Interview with Adrian Anantawan

SV: How did you get into playing violin? How did you start? 

Adrian Anantawan: Whenever I talk to my colleagues who are musicians by trade, the topic of conversation often shifts towards how we started our instrument, akin to asking a couple how they first met. Generally, the stories uncovered are ones of happenstance and self-revelation—anecdotes of kids watching Yoyo Ma on Sesame Street, and subsequently demanding their parents purchase a cello for them. Often, my colleagues describe how they implicitly knew they were musicians from a very early age, and all they needed was a trigger to set them down a path that was wholly predetermined. Uncovering possibilities within the arts for these musicians was the beginning of a path that was intrinsically motivated, and therefore a reflection of their learning goals for many of their early experiences. Personally, I never had a glamorous, riveting story of discovering the violin, and the decision to start an instrument seemed like a pragmatic, deductive form of reasoning on my parents' end—they believed in an education that included the arts, informed by a quasi-Platonic, holistic philosophy of human and spiritual development. 

I was nine years old, and the teacher informed us that we would be playing the recorder for next year’s music class. While I was blissfully unaware of the implications of my disability would have on this aspect of the music curriculum, my parents were already ruminating of the possibilities for alternatives—options were singing, percussion, trumpet and the violin. Logically, it would have made sense to try singing, although I had a voice even a parent couldn’t love. Trumpet was too loud, and the same argument was applied for percussion. If they only knew how a novitiate violinist would sound for the first ten years of development! With the help of biomedical engineers at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital in Toronto, I was able to play with an adaptive device known as a “spatula.” This product of technology has allowed me to play the instrument proficiently, with careful guidance from innovative arts educators within schools and the community. 

SV: When and how did you realize being a violinist was something you wanted to do as a career?

Adrian Anantawan:  I will answer this question indirectly, as there was no cathartic experience that led me to a career as a violinist, which may reflect that I’ve never considered the violin alone as my sole “profession,” and hence identity, in life. However, I will attempt to answer anecdotally: 

I remember when I was first accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music, coming home on a spring night from high school. I was sixteen, and my mother had sat me down in the kitchen with the look that usually accompanies long lectures of various life topics, so I had already braced myself for the worst. Instead, she told me that the director of the school had called home earlier, and had offered a position in the school in the following fall. It was a shock at first, as I had auditioned earlier not intending to get a spot, but rather gain some experience for next year, as I had a year left in school, and interests in other fields—following the footsteps of my esteemed cousins who had gone on into medicine, law and science. At first, it was as if fate had put a twist on my life plans, like interrupting my attempts on getting a date with my first crush or applying to universities with my best friend. It was then my parents told me that opportunities like this don’t come very often, and that sometimes you have to be courageous and have a path choose you. 

SV: If not violin, what career path do you think you would or could have chosen?

Adrian Anantawan: My parents advice was wise in retrospect, and thinking about it now, ten years later, I have no regrets on where the violin has taken me, from the White House in Washington to Carnegie Hall. On a metaphorical level, performing music has made my life into a special one, full of rich experiences and kind people who have brought out the best in my attitudes towards others.

A few years ago, after I finished my Masters at Yale, I moved back to Toronto and began teaching the violin to beginners. At first I was intimated by the responsibility of providing information that would have such a drastic influence their affinity for the instrument. I remember the first set of lessons I taught to a six year old: a mischievous but charming girl who was, like most children her age, a direct reflection upon the efficacy of the method. A song that engaged her visual imagination (i.e. “the circle song”) was met with a smile and recognition, whereas playing to a metronome led to a perturbed expression, followed by general restlessness.

Children have no reason to lie—the expressions written on their faces are in fact the best gauge as to whether you are making an impact or not. Having a positive impact led to increased engagement and attention span, while its antithesis led to boredom and vacancy.  What is interesting in education, however, is how aesthetics are intertwined with practical technique, often acting as a mask for the inherent tedium of developing specific sensory motor skills. These set of aesthetics are often formalized and intertwined to a method, allowing teachers to work within a proven framework, but not necessarily bound by it. 

As a teacher, I had to meditate upon the most basic elements of my craft in the same process of distilling the core values in a composition for performance. The necessity of being constantly aware of my actions and their relation to the reactions of my students, while optimally adjusting my teaching style in real time is identical to the mindset I have in a performance. That we attempt to communicate an idea or set of our values through music is an act of education, while still encouraging our audience to form their own opinions of our expression. Ideally, this communication requires us to create an accessible environment in order for a classroom or audience to optimally engage with our material. 

So, I sidestepped your last question for the very reason that perhaps my current role in education, as much as it is a lateral career shift, is one that I’ve had the oppourtunity to choose for myself. My career path can be considered slightly unorthodox, as I haven’t stopped playing since my studies at Harvard, and have still had many opportunities to perform in a traditional context. 

SV: Can you tell us about what your studies at Harvard? What are you studying?

Adrian Anantawan: I’m currently enrolled in the Arts in Education program at Harvard, where I’ve been studying children with disabilities, from their socio-economic, sensory motor, psychosocial, cognitive, emotional and behavioral background. With my classmates, we’ve reviewed and evaluated the relative strengths and weaknesses of pre-existing programs within music education (curricular and extracurricular), then broadening our approach to include effective strategies within the arts in general. Of particular interest to me has been measuring the efficacy of adaptive musical instruments within a Universally Designed (UDL) curricular framework, and their role in enabling children with disabilities to participate meaningfully with their typically-abled peers. We have settled upon some very interesting questions in the past year, which will require years of study. For instance, where is the line between using an assistive technology to enable a child with a disability to play music, rather than an augmentation that defeats the inherent challenge we must all have to learn? Can we effectively design for to the possibility of failure with a student using technology and still maintain the integrity of the art form? I believe many of the answers are contextual, and it seems that fields create silos between one another, addressing their own questions employing an idiosyncratic taxonomy that promises the least antagonistic, and hence the path of least resistance towards isolated peer-reviewed research. However, I feel as if we lose so much in this complicit acceptance of convenience, where in the end, the child ultimately is deprived. The potential for innovation is at least equal to the barriers that keep disciplines discrete, and I think more than anything else, it will be the require a collection of passionate, like-minded individuals who are fluent across multiple disciplines to begin this serious, important work. Harvard is a breeding ground for this kind of work, and my mind is bursting with new ideas, amidst a busy schedule academically and also with my performance career.

SV: What is your schedule like?

Adrian Anantawan: There are two ways to react with such overwhelming experiences here. One is to lose quite a bit of sleep and add a bit of coffee, but the other is to realize our limits, and appreciate how dependent and interconnected we are in the work that we do. Coming from a music background, I only knew one language; in the world of education, I am learning that in order to collaborate in a knowledge sharing world, we must be able to translate and interpret the disciplines of others, hopefully to understand the values and goals we share. 

Everywhere you turn, there is a new learning oppourtunity to be had, and oftentimes outside of the classroom. At Harvard, you can’t just sit by a coffee shop window and watch the world pass you by, as chances are, you’re bound to run into a friend from one of your classes, and spend hours talking about philosophy, science or music. The last topic I feel relatively more fluent within, but even then, it has been by talking to colleagues in business, neuroscience, medicine and law that have given me a stronger picture of my role as a musician within the sphere of a larger society, and how we all strive (at our best) to make the world a better place.

The Arts in Education curriculum here is intense, but it’s all so relevant that it would be impossible to slow down on behalf of sanity. Perhaps we will find time to relax after our program finishes next spring, although none of us would be here unless we were not used to an unusually heavy workload. It’s like we’re here to take one large breath over the next few months, filling our lungs until we can finally exhale, and synthesize all the knowledge we’ve acquired. 

SV: Being at Curtis, then Yale and now Harvard are there any similarities between the three? Major differences?

Adrian Anantawan: Innovation, creativity and passion come to mind. The differences I’ve observed are more from the inherent nature of the specific programs I’ve been a part of than a generalized ethos of each of them. In every school, I am inspired by the dedication towards exploration of my peers—they are relentless, curious, and ultimately love what they do.  

SV: Who or what inspires you the most?
Adrian Anantawan: Over the last nine months, as part of my field experience program, I have worked in the Henderson Inclusion Public Elementary School, assisting as an intern, researcher and music teacher. Located in South Boston, the Dr. William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School, formerly Patrick O’Hearn Elementary School, serves children with special needs—30.7% of the total student body—and includes all students regardless of ability in general education classrooms for the entire school day. Observing and immersing myself in the study of these children in the formative years of their lives has been one of the highlights of my experience here in Boston, and has made me more curious than ever in early childhood development, especially in regards to the formation of imagination and creativity through the arts. While helping these children (aged 4-12) to make music, it has not only been a way to separate myself (literally and figuratively) from campus, but it has also allowed me to apply, in a utilitarian sense, the fruits of our research and classes. Some of the most profound, inspiring moments at Harvard have not come from the depth of our rhetoric, but in the spark of recognition of a five year old with down syndrome, when she is exposed to classical music for the first time. 

SV: Do you think there are any common misconceptions about being a violinist?

Adrian Anantawan: I’ve been carrying my case around, and people have mistaken it for a tennis racquet. Does this help? :)

SV: How do you prepare for a performance? 

Adrian Anantawan: Over the last few years, I’ve realized that a masterpiece is not the product of extreme inspiration--the systematic process of composer informs our practice. I ask myself questions, in the same way that I have in my studies in education. How does the piece "happen?" How do we know when intentions are conscious or unconscious? How informative is it to understand where something comes, in terms of it’s lineage? Music is an iterative process similar to the development of language—think Chomsky and the Bernstein lectures at Harvard (www.youtube.com/watch?v=14VhzlcSuT0). As a performer, we loosen the fetters of structure, untangle paradoxes, and through a close examination of phonological, syntactical, gestural components, our technique is informed. It seems esoteric, although I believe that music performance is a top-down process. We must think, explore the mysteries of notation, ultimately uncovering the promise of innovation and the potential for making this phenomena we call “art.”

SV: Even though there are so many great works- concertos,  sonatas etc is there one particular work or piece that  that you could say is your " favorite?" or most special to you if yes, why?

Adrian Anantawan: No piece is more or less special to me, and I feel relatively democratic in terms of my favourite music. Right now, I’m listening to Bernstein’s West Side Story, as we’re performing this with the kids at the Henderson School. Lovely music, and certainly the flavour of the day!

SV: Are there any current / future projects you are working on that you'd like to let readers know about? Summer plans?

Adrian Anantawan: I’m hoping to continue my work in arts in education, continue studying, play a few concerts and catch up on some much needed sleep!  

SV: Can you tell us a bit about the CODA project and VMI initiative?

Adrian Anantawan: The CODA Project: Here’s another story for you. In May 2011, on one of my preliminary visits to Hawthorne Public Elementary School (now a partner school with the CODA Project), I conducted a faux interview of twelve year-old Hannah, to gauge some of her prior knowledge of classical music: “If I were to say the phrase chamber music what comes to your mind?” She had a few thoughts, some ranging from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to being trapped in chains. I eventually opened up the question to Hannah’s classmates, and after a few seconds, one boy raised his hand provided the most popular answer amongst his classmates: jail.
This was precisely the reason Bryan Wagorn and I had decided to start the Community Outreach for Developing Artists Project, or CODA. While we had a wonderful time teaching and coaching some of Canada’s brightest young talents (including this interviewer!) as faculty members of the SMI, we realized that there were many skills they would require in the 21st century, outside of their scales and etudes. In June of 2010, Bryan and I started developing the CODA Project with the premise, “why not start training outreach skills to kids sooner than later?” We had been blessed with the opportunities to hone such skills during our college years, through mandated outreach performances on concert tours, and also sporadic courses at school. No such artists teaching skills were being offered to pre-collegiate musicians, so during the two-weeks we had in the 2011 SMI, we decided to create workshops to train our students (aged 12 to 18) to present outreach programs for specific schools and social programs in the Ottawa community. We were banking on the fact that they would enjoy sharing with their peers, no younger than them, the joys of classical music, an in doing so, finding a deeper understanding of its meaning in their lives. We hope you enjoyed the experience, Sarah—you were amazing!

The VMI Initiative: In the fall of 2009, through a grant from Yale University, I created a program called the VMI Chamber Music Initiative, which brought together a team of musicians, music therapists and educators to assist children with disabilities to play classical music using adaptive musical instruments and repertoire. My project worked in tandem with two researchers from the University of Toronto: Dr. Tom Chau and Dr. David Alter. This knowledge translation project allowed us to use our disparate backgrounds to increase the technical and artistic functionality of the VMI, and to conduct research into its efficacy in a myriad of domains. As a professional musician and educator, seeing these children interact with the VMI was akin to observing the creative process at its inception, and it raised further questions ranging from the instrument’s aesthetic and educative quality. Our project was recently completed last November with a performance of the VMI with the Montreal Chamber Orchestra, where a quadriplegic student at the University of Toronto was able to perform on the concert stage for the first time since he was paralyzed ten years ago.  

          SV: Why is it important to combine music and outreach?

Adrian Anantawan: I believe that the work that we do in outreach has the ability to save lives. The quality of our lives is dependent not only on our motivation to pursue excellence, but to enable others to do the same. In order for accomplishment and fulfillment to align in our lives, we must give and never stop at reaching beyond our means. To paraphrase Leonard Bernstein: “True accomplishment happens with a plan, and not enough time.”   

SV: Can you give one piece of advice to readers wanting to be in the industry and pursue music as a career?

Adrian Anantawan: Ironically, a logical examination of our capabilities will ultimately temper the achievement of the possible. All cases I’ve seen of those who achieve the “impossible” do so through mindful ignorance: an expectation of change and challenge, without the fear of failure. 

Fun questions...
If you could meet one person in the past or present who would it be? My grandmother, who I never got to know, since she passed very early in my life.

Something that you haven't played yet that is on your list of things to learn: Those wine glasses filled with water.

Favorite pop song and artist: Joni Mitchell

Something people may not know about you: I LOVE Star Trek. I’m a big sports nut.

Dream vacation: In space, when they make it affordable. 

Favorite sport: Can’t choose between baseball, hockey and basketball.

Book / movie you currently want to read/ see: Not sure the title of it, but I saw it on a preview a few months back. It was a documentary following four(?) babies from different parts of the world, and observing their development.

You may visit Adrian's website here