Washington Square Magazine
Spring 2008

On a mission: Cypress String Quartet members (top, l to r) Tom Stone and Cecily Ward, violinists; Ethan Filner, violist; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cellist, are excited about helping young people to expand their experience of music. Sisters Matilda and Libby Ortiz are part of the Music Literacy program the quartet presents at San José's Horace Mann Elementary School. "The themes and ideas we hit on," says Stone, "are really universal themes of life."

With rave reviews of their worldclass performances, some musicians might simply enjoy the limelight. Instead, the Cypress String Quartet takes the vibrato of their music into classrooms in the Bay Area and nationwide. San José State's quartet-in-residence since 2003, the ensemble is using their innovative music education programs to introduce local students to the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Kurt Rohde.

Once an integral part of public education, music has been stripped from the curricula in many California elementary and secondary schools. Students often leave school without any exposure to music, which the quartet and many others believe impoverishes their overall education. The quartet's outreach is giving music back to students.

"Our programs are not technically-based music education," says violinist Tom Stone. "The themes and ideas we hit on are really universal themes of life." General music education programs such as Call & Response provide opportunities for all students, not just those studying instruments, to learn about inspiration, discipline and creative thinking.

During the quartet's visits to the 25 Bay Area schools participating in Call & Response, students listen to and learn about selected works by major composers that will inspire a new piece of music the quartet commissions.

This year, San Francisco composer and violist Kurt Rohde is writing a piece in response to works of Franz Joseph Haydn and Bela Bartok. "What inspires composers to write music is often other composers," says cellist Jennifer Kloetzel. The Cypress will then perform and talk about the old and new works as the culminating event of the program.

Rock star appeal

"We're an inner-city, low-income community," says Music Director Randy Porter of Westlake Middle School in Oakland. "Yet we go to San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the Call & Response concert and the quartet members are like rock stars to my students."

With energy and enthusiasm that's positively kinetic, the quartet members get their students excited about even the most obscure pieces of classical music and have them humming Beethoven instead of the latest from Alicia Keys or Nickelback.

"All of the students love to see the Cypress," says Lindsay Jones, SJSU senior and violinist. "They're fun and interactive."

In addition to motivating students, performing internationally, rehearsing daily and teaching at San José State, the quartet continues to build on outreach programs at participating Call & Response schools.

"I think their connection with schools is extraordinarily important," says Provost Carmen Sigler, who helped bring the quartet to San José State. "Music and the arts are what give value and meaning to our lives. There is sometimes the wrong impression that music and the arts are luxuries or only for elites," she observes, "but they're crucial for everyone, especially young students."

Many of San José's Horace Mann Elementary School students have never been in an auditorium, but are now learning about composing, music history and how music inspires. "Cypress has been extremely committed to our school," says Kim Ortiz, a parent at Horace Mann. "They're helping to expose our students to experiences and values they don't get at home or in their communities."

Already recognized by the Juilliard School and the California Arts Council for their outreach efforts, the quartet is a role model for students of all ages and backgrounds. Their success is proof that inspiration can begin with just 16 strings, four bows and a few notes.

—Jody Ulate, '05