September 6, 2009 - Nearly a decade ago, a noble experiment was broadcast on public radio. From the Top was launched as a showcase for pre-college classical musicians.
Today, the program is heard by about 700,000 weekly listeners on NPR stations, and this year's tour will reach more than 20,000 live fans. The show's host is the amiable pianist Christopher O'Riley, known for playing Bach and Rachmaninoff, as well as his adventurous transcriptions of songs by the British rock band Radiohead.
The success of From the Top, O'Riley says, is due solely to the young musicians who appear on the show.
"They become the best emissaries I can imagine for classical music," O'Riley says. "They are not yet doing it for a living, so they can just go with their heart. It's not a pragmatic decision; it's really doing what comes most passionately and easily with them."
Some of that passion includes skateboarding — as when O'Riley allowed a young guitarist to take a spin on the stage of Davies Hall in San Francisco during a show.
10th Anniversary Alums: William Harvey
For the 10th anniversary of From the Top, the show has invited back some alums from the early days.
Violinist William Harvey appeared on From the Top's pilot program ten years ago. He was a teenager then, taking his first plane flight and subway ride to get to the show.
Since then, Harvey has graduated from the Juilliard School with a master's degree in violin. He also served as the concertmaster of Spokane Symphony and he started a non-profit organization called Cultures in Harmony, which promotes cultural understanding through music.
Harvey plans to move to Afghanistan in a few months to serve as a violin and viola teacher for the minister of education. His inspiration, he says, came from the tragedy of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. As soldiers and workers returned to the 69th Regiment Armory, after a long day of rescue and clean up at ground zero, Harvey soothed them, hours on end, with his violin.
"Seeing the impact that the music had on them, when it seemed like they needed it so much, I realized I would no longer be content to remain in the ivory tower of classical music," Harvey says. "I needed to go out and explore music's capacity to transform society."
10th Anniversary Alums: Maya Shankar
Another alum is violinist Maya Shankar. She was just 11 when she played on the pilot show, and returned at 13 to play the wickedly difficult "La Campanella" by Paganini. Although Shakar was sidelined with tendonitis for 7 years, she made a splash with her comeback, playing Bach with star violinist Joshua Bell in Cape Town, South Africa.
Now 23, Shankar is a Rhodes Scholar, working towards a Ph.D in experimental psychology at Oxford. She works in a multi-sensory perception lab.
"I look at how sensory signals from the visual system and the auditory system interact in the mind and communicate with each other," Shankar says. "I think music can be a very multi-sensory experience for both the player and the listener. And I definitely see some similarities between my field of research and what I've experienced as a musician."
Over the past decade From the Top has expanded, with road trips and a television show called From the Top at Carnegie Hall,now in its second season. But O'Riley says he's most happy about the fact that the show has become a known outlet for young people to express themselves through music.
"We have lots of kids who go on and pursue music, but we also have lots of kids for whom classical music is a part of their lives that they could not do without," O'Riley says.
"In both Maya and William's case we see that music is a very concentrated effort, passion and course in life, but the energy and the discipline that is inherent in music training allows them to pursue whatever else they would like to pursue."