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On Tour with the Ulysses Quartet and Boston Public Schools

The string quartet members stand on a old, grand spiral staircase surrounded by red velvet and glossy wood. Three of the members wear long, blue evening gowns, and one wears a navy suit with a blue tie. They hold their instruments and smile at the camera.
Lara St. John
The Ulysses Quartet (from left to right): Peter Dudek, Christina Bouey, Rhiannon Banerdt, and Grace Ho.

Eight days. Four different schools. Over 1,800 students. And one extraordinary string quartet.

As part of its commitment to making world-class live music available to a broad audience, GBH Music welcomed the Ulysses Quartet as its first-ever quartet-in-residence during the 2023-2024 school year. The season-long partnership furthered GBH Music’s mission to connect with listeners of all backgrounds and ages through more than fifty performances and events including free concerts at the GBH Studio at the Boston Public Library. They also visited the Springfield Conservatory of the Arts, New England Public Media, and Shelter Music Boston.

The program centered on a joyful collaboration with the Boston Public Schools with visits to the Edison School in Brighton, the Mario Umana Academy in East Boston, the Burke High School in Dorchester, and The English High School in Jamaica Plain. The vast majority of the students hadn’t touched string instruments before. For some students, the Ulysses Quartet’s interactive program of music from around the globe was their first-ever live concert.

The quartet’s residency was made possible by the Mattina R. Proctor Foundation, whose trustees shared that, “We are delighted that the GBH Quartet-in-Residence program has allowed the Ulysses Quartet to bring their artistic talents and love of music to several of Boston’s public schools, making a personal connection with, and hopefully inspiring, many of the students along the way. We see it as a chance to combine Mattina R. Proctor’s interest in education and her own love of music.”

For their first performance at the Edison School in November, the Quartet played for kindergarteners. The children walked, skipped, and spun into the room, talking and laughing and singing their way to the rug. When the Quartet started playing, they fell quiet, mesmerized for the entire hour. When the Quartet asked the kindergarteners to imagine a swan diving during Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan, the kids instantly covered their eyes with their hands, some tilting their heads up to the sky to better imagine a soaring bird. They were so eager to be a part of the performance despite knowing nothing about the instruments, the composers, or the style. The music was simply, and deeply, felt.

The Quartet plays before a sea of young students in a classroom covered wall-to-wall with alphabets, student projects, and classroom rules.
Meredith Nierman
The Ulysses Quartet (from left: Christina Bouey, Rhiannon Banerdt, Grace Ho, and Tony Bracewell) playing for elementary students at the Edison K8 School.

The Quartet’s music was also deeply felt at the Mario Umana Academy. For the majority of the school’s population, English was not the first language. Teachers would translate for the Quartet when students asked questions in Spanish, and the Quartet would try to explain the stories behind each piece of music in the simplest of terms. But once the Ulysses Quartet started playing, any confusion between the students and the Quartet evaporated. Students laughed, gasped, and sat with their eyes closed in thoughtful silence as they understood and contemplated the music.

Painted leaves and flowers burst from the wall under a painting of rainclouds. The leaves and petals are covered in messages from students, written in both English and Spanish, about times when they felt brave.
Julia Marcus
A mural about courage, or "la valentía," painted on the wall in the Umana Academy gymnasium where the Ulysses Quartet performed. Students from every school asked the Quartet if performing was scary and how they performed through the nerves.

In February, at Burke High School, the Quartet played for grades 7-12 including ABA students (students on the autism spectrum who require special attention in school). These students in particular loved the performance: they were dancing, conducting, saying “Wow!” and “Stupendous!” They were incredibly engaged, clapping back rhythm patterns and responding to the quartet’s questions. Whenever the Quartet played a dramatic decrescendo or when first violin Tina Bouey dug her bow in for a fiery solo, students’ drifting attention would snap back to the music.

The final performance that day was for a dozen seventh graders. The music teacher ended up inviting the students onto the stage with the Quartet. The group sat in a semi-circle around the Quartet as if attending an artist’s salon in the 1700s. The students’ attention was locked in as they not only asked questions about the music, but about performing, collaborating, and getting over nerves as well.

The letter has a couple spelling errors and a drawing of a heart. It reads: "Thank you for the show! I am a student who loves music. I myself play piano, guitar, ukulele, drums, and now xylophone. Listening to your music inspires me to want to persue music as a career! Hope to see you all again in the future! 2.15.24"
Julia Marcus
A letter from a student at Burke High School.

A moment of pure magic happened as the Quartet started playing their last piece, Shine You No More by the Danish String Quartet’s Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. Unprompted, the students on stage started stomping to the rhythm of the piece as if they were in an Irish pub. They quieted their feet when the Quartet played softly, they stomped louder when the Quartet crescendoed, and they all stomped a drumroll beat when Tina took her improvised solo.

Burke High School - students stomping

GBH Music audio engineer Téa Mottolese, who caught that moment in her recording, was staggered by the moment, saying, “It was a powerful reminder of how music is a universal language and how important it is to share and educate, and why we at WCRB do what we do.”

The last stop on the Ulysses Quartet’s tour through BPS was the English High School in Jamaica Plain, where the performances were so popular, some students reportedly skipped class to hear Haydn!

Excerpt from interview with Glory, EHS sophomore

Glory, EHS sophomore: "I just felt like, 'That's going to be me one day.' And I felt like I was connected to them, basically. I felt like I was them, like I'm playing, like one day this is gonna be me. I'm gonna be on stage playing for little kids in high school. That was... It just got to me. Thinking deeply about it now, it's actually great. They gave me the realization of, 'Don't be afraid to do anything.' Like, 'Go do what you have to do.' And I feel like I could perform one day, for somebody. I think I could do it."

Excerpt from interview with Rodney, EHS senior

Rodney, EHS senior: "So yeah, seeing them play and seeing other people perform and how good they're doing, how confident they're feeling, how they're acting, it makes me want to be like them and work a little bit harder so I can get to that point, get a little bit more known, put myself out there, be able to network myself a little bit, be able to go in the music industry and maybe do something else besides just drumline, maybe make beats for people or go and perform in parades and stuff like that."

Excerpt from interview with Aldrin, EHS junior

Aldrin, EHS junior: "For me, it definitely has a big impact because seeing how much fun they're having on the stage and performing, which I know they worked really hard for, it just makes me more motivated to also do the same thing so I can maybe experience the same feeling. So seeing how they're—elegantly, you could say—they're elegantly playing on the stage. You can see that they're having fun and they're moving a lot. They have stage presence, which is a big thing as well. That makes me feel like, 'Oh, maybe if I can work this hard as well, then maybe I can also get to where they're at.'"

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper said, “Our partnership with GBH Music not only enriches our curriculum but also inspires our students by showing them the highest levels of musical artistry. We are committed to making music more accessible to our community, and the free concerts at Boston Public Schools are a testament to this effort. We look forward to seeing the lasting impact of these live performances on our students' lives.”

Music is all around us all the time: in commercials and in stores, in TikToks and TV shows. It’s easy to become comfortable with consuming music passively, without really noticing it at all. But sitting in front of live musicians, the BPS students couldn’t help but be present with the music. And that presence enabled them to engage with the music and the players, to respond verbally, physically, and emotionally. Live music asks the listener to join in, to feel in sync with others, to harmonize and step together to the same beat. Music helps us connect.

During their residency with GBH Music, the Quartet forged these connections again and again, with students of every age and experience level. In an email to GBH Music, the Quartet wrote: “When you connect with students on a personal level through art, it can help them to understand their own value and individual voice, encouraging them to invest in their own education and future. It can connect them with their community and open avenues of personal expression, leading to mutual understanding and a sense of empowerment and responsibility.“

In cursive, this sign says: "The Future is yours to create."
Julia Marcus
A neon sign from the drama room at The English High School, encouraging students to believe in their futures.

Julia Marcus is a Production Assistant for WCRB.