Kris Saebo, double bass (B.M. '04, M.M. '06, ACJW '08) and Claire Bryant (M.M. '05, ACJW '08)
From left to right: Kris Saebo, Claire Bryant (photo by Caroline Bittencourt), Decoda Outreach Performance
Interview by Emily Werne
Kris and Claire are Juilliard alumni, and are also alumni of Ensemble ACJW, The Academy-a program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute in Partnership with the New York City Department of Education, which began in 2007. Rebecca Vaccarelli and I sat with them to chat about what they are doing now.
You were recently in Brazil for a performance tour with Juilliard Global; what did you do while you were there?
Claire: This program has been in existence for five years, and it is a collaboration with a partner organization in Brazil, GURI, Santa Marcelina, which is a social organization providing music lessons and instruments and a musical life to young people in the outer communities of São Paolo. Their goal is to bring social change and foster opportunity through music and community. This was my fifth year playing alongside the orchestra, leading master classes, teaching lessons, and presenting interactive performances at different schools. Brazil is incredible, and they have identical performance facilities at each school in these communities outside of Sao Paolo.
Kris: We spent the first week working with conductor and fellow alumnus George Stelluto (Artist Diploma ‘06, conducting) which was amazing. We partnered with the orchestra, playing alongside with the kids, and also coached them along with the conductor. We led sectional rehearsals, which was a lot of fun. Based on our experience with Decoda, we were able to bring a unique skill set to this trip.
What were some of the highlights of your trip?
Claire: As Decoda members, we are prepared to mentor current students with the idea of how to engage and fully assemble an engaging concert for young people. We have honed our skills over the years to design residencies and cross-cultural presentations. It is such an honor to work with current Juilliard students so that they continue along the path of becoming true ambassadors of music, and of Juilliard.
Kris: Also, interactive performances were often assisted with translators, but some lessons were accomplished through only the language of music—which had its challenges! Though it was amazing the work that we could accomplish in a lesson without words! On our day off, we did an impromptu performance in a local restaurant which was definitely a highlight of the week—70 people showed up to hear Haydn at the bar. This was a two-week trip, with the first week focusing on concert performance with some teaching, and the second week had more of the educational outreach focus, including master classes and interactive performances. Creating community residencies is a huge focus of Decoda, so we were thrilled to be able to do what we do best in Brazil!
Tell us about Decoda.
Claire: Decoda is a chamber music collective of about 30 people, all alumni of ACJW, and it operates as a communal entity. Everyone is required to bring a project to the group that benefits the group as a whole. We build community residencies wherever we tour: it’s not enough just to show up at the concert hall and play a concert, but we also do interactive performance tours of public schools, hospital visits, homeless shelters, and prisons.
Kris: In Decoda we have a core membership of leaders, project leaders, and that is important. We began with a basis of entrepreneurial spirit that has served us very well as an organization. Our philosophy is that the same level of performance and programming at Carnegie Hall can be done in a hospital, or a prison, or a homeless shelter. Making the music accessible can sometimes be a challenge, so we have found creative ways to relate to our audience over the course of establishing these workshops. The goal is total engagement.
What is it like performing in prisons, homeless shelters, etc.?
Kris: One of the most moving projects that I have been a part of involved working with a homeless shelter up at 108th Street, which was a three-month long workshop that culminated with a concert performance. These people are so open and so in need of human connection, and music communicates that feeling of community more than anything!
Claire: At a project at Lee Correctional Facility, the largest maximum security prison in South Carolina, we spent an hour after the concert hearing feedback from the audience. After listening to their comments and reactions, it made me think, why don’t we do this with other performances in other venues?
Kris: We have performed a lot with the musical connections program with Carnegie Hall, which includes songwriting workshops in both schools and prisons. We generally work with them for a one-week intensive and then give a performance at the end of the week. With our project at Sing Sing, we spent three months working with inmates on composition projects, which culminated in a performance attended by their fellow inmates. We also had a residency at a prison in South Carolina, while on tour there. That concert was one of the best things that I have ever participated in. Everyone was 100 percent invested, it was packed, everyone was really feeling it, everyone was prepared, completely committed; everything blossomed beautifully.
Have you kept in touch with classmates from Juilliard?
Kris: We are constantly playing gigs with people in the freelance community here in New York, so it’s easy to keep in touch with people. And it’s amazing what a small world it is!
Claire: When we were here, there was a bit of an elevator culture that bred "not speaking to each other." We were here when there was major construction going on. It’s so great to be in touch with current students and to hear about how the School is now. It seems like it’s growing in positive ways.
What are some words of advice you'd like to share with our current students?
Claire: Take advantage of every single extra thing you can while you are here: extracurricular activities, cross discipline collaborations, etc.
Kris: Learn from, play for, and make friends while in school. These are your future colleagues, friends, and maybe even more. Try to experience and learn as much as possible (time passes quickly!). The music business is as much about people, as it is about music. Be kind.
How would you describe your Juilliard experience?
Claire: In 2004, taking Dr. Polisi’s 'Artist as Citizen' class was the start to my musical journey of advocacy and citizenship. This class awakened this new path that I had never seen before for a career trajectory. The Academy was a way to put these concepts into action.
Kris: While my undergraduate was a bit stifling in some ways, and a sense of community was somewhat lacking at that time, I was very happy to have stayed for my master’s degree. The master’s degree was great because I was able to take all of the classes I wanted to experience and still had plenty of time to practice. Dr. Lasser’s Advanced Counterpoint was one of my all-time favorite classes. It was in Ed Bilous’ class that Eric Booth came in to share some of the philosophies behind Aesthetic Education, developed in Lincoln Center in the 1980’s: engagement before information, 80 percent of what you teach is who you are, etc. Some of these tenets, which evolved through our days with the Academy, have become fundamentals of creating interactive performances.
And if you could change one thing at Juilliard, what would that be?
Kris: I would request 24-hour practice rooms to be made available.
Claire: Or at least, create a policy for signing out and reserving practice rooms. Also, to provide more opportunities for the divisions to intermingle: music and dance, music and drama, dance and drama, etc.