An Interview with Vijay Gupta

Vijay Gupta is both a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a dedicated advocate for the power of music to change lives and reconnect us to our shared humanity. In 2011, he founded Street Symphony, a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging musicians in performance and dialogue with marginalized communities of people experiencing poverty, homelessness and incarceration. 

In advance of his plenary session at Chorus America’s Los Angeles Conference, Gupta spoke with President and CEO Catherine Dehoney about his work with Street Symphony, the connection between Handel and social justice, and the special way that singing together helps people to heal.

CD: The title of your plenary session is “The Medicine of Music.” I think you come at this topic from a unique perspective because, in addition to your musical training, you have a pre-med degree and spent some time doing research on the brain at Harvard. What are some of the connections you see between the two disciplines?

VG: There’s a doctor at Harvard named Gottfried Schlaug who actually trained as an organist before becoming one of the leading neuroscientists in the world. He developed a kind of therapy called Melodic Intonation Therapy. He discovered that while his patients who were stroke victims or brain trauma victims often couldn’t speak coherent sentences, they could pronounce words if they were being sung. Being a musician himself, he ended up giving his patients hours of singing lessons and he did MRI scans the whole time. And what he found is that the music was actually hardwiring the brains of his patients so that they were able to start speaking again. When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords suffered a traumatic brain injury after being shot in 2011, this was a huge part of the therapy that allowed her to recover part of her speech.

So music is actually allowing scientists to understand the brain better. Going beyond the brain, we know that music regulates the flow of certain hormones, like the stress hormone cortisol, and of neurotransmitters like dopamine. And what we’re beginning to find in Street Symphony is that music creates a certain kind of healing that’s beyond the brain or the body. There’s a social healing there as well.

CD: Your work with Street Symphony is based on the belief that music has the power to change lives and help people who have experienced trauma. How are you using music to do that, for example, on Skid Row?

VG: When communities are stigmatized, whether they are experiencing homelessness or incarceration, or even mental illness or poverty, there’s a kind of voicelessness that comes with that stigma. I think that often comes from a deep discomfort that happens when we as “normal” people see something that bothers us. There are systems created that silence and marginalize people. What we’re discovering in the course of bringing music to the Skid Row community is that this music isn’t about entertainment, this music is a lifeline. This music allows people who have been made voiceless to have a voice again.

CD: How did the addition of the Street Symphony Chamber Singers come to be? Do you see a special role for singing—and singers—in the kind of work you do?

VG: When we started Street Symphony six years ago, we started a concert series. Professional musicians, including my colleagues in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and eventually other great musicians in LA, would come in and play a concert, do a bit of dialogue, and leave. Then I was approached by a woman who sings in the Los Angeles Master Chorale named Amy Fogerson. She said “Hey, have you ever thought of singing as part of Street Symphony?”

Amy brought on 16 singers from the Los Angeles Master Chorale who call themselves the Street Symphony Chamber Singers. They started performing in the shelters we serve in Skid Row and in the county jails, and they are the reason we brought the very first sing-a-long of Handel’s Messiah to Skid Row.

Bringing Messiah to Skid Row was really powerful because Messiah was originally performed in a place that wasn’t too different than our venues in Skid Row. One of the first London performances of the “Hallelujah Chorus” happened at a hospital for orphans. And the premiere performance in Dublin was a benefit to release 142 men from debtor’s prison. So there is a strong tradition of social justice and Handel. It makes total sense to bring Messiah to Skid Row.

We discovered that when we give people their voices again, when we give people their own agency, it makes them advocates for their own lives and communities. We as musicians, we get to leave after our performances on Skid Row. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But we are not the best advocates for people who are experiencing homelessness. They are the best advocates for themselves. And nothing helps someone find their own voice better than creating music with their own body.

CD: That’s very interesting. It sounds like when you brought in the singers it really sharpened the focus of your work.

VG: Absolutely, yes. Working with the singers gave us the tool we needed to actually bring our audiences in to participate with us. We had really been struggling to find a way—doing drum circles, trying to do more dialogue— but the moment we said, “Sing this back to us,” something just clicked.

Dr. Zanaida Robles is our music director for the Messiah Project. She leads workshops on Skid Row where she teaches the “Hallelujah Chorus” to around 120-150 people from the homeless community who might not have ever sung before. And what’s amazing in the course of this workshop is that you see this transformation happen in the bodies of people who walk in broken, who walk in feeling destitute and fragmented. Zanaida challenges that audience to make great music with us. She doesn’t do it in a didactic way, but she demands their humanity and their respect. And they are craving that recognition—they are craving being treated like human beings again. It is the choral community and the vocal community in Street Symphony that has really woken this up.

CD: We’ve read that the word “outreach” makes you uncomfortable. Can you explain? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the difference between outreach and engagement.

VG: Outreach is an amazing beginning. And we need to recognize it just as that. It’s a beginning. As musicians, we’re constantly striving for ways to go deeper. And I think organizations that bring together communities of musicians can reflect that same musical ideal. How do we as organizations now go deeper?

I think moving from outreach to engagement is really about stepping into a space as a guest. It’s about stepping into a space while saying “I don’t know what the end result will be, because I am not wholly responsible for making it myself.”

Zanaida Robles led a holiday program at the women’s jail in Compton, and there was a group of women in the jail who stood up and said “You know, we knew that you were coming and so we prepared a song. Can we sing for you?” And so, eight women wearing blue jumpsuits in the jail in Compton stood up and sang back to our chamber singers. And that, that’s engagement. The engagement is that we as musicians are also willing to show up for our partners and be changed.

We’ve chosen not to expand Street Symphony to other cities. We’ve chosen not to even expand to other venues in Los Angeles because we feel obliged to commit to our partners so that we keep showing up for the same communities over and over and over. That’s incredibly important because building trust in the context of Skid Row, not only with people who are experiencing homelessness but with the staff and the social workers and the boards of these organizations is extremely hard.

CD: The audiences that you’re performing for in Skid Row and the audiences that you’re performing for in Disney Hall have some very obvious differences—but, I imagine, some similarities as well. What have you found that these two audiences have in common?

VG: I feel like the thing that makes us most human is our desire to belong. And that is very much apparent in all of our audiences—our audiences at Skid Row and our audiences at Disney Hall.

One thing that we’re very proud of doing at the LA Phil is a concert series called “Casual Fridays” where we’ll come in and play a slightly shorter program. Someone from the orchestra will come up and introduce the program and we’ll have a mixer at the end between the orchestra and the audience with drinks and conversation. The audience has so many questions for us. So often we’re approached by an audience member who will say something like “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m about to ask a stupid question. What’s the difference between a violin and a viola?” And I’ll respond and say “That’s not a stupid question at all, let me show you.”

In some ways, I actually feel that there are less barriers for our audiences in Skid Row or the jails because that “This is a stupid question.” preface is just dropped. They’ll just say, “Tell me the difference.” There’s a frankness and a candidness that is actually kind of freeing. And it’s not because of a naivety, it’s just because of a general desire to connect and know and be known. I really just think that people want to be seen, people want to be acknowledged.

CD: How have these two aspects of your work informed each other? How has your work with Street Symphony influenced the way you approach your work with the LA Phil and vice versa?

VG: Making music for Street Symphony has made me a much better musician and a much better person on stage at Disney Hall. It makes me a better colleague.

I play with a string quartet that’s all LA Phil members, and we took a program of Schumann into a ward at Twin Towers jail that was a ward for men with mental illnesses. And we had a very powerful conversation around what schizophrenia sounded like in the music of Schumann because Schumann himself had schizophrenia. We had a conversation about hearing madness in music. And then when we took this quartet back into Disney Hall, we weren’t thinking as much about playing the piece perfectly so that the critic sitting in the audience will be impressed. No, we’re playing to tell a story.

As musicians, we are very privileged. So we have to ask, “What stories are we telling?” We’re telling the stories of Handel and Bach and Stravinsky by performing them at a world class level, yes, absolutely. There’s a powerful kind of storytelling that happens there. But Street Symphony is teaching us that we also have an obligation as citizens to carry other stories too. We’re walking onto these concert stages with far more stories than just making our music well. We’re telling the stories of our communities as well. We’re becoming citizen artists.

Doing this kind of engagement has really grounded us in what it means to be musicians again. And I think that that allows us to play more freely. And one other thing that I’ll add: these audiences don’t judge us. It’s a really, really important thing. We’re free to ask ourselves, “What do I want to say?” And maybe we’re even more free to enjoy the music that we’re making.

CD: That’s amazing. To bring back that freedom and joy, what an amazing gift.

VG: What a gift for us, right? And that’s often how I feel. I feel like when we walk away from Skid Row, when we walk away from the jails, we’re the ones who have gotten the gift.

CD: What about choruses who are interested in working with these kinds of populations and communities? Do you have any words of wisdom to share with them?

VG: I would urge organizations who want to start doing this work for the first time to think about who their allies might be in the communities they want to work with. We started to talk to the people who ran the shelters and to the social workers and the clinicians, and we began to ask “So what does the community need?” Amy Fogerson had that conversation with one of the social workers in Skid Row, and the social worker said “Look, we love the music, but we also really need basics like soap, shampoo, and that kind of thing.” So Amy organized a group of singers, and she and her colleagues assembled 200 hygiene kits that we then gave away at the end of our concert.

We’ve come to understand that the first thing that we have to offer is music, but what we’re really looking for is a way in to serving our community. When those conversations begin to happen, then we’re moving into relationships. We’ve got to seek out partners, and we’ve got to take care of those partners the same way that we take care of our audiences. 

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