As artist-in-residence for WWFM the Classical Network of Mercer County Community College, Jed Distler realizes that a power play is not going to entice young people to enjoy classical music. It must be gently immersed into their souls, so that it seems like it’s their own idea to enjoy and appreciate it.
“The worst thing you can do is preach, or have a patronizing attitude,” said Distler, a pianist, composer and critic who has been lauded in the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker. “Just expose people to the music, maybe give a little bit of contextual information. It’s important not to overdo it, nor to dumb anything down. When school systems invest the time and resources into music education in the right way, the results can be revelatory, particularly when young or emerging artists get involved with extended community residencies.”
WWFM and Jacobs Music Center in Lawrenceville have come up with a way to get youngsters involved with the community and beyond. It is called “Kids on Keys,” a new monthly broadcast series hosted by Distler and streamed on wwfm.org the first Saturday of each month. It spotlights some of the best young piano talent in the radio station’s immediate broadcast region of central and southern New Jersey.
West Windsor’s Taksh Gupta: Ernst Toch’s Der Jongleur; Evelyn Liu: Dennis Alexander’s Les Nuits Mystiques; Joshua Baw: Beethoven’s Finale from Piano Sonata No. 2 in C Major Op. 2 No. 3; Belle Meade’s Evan Lin: Haydn’s Allegro Moderato from Sonata in F Major; Anastasia Kudin: Schubert’s Impromptu in E-flat D. 899 No. 2; West Windsor’s Catherine Chu: Mendelssohn’s Fantasia in F-sharp Minor Op. 28, 1st Movement; West Windsor’s Jack Fan: Ginastera’s Rondo on Argentine Children’s Folk Tunes; Crystal Su: Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp Minor.
“The range of talent among these young pianists impresses me as much as their obvious love for music, their dedication to the piano, and their capacity for hard work,” said Distler, who has been WWFM’s artist in residence for 2 and a half years. “Each deserves to be heard, and, to that end, ‘Kids on Keys’ showcases their artistry and their future potential.”
The idea was put into action by Jacobs Music, which has had a longstanding relationship MCCC and Classical Network program director David Osenberg. Bob Rinaldi, a senior vice president with Jacobs, said Osenberg and Distler were inspirations for the program.
“We were talking out loud one day, thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have local kids featured on the radio?'” Rinaldi said. “Everybody thought that would be a great idea.
“We’re constantly looking for ways to raise music in the community. One of the things I look at, in athletics there’s so many opportunities where it becomes the focal point of the week. My daughter is a soccer player, she has two practices per week, 20 games per season and tournaments on top of that. But in the music world, maybe two recitals a year and a couple of guild auditions. There’s an unending supply of things to do to focus on athletics, but not as many in the music world. Maybe two recitals a year and a couple guild auditions. So we wanted to create an opportunity for something very exciting for kids to participate in and showcase the talent of the finest kids from New Jersey, Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.”
The first program aired on July 1. Rinaldi said the feedback “was very positive, and the teachers were very positive about it.”
The process starts with newsletters sent to area piano teachers, asking if they have radio-worthy students. Those chosen are brought together at Jacobs Music Center, or another venue, for a live performance that is recorded by a sound engineer.
“It could be somewhere around 20 kids and we’ll develop four hours of content at a time,” Rinaldi said. “Jed takes a collection of all these performances and based on his artistic approach — maybe one week it’s a Beethoven program, maybe the next one it’s French music — he will pull from these different inventories of performances to create the program.”
Those four hours are whittled down to a one-hour selection by Distler, who may save some pieces to use for a future date.
If ever there was the right ear for choosing each piece of music, it is Distler. He serves as artistic director of ComposersCollaborative, Inc., a New York-based organization responsible for 30 years’ worth of innovative programs and new music events. His work is available on the Bridge, Nonesuch, New World, Point, Decca and Musical Concepts labels. As a Steinway artist, Distler has been recording a wide range of repertoire for the Steinway Spirio High Definition Player Piano.
This is his first experience working with a concept such as Kids On Keys, and he puts every ounce of his musical knowledge and ability into producing the finest show possible.
“The challenge in putting this together is how to get the most contrast out of the material,” Distler said. “I have about four hours’ worth of live performances available to me that features works of various lengths and styles. It’s a matter of mixing and matching. While the majority of the works performed tend to be on the short side, there have been several good performances of larger-scaled works too. These I use either as a program centerpiece or as a big concluding selection.”
To give some variety and a historical context, at a certain point of the program, Distler includes a recording by a well-known pianist from when they were a child. He feels it’s a way to put the performances into context and hopefully provide inspiration to the young artists.
“Did you ever hear Daniel Barenboim at age 13, for example?” he asked. “Right then and there, you could tell that this was a major talent and I used him in our first show. On the upcoming show I play a 1985 recording with the 16-year-old Hélène Grimaud performing Rachmaninov.
“But the main point is to showcase these talented youngsters from central and southern New Jersey. You might not know where their talents eventually will lead them, of course, but if they’re making good music and enjoying the experience of sharing this good music with audiences, then why not do this on the scale of a radio show with international outreach?”
One thing is certain. When a student’s piece makes the cut, it’s a big deal. Take 10-year-old Marlton resident Anastasia Kudin, for example.
Anastasia’s Schubert selection was chosen by her piano teacher, Professor Veda Zuponcic of Rowan University.
“When I heard the piece for the first time, I instantly fell in love with its fast rhythm, ongoing scales, and its intricate way on changing feelings,” said Kudin, who has been playing since age 4. Her love of classical music was instilled as a child, when her mom would play baby Mozart music for her. As she grew older, Anastasia’s dad introduced her to his favorites — Chopin and Beethoven. As she enters her first year at Montessori Seeds Of Education, Kudin has a zest for sharing her gift.
“I enjoy preforming for the public, making people smile after a long day” she said. “But I’m not so sure what the future will be.”
It is a background like Anastasia’s that Distler feels is important in getting youngsters to appreciate classical music before they are immediately sucked into the popular modern music vacuum of their generation.
“What I think is missing from today’s culture is the lack of musical culture at home,” Distler said. “My parents weren’t musicians, but they could noodle a tiny bit on the piano, and we’d have relatives who’d come over and play orchestra pieces arranged for one piano, four hands. So either the piano was going full tilt, or my mom was playing classical LPs in the background after I came home from kindergarten.”
He went on to note his paternal grandparents loved playing violin duets and Fritz Kreisler 78 records while his maternal grandfather adored Italian opera and sang it constantly for his own pleasure. His favorite was Mario Lanza, and Distler still cries to Lanza’s soundtrack in “The Great Caruso.”
“In a way, the piano was our home entertainment center, just as it was for millions of other families,” he said.
He hopes that this latest endeavor can help provide the love for classical music that he gained as a youth.
“For me, the goal of Kids on Keys is to provide a forum where young pianists can be showcased alongside their peers to a large, international audience,” Distler said. “Can this show promote classical music among younger Americans? I hope so, and I welcome any feedback on how to do this, as long as the main goal is to spread music’s good word.”
Something that Kids on Keys could well be on the way to doing.