A Q&A with Violist Gabo Lewis, a Senior at Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School High School and Member of Face the Music
Gabo Lewis began his musical career as a toddler banging on pots and pans and took up the violin at age 4. A native of Burlington, VT, he first heard about Kaufman Music Center’s youth new music ensemble Face the Music at age 13 and made the six-hour trip to NYC twice a month to participate. Eager to attend Kaufman’s Special Music School High School, Gabo moved to NYC on his own to live with a host family the following year. In addition to SMS High School and Face the Music’s Kronos Quartet program, his impressive resumé also includes Mannes Prep and New York Youth Symphony’s Chamber Music Program as well as demos for multi-Grammy winning Atlantic Records artists. This fall he’s been busy applying to colleges and performing all over NYC.
Q: You grew up playing traditional classical music. What was it like when you first joined Face the Music and were playing contemporary classical music by living composers for the first time?
A: Whether I was playing a recently-commissioned piece from a young composer, or playing Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector by Terry Riley, it’s all music, and I was certainly intrigued by the idea that written into a piece could be the fact that the second violinist had to stand up and yell something at the top of his lungs, and then walk off stage, and then walk on five minutes later and keep on playing as if nothing had happened. That was a novel idea to me. I was extremely excited to add contemporary classical music to my resumé and to my repertoire because it allows you to get this incredible sense of your instrument and your abilities as a musician. It pushes the limits of what’s known on your instrument as well as what’s known musically speaking.
Q: What was it like to perform with Kronos Quartet at WNYC’s The Greene Space as part of Kaufman Music Center’s 2017 Ecstatic Music Festival?
A: The Greene Space was a really incredible venue to play in. Working with the Kronos Quartet is always a dream. It’s so cool to work with such a well-known, professional and yet chill group. They treat you as a peer, which is unexpected as a student musician.
Q: What kind of environment is Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School High School?
A: Special Music School High School is a truly unique environment, even among specialized arts high schools. You’ve got this thriving ecosystem. Everybody there is just so passionate and so enthralled and so invested in music that it allows you to grow as not only a musician, but also as a team player. While some people get extremely competitive when they find other people just as good and better than them, SMS does not promote that. Instead, they promote learning from each other, and playing together to get better. There’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s just so supportive. Everybody understands.
Q: Where are you performing outside of school?
A: I‘ve been recording demos at Atlantic Records and also am performing at a jazz club and doing Irish sessions in various pubs around the city. I grew up playing fiddle music, so I’ve been taking that to the next level and getting paid for that.
Q: At a young age, you’ve had success doing what musicians must do these days: Create opportunities for yourself. Do you feel that SMS instills a sense of entrepreneurship in its students?
A: Oh, certainly. SMS really encourages its students to put themselves out there in the music world because it’s a really dog-eat-dog world, especially in the music world. So if you don’t make a name for yourself and introduce yourself to as many people as possible, you’re never going to get a gig.
Q: Has music helped you succeed in other areas of life?
A: In order to be a successful musician, you have to learn how to push yourself and how to decide what’s important. If I am practicing an étude, I could sit down and just play it over and over and over again. And if I don’t really pay attention to what I’m doing, it’s not going to get better. So what I have to do is pick out the things I want to work on for that day, and really push myself to get those perfect. Music teaches you to be strict with yourself, and to work well with other people. While you can be a wonderful soloist, you’re always going to be working with other people. It’s a social activity. So music teaches you to get along with people, which is a wonderful skill to have in life. Also, music teaches you how to block your time. You really have to say, this is what my day looks like. This is how it has to go.
Q: How do you make time for everything?
A: Power naps.
Q: You’ve been involved with a number of Kaufman Music Center’s Divisions (Special Music School, Face the Music, Merkin Concert Hall). What has that been like?
A: The most unusual and unique thing about Kaufman is purely the number of facets it does cover. No matter what you’re looking for in music, if you’re at Kaufman Music Center, you’re going to find it. You’ve got Face the Music, you’ve got a school dedicated to musicians being able to succeed. You have a jazz program and classes for very small children. In NYC, which is such a huge hub for the arts, an organization will usually specialize in one thing, or two if you’re lucky. Kaufman makes life easier by incorporating everything into it, and doing so at a very high level.
Q: Why is it important to make music training accessible?
A: Without Kaufman Music Center, I would not have come to New York, and would not have been able to do anything that I’m currently doing. At Special Music School High School I receive ear training, music theory and private lessons. If I didn’t go to SMS I wouldn’t be able to have music theory and orchestra. I wouldn’t be able to have a chamber coach or as lengthy private lessons. I certainly wouldn’t get music history. I’m taking American music analysis right now. I wouldn’t have any of those courses. Those are all through SMS.
Q: What was it like to leave your family at age 14 and live with a host family in order to attend Special Music School High School?
A: It was certainly difficult. I think I saw my mom once in the first three months. That first year was the hardest because it’s such a big transition. I had to learn how to do things myself. It was a lot of stress, which was made more difficult by the fact that I didn’t have a parental figure in the city to unload that stress on, to complain or just talk, really. Over the years it got a lot easier. It’s still tough though. But it’s also wonderful because it’s allowing me to be in NYC, the greatest city on earth, the artistic hub of North America. And it’s allowing me to pursue this career, this passion, that I’ve had since I was four years old.
Q: Did anything surprise you about NYC?
A: I grew up in Burlington, VT, where there was no public transportation or really anything. NYC has 24-hour pizza. I discovered that my freshman year. You could be up at 2 o’clock in the morning coming home from a gig and be able to buy a slice of pizza for $1. That as a Vermonter is a fantasy.
Q: You’re graduating from high school this spring. What’s next?
A: I just finished my college applications. I was named as a QuestBridge scholarship finalist this year. Questbridge has a partnership with 39 colleges, and if you get accepted into one of these colleges through Questbridge, you get full paid tuition for all four years of college. Princeton is my first choice. I’ve also applied to Stanford, Yale, Boston University, McGill and Harvard. I don’t want to go the strict conservatory route because I want to leave my options open. There are just so few jobs as a musician right now. I’m applying to top-tier colleges that offer dual degree programs where I can get a Masters in music and a Bachelors in an academic subject.
Q: What kind of career path do you see for yourself?
A: Ideally I would like to be a performing chamber violist. I would like to be part of a professional group like the Guarneri Quartet, the JACK Quartet or Kronos Quartet. And if that doesn’t pan out, my backup career is a musicologist.
Q: Is your family supportive of your career aspirations?
A: I have friends whose families feel that music is a wonderful hobby, but there’s no way you can ever do that as your career. I was blessed by a family who said, if you’re going to do it, do it right. So I got to focus on music my entire life, and they support me as long as I’m doing what I want to do. I don’t think it gets much better than that, honestly.