Describing a hidden yet prominent culture within classical music, the violinist Mariella Haubs didn’t hold back. And why should she? The pressure in classical music conservatories to pursue traditional orchestral or solo careers is pervasive, despite efforts by school administrators to gently open up entrepreneurial pathways for its students. After all, students are selected in admissions processes heavily weighted towards how well you play your instrument in an audition, not essays.
But to be sure, some transcend that culture, successfully pursuing alternative pathways to channel their prodigious musical talent. Haubs and fellow violinist Jocelyn Zhu, both 23 and alumni of the Juilliard School, are co-founders of Concerts for Compassion (CFC), an organization that brings live music to local communities and displaced peoples. The two enterprising violinists used their summer after graduation to travel across 25 countries under the CFC banner, performing at about 35 locations. As they gear up for a second season of touring, the two have recently enjoyed a slew of impressive press coverage, including a recent spot on Good Morning America: mainstream media that even classical music’s biggest stars can only dream of.
Their career path is the subject of this week’s You Should Be Following, a National Sawdust Log series that profiles conservatory trained artists with unconventional careers. Among many questions, one sticks out most prominently:
How the hell do you get on the world’s most popular morning show playing the violin?
Graduation loomed ever closer, and two young violinists had no idea what was coming next.
“It was November, and we were both thinking about what we wanted to do after our last year in school,” Zhu said. “I knew I wanted to make a difference, and so did Mariella, who was already my best friend at the time, so we decided to do something together.”
After seven months of grueling work, the two musicians were on a plane to Iceland, beginning a journey across Europe that would take them to more squalid refugee camps than glittering concert halls.
So how did they make this happen?
The initial planning stages were crucial for the two co-founders: their trust in each other to not just accept responsibilities, but to also carry them out, was imperative. To this day, the two keep a shared iPhone note listing their to-dos, a digital document that continually evolves.
Haubs details the simple – but far from easy – groundwork that was necessary to make their dream a reality. “First we figured out our mutual passions,” she recalls, “and from there we understood that we wanted to use our talents in music to make a difference for people in need. Eventually, we decided on the refugee community.”
She continued with more practical needs. “Then came the hard question: what do we need to do to make that happen? We needed to get plane tickets. We needed contact information for where the refugee camps are. We need to find organizations that will let us in. We need to get general advice. We need to get funding.”
It’s difficult not to walk away impressed by the hustle that these two musicians put themselves through. In interviews, Zhu and Haubs recounted a grueling six-month stretch in which they cold-called all 64 American embassies across Europe, applied for and received grants from the Tarisio Trust and the U.S. Department of State, held five separate Groupmuse collaborations, mounted independent fund-raising concerts in Manhattan, and established a GoFundMe page.
As other musicians have done before them, Zhu and Haubs mastered the art of asking. “We asked everyone we knew for help or advice, and we were blown away with the results.” At Juilliard, Bärli Nugent, Lori Schiff, and Catherine Cho provided invaluable guidance. “With everyone, we’d draft our emails maybe five or six times to really make sure they were clear. We did a lot of work beforehand to create clarity in our requests, to make it easy for people to say yes. Only five percent of our asks ended up working out, but that five percent was more than enough to propel our project forward.”
One of those asks, to Belhaven University, resulted in Zhu and Haubs’ appearance not just in Good Morning America but also the Associated Press and a slew of local outlets. “Belhaven’s PR department, David Sprayberry in particular, did a tremendous amount of work in publicizing CFC after we had a body of work to show,” raves Zhu. “He told us that ‘this should be national news,’ and three weeks later he wrote to us asking if we were available for a Good Morning America interview! We were floored, especially after putting so much blood and sweat into the project.”
Behind the glamour of GMA’s effortless portrait was a tour fraught with uncertainty. “We improvised a lot,” Zhu said. “We had a lot of structured and scheduled concerts, but frequently we just showed up to refugee camps and asked if we could take our violins out and play. Many said no, but some of the camp staff shrugged their shoulders and said yes, too. The whole tour was a life-changing experience. We would play in the middle of these camps without explanation, and after the reactions and conversations we would have with the refugees, we often left in tears.”
Asked for advice she would give to students seeking to also pursue a dream like this, Zhu urged a focus on the bigger picture. “Leaving the environment school creates is very challenging. Goals were often very short term in school: they’re reachable in a semester, a week, sometimes even a day. Staying true to the why of our mission made the ups and downs feel less bumpy.”
Their why is convincing.
While the two musicians hail from different countries – Zhu is an American born to Chinese and Taiwanese parents, while Haubs grew up in Munich, Germany, before immigrating to the United States – they see Concerts for Compassion as a way to help mend communities after living life on an uncomfortable side of privilege.
“Where I grew up in Germany,” Haubs remembers, “I never really knew people who didn’t look like me or had the same religion—the communities were incredibly segregated. Judaism didn’t feel like a practiced religion anymore; I didn’t know anybody, or even meet anybody, who wasn’t white and Christian.”
Zhu also feels a calling to make things right. “I’m fortunate to have never personally been affected by racism growing up [in Mississippi],” she says. “My community has been great to me. But not everyone in this country is this lucky. I know the history, and that motivates me to do good, and to make it right.”
Now, after their Good Morning America appearance, the two are shifting from survival to expansion. “It feels like we can breathe now,” Haubs says. “At first, we would plan these elaborate fundraiser concerts and they would only get $200. Now, we get more than ten times that, because we can actually demonstrate a body of work.”
The publicity certainly hasn’t hurt. In addition to September engagements in Europe collaborating with Support International and the Red Cross, Zhu and Haubs gained the attention of the United Nations after their GMA special, and are planning a collaborative tour to refugee camps throughout Latin America. Other collaborations are in the works, including with Meeting Point International and the upcoming Peace First Summit in New York founded by Barack Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.
The pair of dynamic women have an eye on growing the scale of the operation, applying for official nonprofit status, incorporating more robust film documentation, and finding ways to involve their talented musician colleagues.
“There is always a way to be kinder, smarter, and to reach more people,” Haubs says. “We hope to keep growing in all of those directions.”
John Hong is a Juilliard-trained clarinetist and writer. He has performed in concert halls around the world and uses his conservatory training to provide a unique window into arts commentary.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.