Although youthful chatter typically fills the halls at Hillsides Education Center, a different sound recently emanated from the foster care facility’s lush grounds — a golden harmony that enraptured some 30 elementary school students, who leaned in, chins in hands, to listen.
An alto’s clear voice rang out, setting the tone for “I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and ever so gently, in came the soprano, the tenor, bass and, yep, percussion in the form of a beatboxer. Echoing the song’s title, the a cappella group Ember Vocals deftly transported the kids on a musical journey, the performers surprising them with their unique twist on the original tune’s instruments, made only with their voices. The kids swayed and hummed, tapping the floor to the beat, some displaying their awe of the bass beatboxer who projected percussion so deeply that the vibration bounced off the small library’s walls.
This is Muse/ique at its finest, the very core of the nonprofit organization’s mission to bring live music, movement and ideas to people of all ages, incomes and abilities through its community outreach programs. Since it was formed in 2011 by renowned Conductor and Artistic Director Rachael Worby, the nonprofit — whose full orchestra is only a part of its musical arsenal — has spread its repertoire to envelop some 15,000 people, including foster and at-risk youth, low-income seniors, adults and families with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, and a growing audience of Pasadena’s seasoned music lovers.
The nonduplicative performing arts nonprofit began as a collaborative effort with a few dedicated community supporters, Worby said, and their first order of business was to create community partners.
“I have always felt that music should be, that it must be, the purview of every human being. Not just for those who can afford it or for those who might be predisposed toward attending, but really an arm of the community at large,” said Worby. “To think that you can make music selectively only prolongs the misunderstanding that so many in this country have about those who have and those who have not. This is about social change and justice and live music for all as a basic human right.”
To that end, Muse/ique has designed a method of curriculum-based community programs within small group interactions that engage participants in a deeper musical experience, at times a deconstruction of a song, note by note. Often, the number in the audience is equal to the number of Muse/ique performers, almost a one-on-one workshop that encourages participation and helps explore self-expression, give self-confidence and make connections through a kinesthetic teaching approach.
The children at Hillsides responded in kind, creating their own song with the a cappella group, with noises of their own in unison with Ember’s perfected harmony. One boy chose to sing “meow” over and over, while others picked a beatbox noise, and one young girl, a singular soprano note. They clapped enthusiastically at the end, pleased with their creation and eager to do more.
“I love this; I love this when they come,” said one young boy, as the session ended and the students spilled out energetically onto a sunny patio. “I’m going to play the guitar when I get older. … I listen to music all the time.”
Another session, with high school students, ended with their asking Ember singers thoughtful questions: “Do you get stage fright or performance anxiety? How do you overcome it?”
Hillsides CEO Joe Costa wasn’t surprised to hear of his pupils’ insightful inquiries with Muse/ique. The nonprofit has been coming to the school long enough that the students are comfortable and eager to challenge and share.
“They have a really strong commitment to introduce music to our children, we’ve truly benefited. … The introduction of music and dance has been wonderful. It captures the imagination of our kids and broadens their sensibilities when it comes to music. It gives them a place to expand in how they think of themselves in musical expression,” Costa said, noting that each session with the nonprofit is different. “The folks at Muse/ique are always ready to tailor the interaction and the performance to accommodate them. For our kids, it’s really important for them to raise their voice, whether it’s through music or just to express themselves in what’s going on in their lives.”
Muse/ique will reach some 2,200 people through its labor-intensive outreach this year, which includes nearly 80 visits to a network of 15 community nonprofit partners, which include Hathaway-Sycamores, Five Acres, Learning Works, the Pasadena Senior Center and AbilityFirst, to name a few.
While Muse/ique puts on eight to nine professional concerts each year, all originals created by Worby herself with musical genre-bending themes throughout (“I dream up 20 new things a year, and every year I say I’ll never have a good idea again,” she said), the intimate community visits consist of performances by smaller groups from the greater concert, often just weeks or days before the main performance. The nonprofit also donates about half of the total concert seating space to the community for free or at greatly reduced prices.
“These performances are highly interactive; they’re really about breaking down barriers, which is the essence of Muse/ique. How can I get people with voices and people who seem to have lost their voices together in one room? How can I get people who have voices to have more empathy for people who don’t?” said Worby, who was amping up for a community visit with AbilityFirst, just a few days before the latest debut in Muse/ique’s 2018-19 Uncorked series, “Acapella/Awakening.”
Though she was recovering from a recent illness, the petite Worby still loomed large in front of the adult audience, displaying a stage presence that drew admiration as well as laughter, much as Worby typically does in front of 500-800 concert audience members.
With “Acapella/Awakening,” Worby is intent on sharing the meaning of “voice” and the chapel style of singing without instrumentals. Like many of her previous endeavors at Muse/ique, she curated material over six months to complete a diverse number of groups from around the nation to deliver another one-of-a-kind show.
Lisa McNulty, director of Ember Vocals, recently traveled from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore with her group to perform with Muse/ique, as well as to help lead some of the nonprofit’s community education visits. To work with Worby was a great opportunity, said McNulty, who is from the area and has long admired the conductor’s work. She shares in Worby’s passion to help teach what she has learned from music.
“We’re passionate about sharing the power of the human voice. It’s a really powerful thing to be able to carry your instrument with you wherever you go,” McNulty said. “For a lot of the kids at Hillsides, or for any foster care youth or for any youth, we tell them that your voice is something that no one can ever take away from you.”
At the full-fledged performance of “Acapella/Awakening” on Sunday, about 150 a cappella vocalists filled Westminster Presbyterian Church, a fitting venue with its domed-arch ceilings and stained glass windows. Acts including the Los Angeles Children’s Choir Young Men’s Ensemble, the Pasadena Master Chorale, Urban Voices Project, Ember, DC6 Singers and the T Sisters surrounded the 700-some members of the audience, with voices emanating from the front, back and sides. Worby interspersed the 70-minute performance with a deconstructive approach, teaching some of the more mainstream a cappella music in the Western Hemisphere.
Longtime Muse/ique donor Alyce Williamson, an avid supporter of the arts around the Greater Los Angeles area, noted how unique and individual each concert performance has been during the past eight years.
“I always learn something — Rachael is so passionate about music and always educates us about how to listen to music,” said Williamson, whose granddaughter, McNulty, happened to be performing. “I’m proud to be a member of the Muse/ique family and to support Rachael’s great vision. No matter what she does, whether it’s with voices or guitar players or dancers or a full symphony orchestra, she always surprises me and often she moves me to tears. In these times, being connected to music and the arts is more important than ever.”
As for Muse/ique’s interconnectivity, Worby is working tirelessly on an ambitious plan for the group going forward. The nonprofit could easily triple its reach if it could put on multiple concerts in one venue, she said.
“Live music is oxygen for the imagination, and we want people to have greater access to their imaginations. I think all human beings are born with an innate love for music and I think what we do with our community work is to turn on the switch to remind them that everybody has a voice, everybody can sing,” Worby said, describing one of her concerts as “a party with brains.”
“I’m proud of this team we have that works tirelessly and with great passion to support the mission. We never stop until it’s exactly right. Muse/ique is the marriage of my conscience, my musicianship and my discipline. … We are very much driven by our passion to bring the live arts to every single person.”