ourselves. We’re not thrown into a situation and they’re like, “Just figure it out.” We’re very heavily supported. It’s been a good experience.

AR: Yeah, it’s been some top notch, like everything we’ve been doing is top notch stuff, and it’s professional grade and it’s, you know, it’s definitely, we’re you know working with and playing with people at that level, but at the same time it’s really great for us because we’re still learning. There’s still a lot for us to learn and a lot for us to see firsthand. It’s kind of the perfect segue from academic musicianship to post-college professional musicianship. There are a lot of questions that I had about being in an orchestra and being kind of a representative in an organization like this before I came into a fellowship like this, before I came to Memphis. But now, they’re being answered. And the one other big thing for me that I think is important in general, especially since we’re working in schools and that we’re doing a lot of outreach and connecting with the community. Like now, we’re talking about the Carpenter Art Garden project. We never lose sight of the fact that we have a responsibility to the community. And that we’re connected to it and that it’s a huge part of our following and audience as performers. We’re never truly separate from the community we live in and the people that live with us.

Why does a city like Memphis benefit from a program like this?

AV: Well, I feel very lucky to be here in Memphis. And before I answer that I want to say that I feel that I will benefit more from this than Memphis will. I am getting a lot from this, and I am very grateful to be in a city like Memphis because the music culture is so rich. I feel like what we’re doing, we are doing a lot of community outreach and I feel like we are connecting to the community , bringing a different experience, bringing chamber music to place that maybe where they wouldn’t otherwise get it or you know, impacting a population of students that may not have been able to experience string teaching from someone with this perspective, you know, a young adult. We’re doing a lot of community outreach, and I think that’s really beneficial to the city.

MA: I think it’s also very important because from the MMI questionnaire, we saw that not many students feel connected to the music community in Memphis. We can try to improve that, so bringing our students on field trips to watch orchestras and watch ourselves perform. There’s so much going on here, but not everyone feels connected to it.

AR: So, there were many things that excited me about the fellowship when I was looking at the application, but one of things that made me raise my eyebrows about, particularly when it said that it was focused on minorities- African-Americans  and Latinos. I raised my eyebrows because at first but then I really thought about it and I think that it’s actually a really important aspect of the fellowship for the Memphis community- both in the schools and around town in general. Just us being here and showing that yes, there are African-American and Hispanic classical musicians. We do exist and are proud to have that classical background and can use that experience to delve into other genres of music as well. There are so many resources we have to show and offer.

What has it been like meeting Memphians and talking with them about the fellowship – in the community, but also IRIS audiences?

AR: It’s cool talking to them about the fellowship. I’m really proud to tell them about the work that we’re doing in the schools and in the communities. As soon as I say I’m working in the schools, they’re like, Oh that’s fantastic. And the conversation from there after goes amazingly well.  And so it’s been a very positive experience getting to know the people from around here and for them to get to know us as the artist fellows through the IRIS Fellowship.

AV: The IRIS patrons, when we meet them at the concerts and the different C3Strings performances, they seem very grateful and excited that a program like this is happening with IRIS, especially those that have been patrons from the beginning, like you said, about 16 years. A lot of them seemed like they were energized with this new opportunity. You know, they were really excited to see something like this starting and they seemed really supportive, and they actually seemed really proud that this community that they’d been supporting for this many years has taken this step to help diversify classical music and also to add to the community outreach that’s been happening in Memphis. So that’s been really cool to see the reception that the patrons have given us. They’ve been really kind and really respectful. So I’ve been grateful to meet all of the different members of the community. It’s been a very good experience for me.

MA: I agree with Ashley. The IRIS patrons seem very welcoming and excited for us. Since I have been here for a few years, every time someone asks me, “So what are you doing now or what have you been up to?”  And I tell them that I’m doing the IRIS fellowship, they all seem so proud because they know IRIS is such a great orchestra.

AR: No matter who you talk to, they all have something different to be proud of. Like when I was sitting in the cello section for this last concert, I mean those are the people that I look up to and so they were really proud to offer their advice and support to me. When I go to my school, I’m teaching and working with kids who are looking up to me. So then, I, in that way am working as an IRIS fellow. They’re proud of me in a different way. Of course, my family is proud of me too. But even people I’ve met and networked within the community. This is like the perfect spot to be in from everything to our age all the way to our association with IRIS and being IRIS fellows.

Okay, let’s end with some smiles: what’s the best, funniest or coolest thing that’s happened with your students so far this semester?

MA: After Fall Break, I got there, and on the board they had written “Welcome Back, Ms. Mariama.” And they all signed, but then this kid in the back yelled that the girl who had written welcome back, she had misspelled it.

AV: That’s really cute!

AR: In my 7th and 8th grade class, some of the terms like fermata and caesura, watching them try to spell it is really cute.

AV: It’s just really fun to engage the students. You know, we’re teaching them about classical instruments, you know, string instruments, but it’s really fun to also get to know them and to get into what they like. My 5th graders have been having a few really good classes, so I rewarded them with a bit of a party, and they showed me a lot of their favorite songs and a lot of their favorite dance moves and I have a lot of fun videos of them dancing and having a blast listening to string music, and introducing me to, some of it I already knew, what they like and they’re listening to on the radio. So, it’s just been really nice having that exchange of energy. They have so much energy, and it’s really nice because I feel like I don’t have enough. So I can take some of theirs and really get to connect with them on a deeper level. It’s been great.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AR: It’s great to be here. Whether you have a lot of teaching or performing experience or you’re still fairly new to it. I honestly came out of college and I had no idea of what I was going to do next. I was starting to mentally prepare myself for auditioning for orchestras and kind of going up the orchestral ladder, but to have this program as a transition into orchestral life. Honestly, I needed this. I don’t know what I would have done had I not come here.