FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Next month, nationally acclaimed string quartet ETHEL embarks on the group's 10th annual educational visit to schools on Native American reservations. The trip commemorates a decade of working with the Grand Canyon Music Festival's Native American Composer Apprentice Project (NACAP).
Since 2005, ETHEL has brought the gift of music to the underserved and rural communities of the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations. To date, ETHEL's residency has reached almost 18,000 students, premiered over 150 works by Native American children, and touched more than 15 schools throughout Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
For about three weeks in the next month, the quartet will conduct intense, one-on-one tutorial sessions, readings and rehearsals to help student composers refine their works. The group then showcases the children's pieces at school performances, culminating with public performances at the Grand Canyon Music Festival, which are recorded and sometimes later aired on National Public Radio (NPR).
Clare Hoffman, director and founder of NACAP, said the program gives a voice to students isolated by geography, culture and economics.
"Through ETHEL, music of NACAP apprentice composers has reached audiences internationally," Hoffman said. "That kind of backing creates incalculable benefits for our students, providing a platform for advocacy of these talented, overlooked youth. Our students' music comes alive through the quartet's passion and commitment."
ETHEL approaches the works of these budding composers with the same level of seriousness and focus as they would with any established name.
Dorothy Lawson of ETHEL said the quartet members consciously make it clear that they are here for the students. From the sacred melodies the students' grandmothers used to sing to them or the heavy metal music of today, the young Native composers bring all kinds of music to the table.
"Native American composers need to be heard," Lawson said. "Their music is so spiritual and ceremonial. They revere music... the culture uses music in everyday life and spiritual practice. I sometimes feel that when we're playing their music it's like encountering the Venus rising fully born from the waves."
For ETHEL, the NACAP residency is a natural fit. Education is increasingly central to the quartet's guiding beliefs.
"This residency is so much a part of our mission, and outgrowth of what we're doing," Lawson said.
ETHEL is dedicated to using musical practice to broaden and deepen cross-cultural interchange and has a strong attraction to exploring indigenous music.
"The second we landed we wanted to come back," says Ralph Farris of ETHEL, reflecting on the group's first visit to the reservation. "It is a creative space and cultural opportunity that we never saw coming. It became clear as we realized how little we knew about this culture that we had so much to learn."
According to ETHEL, the NACAP residency gives the quartet a whole new purpose as musicians.
"It is the most exciting and defining cultural or creative opportunity that we've ever had," Farris said.