AN INTERVIEW WITH MOLLY CARR AND ANNA PETROVA.
Based on my research, Novel Voices is a branch of the Music Heals Us non-profit. Could you provide readers with a brief background on Music Heals Us, and how Novel Voices came from that?
Molly: The story of the founding of Project: Music Heals Us all comes down to a shard of glass. It was December 5th, 2013, the night before a chamber music concert tour across Israel, and I had decided it was time to attack an ominous stack of dirty dishes that had been collecting in the sink for a few too many days. It was upon completion of this daunting task that, to my horror, a neatly-stacked glass bowl decided to hop off the drying rack and shattered itself into a million little pieces into my hand.
The ensuing months were a string of somewhat discouraging doctor's appointments and painful probings – attempts to remove the glass shards from my left-hand middle finger. During this three month long and viola-less process, I moved out to Connecticut to live with my grandparents for a while and consider what direction my life might take should I never be able to play my instrument again. I decided to try my hand at nursing and so signed up for a nursing aide course with the American Red Cross. Part of this course included a residency in a nursing home, in which all of the students were given the opportunity to work one-on-one with a number of patients. During this time, there was one very special patient with whom I fell in love: her name was Ruth. When it was my turn to work with her for the first time, I was given a preparatory warning of, "She doesn't respond. She can't speak. She can only scream. She's difficult to work with. She can't understand you. She's stubborn...” But, to my amazement, when I entered her room and sat with her for a few minutes to hold her hand, she looked right at me and started asking me questions in short but complete sentences!
That night I was on cloud nine as I shared the story with my grandparents! I could hardly wait to visit her again. The next day, as I sat with her again, I was overjoyed to hear her speak to me again – as she continued to do on all of the following days of the residency. Upon my last day there, as the students each said our teary goodbyes to the patients, I made sure to save a few extra minutes for Ruth. It was here that the idea of Project: Music Heals Us was born: As I sat with her, I revealed that my alter-ego was that of a classical musician who lived in NYC and hoped very much to be playing the viola again soon - and I promised that when I COULD play again, I would come back and play for her.
The next day, I called my mom and said, "I want to start a concert series. I think I want it to be called Project: Music Heals Us." And with that, we started planning Season One...
Six months later, PMHU gave its inaugural concert at her bedside, and I watched in awe as her body and face transformed from pained contortion and anxiety to calm and wonder while listening to a Mozart Viola Quintet. That concert reminded me of why I wanted to become a musician in the first place, and I was incredibly moved and inspired by the visual exemplification of the power of music to bring healing and positivity.
Zooming forward six years later, Project: Music Heals Us has now grown into a multi-faceted non-profit organization which has offered over 200 free concerts and workshops around the world in many different types of venues including prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and now - with the Carr-Petrova Duo’s Novel Voices Refugee Aid Project - refugee camps.
Why did you decide to focus on refugee communities for Novel Voices? Have you experienced any challenges with this, and if so how have you overcome them?
This one also comes with a story!
One of the things that we love to do as a Duo is allow ourselves a couple of times a year to enjoy a few days of nothing but dreaming and rehearsing - rehearsing free from the pressure of imminent concerts, and dreaming as if the sky is the limit, imagining up and writing down any and every idea that ever inspired our imaginations about projects, pieces, venues, programs, etc…we would like to do. As we were enjoying one such retreat in Anna’s house in Houston, Texas, a few years ago, we discovered that we both felt strongly that we would like our next big project together to be something which was bigger than ourselves - something that could make a social impact.
That same week, Molly happened to be taking a Hebrew lesson from a friend in LA (via Skype), and during one of her lessons, her friend told her, “I’m sorry, Molly! I’m afraid I’m going to have to end our lesson early today in order to take my adopted refugee boy to school.” To which Molly replied, “WHAT??? Tell me more!!” Molly ended up learning about an incredible refugee-aid organization in the LA-area called “Home for Refugees,” and after a number of phone calls and conversations with friends in unsuccessful efforts to learn more about how/where one could get involved in such an organization in the NY/NJ-area, the idea for the Novel Voices Refugee Aid Project was born.
Molly approached Anna with the idea of a “refugee awareness project,” and the idea hit home. The Duo sat on Anna’s couch for almost two straight days, furiously and excitedly dreaming up the Novel Voices Refugee Aid Project - with a relentless flood of ideas pouring out from both of onto a little piece of ripped-up notebook paper on Anna’s coffee table. We grew more and more excited as we realized all of the different ways not only our art but also film might be able to lend itself to raising awareness both for the plight of refugees, but also for the ways that people like us could get involved and help make some sort of tangible difference in the face of such an overwhelming crisis! Within those two days, the skeleton for the entire Project was built; within five days, Molly had brought it before the Project: Music Heals Us board of directors to have it adopted as the nonprofit’s newest branch; within a week, we had applied for a grant from the Music Academy of the West Alumni Enterprise Awards to fund it; within two months, we had won the award and were on our way toward launching the Project; and within six months, we were in our first refugee camp and performing at the United Nations in celebration of the Project!
As for challenges, operating in locations such as refugee camps and schools held many distinct challenges, but to name a few: obtaining clearance to even access the facilities was a challenge which took months and months to overcome; collaborating with local and international governing organizations on a daily basis (e.g. negotiating logistics/authorizations/safety specifications/filming clearance for our team of two musicians, a composer, and two film-makers entering the camps); finding new methods of communication across languages for our musical workshops (turns out emojis are excellent aids!); redesigning every musical program to fit the specific characteristics of each different refugee audience; being forced to relentlessly expand our knowledge and capabilities into many fields not customarily required of classical musicians…. The list could go on for a while! But, honestly, being forced to deal with and overcome challenges on a daily basis only strengthened our resolve to bring this Project to life - and also showed us that we do make a pretty good team!
How would you describe your relationship with music?
Music is our life! It’s what we do and how we make our living, but it is also our love and something neither of us can seem to live without - even though a life in music is definitely not easy. It is essentially dedication to a craft which can never be perfect and which is inherently subjective, but which also has immense communicative, expressive and bonding powers. We both are also drawn to it because it enables one to access and express every facet of one’s personality which is one of the most exhilarating, freeing, and fulfilling experiences one can enjoy - and we consider ourselves lucky to be able to make a life and a living being able to spend our time sharing this with others!
What has been one of your happiest memories from Novel Voices so far?
Oh wow! Tough question…. so many very happy moments! Maybe playing foosball with our new friend Mohammad from Kuwait in the Jelling Refugee Camp in Denmark? Or jamming with oud and quanoun players in the Palestinian Deheisheh Camp in Bethlehem - players with whom we couldn’t carry on a conversation due to the language barrier, but with whom we could have a total blast making music! Or... walking out onto the stage at Carnegie Hall and seeing a jam-packed hall filled with so many faces from all different parts of the world and all different moments of our Novel Voices journey - all together in one place, smiling back at us! There are too many wonderful memories to list here - but we wrote about many of them during our social media campaign #50Days4Refugees! You can read about them at www.carrpetrovaduo.com/novelvoices :)
Can you tell us more about the Refugee Awareness concert which just happened recently at Carnegie Hall?
When we dreamed up the Novel Voices Refugee Aid Project, our desire was to bridge worlds and bring what we learned, witnessed, and experienced in the camps back into our own world in America - to give, as our mission statement says, “voice and visibility” to those we met in our travels. And so, we thought, what better and more “visible” venue was there in our classical music world than the stage of Carnegie Hall to do this? Thus, a few weeks ago on October 28th, 2019, we premiered the “Novel Voices” composition our composer created based off of our experiences in the camps, along with a preview of our film-makers’ documentary film which will be focused on the Project. Our program was comprised of all music which was somehow tied to our Novel Voices journey (including several works which we just recorded on our Novel Voices album!). We also offered half of all of our ticket sales to the refugee organizations with which we partnered throughout the Project, and performed in gowns which were donated to us and shipped from Kenya, made by hand by the refugee women of RefuSHE.
How do you practice discipline in preparing for this major milestone?
Honestly, motivation to practice when you’re looking forward to a Carnegie debut is not really an issue! The idea of standing up on such a prestigious, historic stage wanting to offer your best certainly brought to life the famous phrase “practice, practice, practice!” - But one technique which really seemed to help us quite a bit amidst all of that practice, practice, practicing was having the opportunity to perform the same concert program in many concerts leading up to Carnegie. We also made sure to record each and every performance (as well as a lot of run-through’s in the practice room), in order to listen back together and hear things from the outside, away from our instruments. We then also made sure to set aside time each day to allow us time to practice our own individual parts before coming back together to rehearse again. This “rinse, repeat” method of running-through, listening, practicing, and THEN rehearsing together really seemed to work well for us!
Please finish the sentence: Music has the power to...
Anna: ...help you imagine the unimaginable.
Molly: ...reach into and tug on the parts of the human soul and psyche where nothing else can touch and in so doing, create unexpected communities - despite any and all language, cultural, social, mental, etc. differences or barriers.
What songs might you play during a "private session" on Spotify?
Anna: Right now, after a visit to Nashville, I’m completely sold on the Bluegrass and Country genre! I love it. It reminds me of a time when life was simpler. Somehow I see in it maybe the true folk of America and I connect with that on a very visceral level.
Molly: Definitely our debut album “Novel Voices”! :D Just kidding… my top choices would be any of the Guarneri String Quartet’s Beethoven Quartets (obsessed for about the past 15 years), the Schubert 4-hand F minor Fantasy, the Founders singing/playing “Oh My Love” by Ben Russell, and maybe a little Beyoncé? ;)
How might readers across the world help you achieve your goal of connecting artists and audiences alike, while giving a voice and visibility to those who may be struggling to do so?
First, by caring to read about the Project! That’s already the first step. Aside from bringing in a tangible support for the organizations (and refugees) we worked with, our goal was also on a larger scale to provoke conversations and disband preconceived notions. The biggest social change will happen not just when someone sends a blanket or donates money, but when there is a change of heart and opinion!
Next, by checking out the map we built on our website (www.carrpetrovaduo.com/usmap) as part of #50Days4Refugees which offers information on all of the refugee aid organizations across America who are doing amazing work to resettle refugees who need support in starting their new lives - and learning about the specific needs of those organizations.
And finally, by possibly volunteering with one of these organizations, be it donating a blanket, be it teaching a refugee from Congo who lives in your town how to drive, be it offering to serve as a Guatemalan family’s “guide” as they navigate the US Health System, be it simply being a friend to someone trying to leave trauma behind and start a new life…
Watch a beautiful musical performance from the duo here.
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