Bruce Kaminsky, Musicopia Teaching Artist, receives 2018 INSPIRE Award
“One of my greatest joys in working with Musicopia is that I get to provide a service to the students, because I remember being in their position, and I know how significant music was to me in helping me along.”
By Talia Yellin Fisher
June 2018…We are thrilled that the recipient of Musicopia’s 2018 INSPIRE Award went to Bruce Kaminsky, a long-time Musicopia Teaching Artist. Bruce is a bass player and a music professor at Drexel University and Montgomery County Community College. The INSPIRE Award is given each year to someone who inspires learning through music. The awards ceremony took place on Saturday, May 12 at the Ethical Society of Philadelphia.
Bruce became a Teaching Artist with Musicopia (then called Strings for Schools) in the early 1990’s while playing gigs with Welthie Fitzgerald, Musicopia’s founder. “We originally met at an open mic jam session, and Welthie, being the person that she is, after finding out that I played the bass, I was playing with her the next day!” said Bruce. “And then she asked me if I knew how to play bass using a bow and I said sure, and that’s how I started putting together programs for Musicopia.”
Bruce’s entry into music performance was not so typical, though. “Most folks get into music because they’re really good at it. They’re three years old and sitting at the piano, and their parents hear them tap out a melody on the piano and they say ‘Oh, we’ve got a Mozart on our hands! We better give him/her lessons,’” Bruce said. Bruce explains how that was not his experience, and that in fourth grade, he was actually denied an instrument by his school’s band teacher, because he didn’t think that Bruce was clever or smart enough to play an instrument. But his father got him a guitar anyway, and in 8th grade, he also learned to play the bass and joined a band. “I started playing rock music, and I didn’t stop. Greatness doesn’t come from how you deal with your assets, it’s how you deal with your deficits,” said Bruce. This experience has allowed Bruce to better understand the experience of many of his Musicopia students. “Becoming a good player was one of the more difficult things for me to accomplish, because I didn’t come up as any sort of musical prodigy. So I appreciate it when my Musicopia students struggle, and understand where they’re coming from,” said Bruce. “I also understand the significance of music in a person’s life. For me, music saved my life in a lot of ways – not in a physical way, but I lacked a lot of social skills and I was also perceived as having a lack of intellect. Music put me into a community of people, and through music I was able to evolve both socially and in many ways, psychologically.”
To that end, Bruce explains how his Spice Route Ensemble has created a feeling of connection and security for some of his students. “We have received letters from students of Middle Eastern origin telling us that they were able to relate to us in a very personal way, and in many ways we made them feel safer. They tell us that a song we did was a song their mother sang to them or was something they learned in Hebrew school. There’s a sense of connection outside of their community, or outside the safety of their family.”
This sense of understanding is another reason why Bruce recieved the INSPIRE Award. Over the years, Bruce has met students with a true talent – a “diamond in the rough” as he puts it. He really stays on top of the school administration to make sure the student is getting the help and attention he or she needs to further their talent. But for Bruce, it’s not only about those kids with the exceptional musical talent. Bruce gives just as much attention to those students for whom music may not ultimately be a career but can still be life-changing in other ways. He explains that sometimes there are students who have one foot in a “street” environment, and another foot in an “academic” environment. “Music is sometimes enough to nudge them towards that ‘academic’ environment, where they feel that ‘I can do this,’” says Bruce. “Not in a concert musician kind of way, but they realize that, ‘if I can do it, I can do other things, too.’”
Bruce is also grateful to Musicopia for employing musicians as Teaching Artists. “Some people think that the payoff for musicians is their love of playing music. But most folks don’t do things only because they enjoy doing it – they expect to get paid for it too. So I appreciate the work, and I appreciate that Musicopia puts other musicians to work,” said Bruce. “Musicopia employs world-class musicians. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the artist, Musicopia and the students. It’s a win-win-win situation.” Bruce explains that one of his greatest joys in working with Musicopia is that he gets to provide a service to the students, because he remembers being in their position. He knows what it is like to be them, and he remembers how significant music was to him in helping him along.
Denise Kinney, Musicopia’s Executive Director said, “Bruce was the first bass Teaching Artist my mom, Welthie Fitzgerald, hired for Musicopia. He had it all, and she couldn’t have made a better choice! He is immensely talented musically, and understands from his own experience how music can change a child’s life. He is personally committed to doing his best to help children find their strengths through the arts, and we are fortunate to have him as a friend and ally of Musicopia.”
Bruce has taught a wide-range of music programming for Musicopia. One relatively new program is the GarageBand Jam Lab Band that Bruce teaches with fellow Teaching Artist Bill Koutsourosis. In this program, they teach students the ins and outs of how to compose music using the app. “This is almost 180 degrees from where we first started which was introducing acoustic instruments to school,” said Bruce. “Now we’re also introducing digital technology and digital recording by using what the kids are already on, which is their phones and iPads. We’re letting them create through a device that they’re used to.” While some may consider the GarageBand app a composition short-cut, Bruce’s perspective is that music has always been about technology, and to deny it is to go against the tradition of music. “For example, there used to be a time when there weren’t valves on trumpets. And when the violin came along, it was louder than the viola da gamba so it had more uses. So music and technology have always gone hand in hand.”
Another program that Bruce brings into schools is the Spice Route Ensemble. He and his Spice Route colleagues focus on four countries: Lebanon, Egypt, Greece and Israel. The Spice Route members not only teach the children about the music of these countries but also the history and language. “We tie in history with each of the countries along with the music and make comparisons between them,” said Bruce. “For example, we show how all the alphabets from these countries come from the same place and start the same way. We try to connect the dots. It’s not just about the music; but rather, the music often becomes a catalyst for dealing with broader social issues.”