This year at The New Century School, Music Education, although always an essential component of the curriculum, has grown a new branch. Beginning instruction in cello and violin as well as an intermediate-level String Ensemble have just entered their third month, thanks to the arrival of strings teacher Yoshiaki Horiguchi.
Born in Tokyo, Japan, “Yoshi,” as he likes to be known, moved to Washington, D.C. when he was 5 years old and attended Horace Mann Elementary School From there, he moved to Maryland’s Montgomery County, where he completed schooling. After graduating as a Linehan Artists Scholar from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and then taking a couple of years to play music on a freelance basis, Yoshi landed a full scholarship as an Aegon USA scholar at the Peabody Conservatory at the Johns Hopkins University to pursue graduate studies, where he is currently in his second year.
From an early age, Yoshi saw music as a means to make positive change. He humbly credits his musical opportunities to kindnesses that people along the way have paid him more than to his own gifts, which are indisputably extraordinary. He says he was drawn to strings in particular over another class of instruments because of one such experience: “In the 6th grade, my mom sent me to school with the tiny violin that I started on when I was 3 years old to enroll in school orchestra. I was also the tallest kid in my 6th grade orchestra class. When my band director saw this mismatch, she immediately switched me to bass.” Yoshi soon learned just how uplifting a force music could be:
Everyone has a specific connection to music that’s personal to him or her. For me, my particular connection to music is that it was my only way out of a life that I didn’t want to have. It allowed me to continue and finish high school. It allowed me to go to college on full scholarship to UMBC (which I’m extremely grateful for—I wouldn’t have been able to go to college without that). And it has given me a purpose in life and given me a purpose in why I make music, not so much for fame and glamor but to harness the power that music has to heal and to bring people together—like music was able to do for me growing up. I hope to continue to put that back into this world.
His work with TNCS, he says is partly to cultivate a music culture in Baltimore. There are not many strings programs in city schools, unfortunately, and Yoshi thinks that’s a real shame. In talking with school co-founder Jennifer Lawner, whom Yoshi met at a “fiddle camp” in Charleston, SC, they floated the idea of a strings program at TNCS, based on their common belief in “what music can do for not just a child or individual, but for an entire community.”
I think the most important thing [that music can do] is in its potential for a shared experience—it’s a reminder that whatever differences we may have, we’re all human, and we’re all able to have some central core of humanity. So when we make music together and then put our instruments down, music has laid the foundation with those shared experiences to debate constructively about whatever social or political issues are at hand from a humanitarian point of view. The power of music is in reminding us that we are all human.
Yoshi says this humanizing power of music derives from both an emotional and sensory connection and more. “On the emotional side, if a group is going to play a song together, whether it’s for a class or a concert, there’s an exhilaration, a joy . . . some sort of personal breaking through and sharing. Research says that what we remember most are experiences we had during periods of heightened emotion. Making music together, not necessarily doing it perfectly, but figuring things out together and looking at each other across the stage as that music is being made sears the experience into your brain.” Neurologic studies show that listening to and playing music increases dopamine activity in the caudate nucleus, and the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward center, correspondingly activates. Yoshi also finds connecting with the audience to be an important facet of playing and enjoys playing solo or in smaller groups to facilitate the interaction—to “tear down the wall between the audience and the stage,” as he puts it.
TNCS Strings Program
This 2016–2017 school year marks the first year of that program as part of the enormous value TNCS places on Music Education, and it’s off to a soaring start. The TNCS strings program is open to students from other area schools, as well, in an effort to broaden the reach and get more city students playing strings instruments.
His hope for the TNCS strings program is to add beginning cello and violin classes annually, such that the current-year beginning students will welcome and mentor the incoming protégés—very much in keeping with TNCS’s own philosophy about the synergy of the mixed-age classroom. This approach would not only feed the growing program with fresh crops of students, it would also allow second-year students to learn more deeply from the act of teaching and role-modeling. “When they’re able to practice on their own and teach at the same time, they’re in effect doubling the results of their efforts,”said Yoshi. After 2 years as first a beginner then a mentor, students would progress to Ensemble-level playing, and the Ensemble would grow correspondingly, if Yoshi’s plans are approved and implemented.
An ancillary hope is to take students to performances, depending on what concerts are being scheduled in terms of duration and content. He says Peabody Conservatory is eager to be more community oriented, partly because the state of classical music is that audiences are shrinking. Attending performances has become inaccessible and cost-prohibitive, whereas it should be widely available. Paradoxically, Yoshi says, musicians are playing with increasing technical skill and at ever younger ages, likely due to good-old YouTube, as well as the availability of very small instruments, which allows very young children to begin playing and achieve mastery that much sooner. Peabody, however, is developing community relationships and offering free performances—and is only a couple of blocks away from TNCS. Yoshi sees in this outreach stance an additional opportunity to possibly pair up TNCS students with Peabody teachers-in-training so that TNCS students can benefit from one-on-one instruction in addition to whole-class instruction.
Musician-Teacher: Merging Two Worlds
In his personal playing, Yoshi has been acclaimed by the Baltimore Sun for his ability to put on a “dazzling display of dexterity and panache.” As an active double bassist, he spans a broad spectrum of genres and has performed with the York Symphony, Baltimore Boom Bap Society, Opera Camerata of Washington, Classical Revolution Baltimore, and more. Recently, he was the principal bassist to record works by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts. “Yoshi proudly hails from the studios of Ed Malaga, Jeff Koczela, Laura Ruas, Paul DeNola, and Paul Johnson.”
“In addition to being an active performer, Yoshi is a highly sought-after pedagogue.” Having served as the low-strings department chair and string ensemble director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s El Sistema–inspired ORCHKids program, faculty for Peabody’s Bass Works, and faculty for American Music System, his teaching credentials are robust. Yoshi’s International Society of Bassists pedagogy research submission is currently being used as a resource to influence bass teachers across the country. He is also certified in the Mark O’Connor string method and has studied the Suzuki string method, making him an all-around strings pedagogy expert. (Bio was quoted and paraphrased from Yoshi’s website: BassHoriguchi.com.)
But even all of this, as Yoshi explains, is not an exhaustive accounting. He keeps moving forward professionally and finding ways to bring strings to kids. He says that he aims to earn respectability as a classical player but also to continue growing as a teacher so that he has his feet firmly in both worlds and can act as a bridge between these worlds. He explained:
Diversifying your skill set opens your eyes and gives you a more worldly context—it allows you to see how you fit into the world. Teaching for underserved West Baltimore ORCHKids, for example, has given me a reason to get up in the mornings and has honestly made me want to practice more. It’s not that I don’t care about my music career, but I think I care less about that than I care about what I can do for the world. Now, pushing myself as a musician means discovering my potential to give back. Breaking through technical obstacles and overcoming hurdles allows me to teach from a place of empathy, of understanding that this is hard, and maybe even guiding students so they can apply these skills elsewhere.
Yoshi attributes his drive to “pay it forward” to having been so nurtured by his own early teachers, to whom he says wants to both show respect and give back. Finally, he wants to dispel the dual stigma that music teachers are nothing but strict and demanding and that classical music is stultifying and too rigid: “I hope that parents considering enrolling their child here will trust that this program is not at all like that. The kids are wonderful, and I’m learning from them everyday, so hopefully my teaching self will reflect this continual growth. Don’t let that image of what you think classical music may be prevent you from signing up, because you might miss out on something very special happening here.”
You can see just what he means during this year’s Winter Concert, where TNCS strings students will be performing. Additionally, TNCS administration hopes to offer a Strings Camp next summer. “Stay tuned”!