Transcription of the episode “Adán Vásquez on The Washington Heights Community Conservatory of Fine Arts: “I could be the one playing the cello!”

Amy H-L : 00:15 I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: 00:15 And I’m Jon Moscow. This is the Ethical Schools podcast, where we discuss equitable and inclusive learning environments that help students to become capable of creating a more ethical world.

Amy H-L : 00:27 There’s a new blog post up on It’s by Shirley Edwards, the Founding Principal of EBC High School for Public Service in Bushwick. She writes about the critical importance of relationships in creating a successful school – relationships between students and teachers and among the school, families and community. Be sure to listen as well to our April 23rd podcast with Shirley Edwards.

Jon M: 00:55 Our guest today is Adán Vásquez, Executive and Artistic Director of the Association of Dominican Classical Artists and the Washington Heights Community Conservatory of Fine Arts. Adán Vásquez is an acclaimed harpist, educator and community activist. Born in Santo Domingo, he was educated at the University of Chile, Brooklyn College and the Manhattan School of Music. He coordinates the music department at Gregorio Luperon High School in Washington Heights. Welcome, Adán.

Adán V: 01:24 Thank you.

Amy H-L : 01:26 Adán, please tell us a little about the Association of Dominican Classical Artists. What is your music education model?

Adán V: 01:35 The Association of Dominican Classical Artists was founded in 1980 by a group of Dominicans. I wasn’t here in New York back then. There was a group of Dominicans that wanted to show a different face of the Dominican community. They were classically trained musicians and they were having one concert a year, at least, at Carnegie Hall. And the whole idea was to showcase Dominican talent in, Carnegie Hall, basically. That was at the beginning. Then, as the organization was growing, there were more Latinos involved. When I get into the United States by 1992, I right away joined them, and I had a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall. Through them. I was part of the board [inaudible] and I was helping. And then when the founding president passed in 2010, then I became the president and later we restructured the whole thing. I had a different idea of how to run this. Instead of going to Carnegie Hall and having a concert showcasing Dominicans on there, I thought about the idea of showcasing Dominican and Latino minority art within the community. I wanted to do something more for the community and to show off the community, you know, what Washington Heights can offer to the mosaic of New York City. So we changed the venue. We went to Aaron Davis Hall City College, and with the support of Vice President Karen Witherspoon with the school, we got the offer of the theater. Aaron Davis Hall, and then we became part of the residence group. At Aaron Davis Hall, there are four companies, and we are one of them. And we have a concert season. So we, we produce four concerts, now we are producing a fifth with the students. At the Aaron Davis Hall theater. So at the beginning, people from the community now people from all over New York, are coming to the concerts and we want to be model. That’s another thing. The majority of the members of the orchestra, we are minority Latinos, African Americans, woman musicians. So we wanted to serve as a model for the kids in the community. Plus, the performers in the orchestra, we are the teachers at the music conservatory that we have in the community because we want the kids to project themselves. I want the students, when they go to a concert, so they could say, “Wow, I could play the harp, the harpist looks like me. This is accessible for me.” Oftentimes when I take my students to Carnegie Hall, the majority of the people that are in the orchestra, they don’t necessarily look like the kids. You know what I mean? There are mostly white or Oriental faces. So there is no connection. There is not much connection with our kids with classical music. So what we wanted to do is, you know, make this music more accessible for them to see that, “Oh, cello. I, you know, I can play the cello. My teacher lives in my neighborhood.” I share music also playing in the concert series. So if by now it’s becoming a habit. For the kids, this is nothing boring, this is nothing unusual. It’s something that they say, “Oh, you know, the violin, the cello, the harp.” So yeah.

Jon M: 05:14 So when you mentioned classical music, a lot of people think primarily of European classical music. Could you talk a little bit about Latin American classical music? And you started to talk about why you’re focusing on this tradition and folk music in today’s Upper Manhattan community.

Adán V: 05:31 In one of the concerts, we have said that we have four concerts in the seasons, right. So at least one of them or two, they are focusing on the traditional European, the canon of, the repertoire – Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel], Bach, you name it, which is important. We have to do that because music is music and we have to play everything. But at least one of the other two concerts, we focused on composers from the Americas, Latin America, classical music, academic music, to be more precise in terms of symphonic music. But with the flavor of nationalism. When I use the word nationalism, I have to be very careful with that. It’s a musical movement, an art movement that started in Russia at the end of the 1800s where they were breaking away from the traditional classical music coming from Germany or Austria or France, and they wanted to use folk elements of the music. And then they, with the format of the symphony orchestra that started with the Russian Five. Well that movement was started in Russia and then went all over Europe and then it came over to the Americas, using a language, folk language, but using the format of the classical, you know, the symphony orchestra. We have Copland in the United States that followed that model. You take all of these folk tunes and they’ve made it into, you know, orchestral music. So we have that in America, we have that in the Dominican Republic, we have that in Mexico. We have that in Central America, but they don’t play the music in the United States that often. So we are becoming the place to showcase that music, to present that music in New York City where people can go and listen to those composers. They rarely have heard that music that we perform. Or sometimes they have never heard that. For instance, we go even beyond, I mean before that movement, when we do galant style of classical music. We did one of the culture last year. We did Mozart, we did the CPE Bach and [inaudible], you know, traditional music. But we inserted music reaching in Venezuela, in the Americas during that period of time. So we are not only using fugue, naturalistic music in classical style, but we are also finding music reaching during, you know, romantic period, the classical period, in the Americas, that have never been performed here in the U S. We want to also perform that, you know, as part of a repertoire. We do that because we believe in empowering our community. I, we want the people who are going to the concerts to realize that this music is not only for, you know, Europeans or, or from here in the US but also in their country. They have been composers. And even now there are composers who are writing music for this format. Did I answer?

Jon M: 08:54 Yes.

Amy H-L : 08:57 Absolutely. So Adán, a six year program of serious music study sounds like many parents’ dream for their children but may remind some of us of being pushed into music lessons by our parents. So why do most children come to the conservatory? Who stays and why? What do students do with their music or arts education afterwards?

Adán V: 09:22 Well, one of the key ingredients that we have in our conservatory is a one to one lesson. That’s why we are a conservatory. We follow that tradition. That’s the way I received my education. So we don’t do group instruction. For instance, we have studios because we believe that every individual learn in a different pace. Another ingredient, an important ingredient that we have is in the interviews that we have with the parents and the kids. We want to listen to the student that is applying, not to the parent. So we want to see the level of curiosity of the students and how much they like music. I don’t want to know how much the father or mother likes music, but it’s the student, because at the end we are dealing with the kids and we want to know if they really love music, if they really want to do these things, if they’re committed to practice every day. So yeah, that’s part of the interview. In the past we made some mistakes. The parents wanted the students to be there because they wanted them to learn music but the students, they didn’t want to be there. Then they just started, you know, boycotting some classes because they didn’t want it to be there. So we realize we only want students who really have shown love for music that they will enjoy being there, that they enjoy playing an instrument.

Amy H-L : 10:52 What percentage of the students actually stay?

Adán V: 10:55 We started with eight kids in 2011, and from those eight kids we have four. 2012, we doubled the number and we have five of those. They are now graduating from high school. So this is the first time seeing that group of kids that are graduating. So yeah, I’m talking about the kids who started from seventh and sixth grade because we have had students that started in high school so they only were there with us for three or two years and now two of them are teachers in our school. They’re studying music in college. So now they’re teaching in our school. One of the boys who started with us in seventh grade and he’s graduating next year, he’s becoming a teacher. He’s in a specialized music school in violin and now he’s going to be a teacher to help the other kids.

Jon M: 11:56 What does a conservatory curriculum actually consist of? What do the students do during the period of time?

Speaker 3: 12:02 At the very beginning when the students are with us, they have to take three different classes. Then of course there are the private instruction in the instrument of their choice, which last 30 minutes per week. Then they have music theory. That’s twice a week, 45 minutes. That’s a group class, learning how to read music. And then we have the orchestra class. That’s also, you know, a big group of students and that’s twice a week, 45 minutes each section. And then as they move on, we go from music theory, then we add like singing, harmony, music history and we try to go along with the curriculum of the Department of Education. So by the time they are in the ninth grade and they’re taking global history, they’re taking also music history. My experience in the Department of Education, I have through the years, I have realized that some of my students have more history through music history than through the social studies regular classes because oftentimes the social studies regular class is based on passing the exam and they know the number and then it’s like preparing them for the Regents exam. In my case, because I don’t have a Regents exam, I have the flexibility to go deep on the Renaissance and you know, the Baroque period and to show them through the music how society was reflecting what type of music was being played in the court, what type of music that people in their culture were listening to. And when, in the Americas after Christopher Columbus reaches the Americas, how, you know, the transformation. And so we have the time and the flexibility to go deep on that. Then the influence on the [inaudible] in how Beethoven transformed music and how the French revolution made an influence on [inaudible]. So the kids are learning more about history.

Jon M: 14:08 So exciting. I’d like to be able to go back and take your class. We have a clip of you conducting conservatory students playing Carabiner by Julio Roberto Hernandez. Could you tell us a little bit about this composer and about Carabiner before we play it?

Adán V: 14:27 Julio Roberto Hernandez is one of our first composers of the nationalistic movement. He went around collecting all these rhythms in the countryside and he is the first one putting them on papers. So he wrote that for piano and then from there, people have to made arrangements for orchestra. So what you’re listening, they are the second arrangement that we did for a piano composition. And again, he took it from, you know, traditional rhythms in the countryside. So yes, those [inaudible], uh, rhythms are, if you go to the island and you go to the countryside, that’s part of the folklore of the Dominican Republic that is still alive today. So we took that and then we turned from that into the format of classical arrangement.

Orchestra: 15:19 music

Amy H-L : 16:09 Adán, what are your goals for the conservatory students, in addition to learning music?

Adán V: 16:15 It has been proved that, you know, music helps with the development of discipline, mathematics, literature. Like if you listen to Beethoven’s music, you can write better essays. If you listen to Mozart’s music while you’re doing your mathematics class, you will do better because there is an activation on the brain. Also, when you’re playing an instrument, you know, this whole thing of you’re using both hands and your brain, you have to read the language, whatever. So you are activating a lot of the brain that will help with the students with other areas. Also, most of the kids that we have, they don’t necessarily have the best discipline, and the fact that they have to practice everyday, you know, helps them to develop discipline that will help them with something else in the future. And I can go on with, you know, different areas that we can, you know, through the arts will help.

Jon M: 17:20 Would you say that it has a community-building component to it, or in terms of its relationship to the development of the Dominican and other communities in Washington Heights?

Adán V: 17:33 Well, we don’t limit ourselves to only Dominican music. As you know, we also, like in the last concert, were playing Russian tunes and playing, you know, Hebrew tunes and Chinese tunes. So we play everything. So in a way, yeah, with the community building, like most of the teachers, they live also in the area and there are not necessarily Latinos or minorities or you know. They’re Jewish teachers and they live in the community. Most of them graduated from my alma mater, Manhattan School of Music.

Jon M: 18:15 So you’ve talked about your grandmother as queen of the Paulos. Can you talk about what Paulos is and about the artistic value of your African roots and how has this heritage shaped your work and the work of the association and the conservatory?

Adán V: 18:31 The Paulos is the site where my grandmother and my mother was, you know, they’re coming from one of the, this is where the first African slaves settled, were settled in the Americas, about 1520, first group of slaves. So they brought their tradition, their Yoruba tradition, from Benin, I believe it was. And music was one of the few things that they were able to keep alive, that they were allowed to do on Sundays. I mean, you know, they have to mix it up so the masters won’t whip them. Uh, so that tradition is still alive in the Island. And my grandmother and carried that from her mother and the mother of the mother of the mother. So I remember when I was leaving the Chile in 1989, I had, I went to interview her because I knew that I wasn’t going to see her again. She was ninety-eight by that time, but she told me the whole story. And I also knew the whole story about how that music [inaudible]. So yeah, it’s an Afro tradition music, a folklore in the Island that my grandmother was in charge, one of many, she wasn’t the only one there [inaudible], but she was one of those. As a classical trained musician, I have been going back to the roots of, you know, getting that music and like Caribiner, for instance. That’s one of those pieces that’s not [inaudible]. But it’s folklore music, so yeah, that would be my link. I would say.

Amy H-L : 20:17 As you see it, what is the role of performing arts in catalyzing social change?

Adán V: 20:25 I believe that through music you can transform. You may sound like I could change a [inaudible] for an instrument. You can transform the life of a human being. Most of our students are underserved. There are few things, you know, to do cultural projects in our community. They’re few and very limited. And if you take a kid that might be problematic, I mean we artists, we are very sensitive people, and sometimes we have those kids that are shy or they have, you have trauma or you know, but you see them when they perform, they play music, and the transformation of those human beings. So you can, you can get a kid that might be a bully or might ended up being, doing weird things when they, you know, through music, that person can express all that energy. I believe in that. So if you take all of that, negativity that those kids have around and you transform that energy through music, you can change the entire violence [inaudible]…

Jon M: 21:42 Thank you so much for joining us.

Adán V: 21:44 Thank you for having me.

Amy H-L : 21:46 And thank you, listeners. Visit our website,, where you can check out our articles and episodes, including Shirley Edward’s new article. You can subscribe to the Ethical Schools podcast and blog so you get notified of each of our episodes and articles. We’re on Facebook, Twitter @ethicalschools and Instagram at ethical schools podcast.

Jon M: 22:09 And we’ll go out with Migracionesby Sergio R. Reyes of Guatamala, performed by La Camarata de Washington Heights. Till next week.

Orchestra: 22:36 music

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