Music’s Healing Power

Violinist for the L.A. Philharmonic, Vijay Gupta, spoke about “The Power of Music to Heal” at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville, Ill., on Feb. 27. The free, sold-out talk was sponsored by ARTSpeaks, a grassroots group focused on arts advocacy in Naperville. It began with Bach solo music, unaccompanied, and Gupta joked with the audience that, that was what they had signed up for.

Gupta made his debut with the Israel Philharmonic as a child, appeared on Oprah’s talk show when he was 8 years old, and toured as a soloist internationally, including in Israel and Germany.

He took the SATs when he was 12, and began college when he was only 13 years old. He graduated from Marist College, “fell in love with cell biology,” and working in a lab at Harvard, studying Alzheimer’s, discovered his fellow researchers “were bigger music nuts than I was.”

However much science appealed to him on a certain level, and how little he wanted to disappoint his family members, Gupta heeded the advice from a colleague that, “You need to do what makes you leap out of bed in the morning.”

He earned a violin performance Master’s degree from Yale, and in 2007 at 19 years old, auditioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The conductor at the time, Esa-Pekka Salonen, awarded Gupta a position with the internationally-renowned orchestra. Gupta’s father moved to L.A. with him, as the condition upon which the gifted musician could accept his job offer.

Gupta eventually became the violin teacher of Nathaniel Ayers, a former Juilliard student with a severe mental illness who ended up homeless in Los Angeles. Gupta visited Skid Row, an area of downtown Los Angeles with one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States, of between 5,000 and 8,000 individuals. This visit led him to wonder, “How many more Nathaniels were out there? It was in meeting Nathaniel that I began to understand that it was about more than playing live music for audiences in a concert hall.”

Gupta started the program, “Street Symphony,” as a 2011 TED Senior Fellow. Street Symphony is a non-profit group that “places social justice at the heart of music-making. Our community creates opportunities for musical engagement and dialogue between world-class musicians and people disenfranchised by homelessness, incarceration, and poverty in Los Angeles County,” states the Street Symphony web site, http://streetsymphony.org/.

Next during his talk in Naperville, Gupta played a video about the orchestra. The video included an interview with Reena Esmail, a composer-in-residence with the Street Symphony, who said, “Music isn’t just a form of entertainment, it’s a lifeline.”

Gupta then played a violin version live of the piece that Esmail composed for Street Symphony, “Take What You Need,” which was originally written for choir and audience in a call-and-response format. “We need to embrace art as a public health tool now,” Gupta said. “In a world where we are human doings, not human beings, the arts give us a place to be.”

The organization has played more than 350 concerts for the Skid Row community, with an average of 125 attendees each.

“How do we show up for this community without our instruments? That’s the challenge,” Gupta said.