How Music has Impacted the Members of LPO's Soul Strings Quartet

Describe the Soul Strings Quartet’s music in three words.

Hannah Yim: Engagement, improvisation, teamwork
Rachel Hsieh: Spontaneous, dynamic, fun
Eva Liebhaber: Energetic, fun, soothing

What instruments do each of you play, and at what point in your pasts were you inspired to pick up and learn how to play this exact string instrument?

Hannah: We have two violins, a viola, and a cello, which comprise a traditional string quartet. I began the violin when I was 5 after my mother encouraged me to pick a second instrument (I was already playing the piano). I always loved playing music, and what I enjoyed the most about the violin was being able to play play the melodies to all these familiar pieces that I'd heard; it was almost like being a singer with the leading vocal line in an ensemble. The really defining moment for me, though, and a huge turning point in how serious I was about music, was the first time I played with a full orchestra in the 4th grade. It was our city's youth honor orchestra, and the piece was an arrangement of 'Russian Sailor's Dance' by Gliere. I was in complete awe from the moment the conductor gave the downbeat at the magnitude and variety of sounds and feelings we could evoke together as a team. It was the coolest, most awesome feeling ever. I've been hooked ever since.

Rachel: Cello. I started out playing piano when I was about four years old. At age 10, my mother (a former harpist) wanted to enroll me in a string program in my public school, but somehow they didn’t have enough interest from other students, so it was cancelled. I started studying cello with a violist for a few weeks and then started taking private lessons at the Flint Institute of Music in downtown Flint, Michigan. FIM had many youth ensembles (string orchestra, intermediate orchestra, youth orchestra, bands, etc.) and also a strong chamber music program. I was part of a string quartet that met weekly for coachings and rehearsals. We were together for many years and grew and learned a lot together! Finally, my last teacher at FIM, Katri Ervamaa, inspired me to pursue music in college. She was an amazing teacher and gave me lots of opportunities to play and push myself to be better at cello!

Eva: Violin. I went to an arts school and had the chance to pick any instruments I wanted to explore since the first grade, I started on cello but after a few lessons I decided it was too big for my poor left hand pinky on the c string and went to knock on the violin teacher's door, that's how all this started.

We understand the Soul Strings Quartet frequently plays sessions at St. Michael’s School as well as the Arc of Greater New Orleans as a way of fostering musical therapy and wellness for the students. Tell us about this.... How did the LPO’s Soul Strings Quartet and these sessions come to be?

Amanda Wuerstlin (LPO Director of Education and Community Engagement): Music Therapy has always been a fascinating area of study for me and when I heard that orchestras across the country were integrating music therapy into their community engagement programs there was no way LPO was going to be left out of that loop. The Soul Strings program is one of the best ways to really put our musicians into the community in a personal way. I planned for several years with friends of mine that studied at Loyola to figure out which sites would be best to partner with to begin these sessions, and now we're entering year 3 of Soul Strings and I couldn't be happier.  

Hannah: Amanda Wuerstlin had been working on a specific music therapy collaboration between the LPO and the community for a while before our quartet and I actually began performances anywhere; Soul Strings is a direct result of all of her hard work, as well as our dedicated music therapist, Kathryn Rose Wood, who directs every session with both groups working at St. Michael's and the Arc. We began last year with weekly sessions at the Magnolia School with an adult group, and it has since moved on to working with two groups of children at St. Michael's, and the groups at the Arc. We are very grateful that it has been so well received and will continue at these locations in the future.

During these musical therapy sessions at the schools, what do you notice about the children’s reaction to your music? In what way do you feel it affects them?

Hannah: The children's moods vary week to week, and differ between the groups as well, but one consistent reaction has been an increase in energy, engagement, and focus from the beginning of one session to the end, as well as from week to week as specific activities become more familiar with repetition. It was amazing to see such drastic improvement even from week to week at St. Michael's with repeated sessions that the kids were able to get comfortable with--we really saw them open up and feel confident enough to start expressing themselves through the various musical activities. Not only did we see them grow in comfort and in confidence, but also in enthusiasm; kids who seemed completely disengaged and distant at the beginning of the semester showed visible excitement to be there towards the end. It was really exciting for us as well.

Rachel: Their reactions to the music has many faces. Part of it is just having fun. Some of the activities include variations on games like bingo and hot potato. Some of the activities require the children to work together as a team and they really do seem to enjoy helping each other out and contributing to the group. Recently, I’ve noticed that a lot of the children enjoy singing and some are quite good at it! There are just a lot of ways that the children can react to the Soul String sessions from laughing to building social skills.

Eva: The reactions we get from the St. Michael's students are positive. They all enjoy it very much and it is very interesting to see how much more engaged they get when we play pieces they are familiar with. We had a game where they had to guess which Disney movie music we were playing and they were incredibly engaged and enjoying every second of it!

What are your overall thoughts and feelings on music as a therapeutic medium of healing? 

Hannah: We need more of it! I think about modern society, and there are so many channels and opportunities in which music can be used as an effective means of therapy and/or healing--on its own, or together with other types of therapy. But, for a number of reasons, music therapy seems to be on a slower track to reach the mainstream than some other methods which might feel more tangible right away, but don't reach a depth of healing that music often can.

Rachel: Music is a very personal thing and is experienced by individuals uniquely. I think part of the reason why it is therapeutic is because no one can say exactly what a person is hearing or feeling when they listen to it, but we can tell that some reaction is happening, maybe even something that is difficult to put into words.

Eva: I have no doubt that music is healing and inspiring and moving for all people, not only classical music but all music. First we have the sound waves that go through the body and it has an effect, it makes you body vibrate as the music is produced, it's a kind of in sync that happens (I'd like to think this is the case especially with live music), but I think that's why there are so many tastes in music, our body connects to a certain kind of vibration that makes you feel better or more reflective, or it makes parts of your mind become lit with energy and thoughts.

Attending the grand reopening of the Orpheum last year and hearing the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra play in their home theatre again for the first time since pre-Katrina was incredibly moving and inspirational...how has the theatre’s reopening and the LPO’s concerts mirrored the resilience of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina? We know it was not an easy road to reopening; what were some of the struggles the LPO faced and the triumphs it achieved in the years preceding the reopening of the Orpheum?

Hannah: Katrina was a game-changer for the city, for better or for worse. When I joined the orchestra, many people, both in the orchestra and in the general community, were still rebuilding their lives--materially, emotionally, psychologically--from what had happened three years prior. But they found a way to keep doing what they were doing--that was the important part. They remained authentic to the vision that they had for the city and what they wanted to be doing as part of the post-Katrina landscape, and found ways to work with what this new landscape presented and offered. I don't know if anyone expected to get the Orpheum back; certainly we all hoped that it would happen at some time in the theoretical future, but that hope was getting dimmer as more time passed and the Orpheum sank more and more into disrepair. And the orchestra had branched out in the meantime, finding other venues to play at, other communities outside the city, and other channels to broaden (such as education and community outreaches).  It's been both a blessing and a struggle to not have had the Orpheum as our home, in that it forced us into a position of versatility and flexibility, but also reminded us of what had been lost. In the end, the Orpheum's reopening felt like a true blessing and gift, after so many years of building up the orchestra without it. It became a symbol of never giving up hope and continuing to do what you need to do, despite all odds.

Plato once stated, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” To me, this statement illustrates the imagery I see and feel when listening to the LPO play. Describe what this statement about music means to you.

Hannah: To me, music is life. Some sort of music and inner rhythm beats through us all, whether we're 'musically inclined' or not, or have any musical training or not. It's there in our breath, our steps, our heartbeats, our voices, our brainwaves: they're all somehow related to music and the frequency and rhythms of music in some way. And some have found a way to channel that into something greater than themselves, into something artistic and creative and expansively magical that bring joy to themselves and to others. This is the heart of what I consider life.

Research and studies have shown classical music to do a number of things such as reduce depression and lower stress, aid in long term memory, and ease chronic pain...What are your thoughts and opinions on some of these findings? Has classical musical helped you all in any specific way?

Hannah: Music has an unspoken strength that's both mysterious and powerful to those who are struggling both emotionally and physically. I'm not surprised at all to hear that research and studies show this. On the contrary, I'm surprised when research and studies DON'T show this! Anyone who is feeling a level of despair and happens to hear a piece of music that speaks to them, can, I'm sure, relate to the power of music in dark times.

I can also relate to this on a deeply personal level. I struggle with C-PTSD and periodic depression, and can honestly say that without music, and the ability to make music, I'm not sure I would still be here right now. It's been the one constant theme running through my life that I know I can turn to, to pull and encourage me through what have seemed like impossibly dark stretches. During those times, even when I thought I didn't have the energy to practice, or even hold my violin, a task as simple as just sitting in front of a musical score or part, knowing there was a full rehearsal the next day, was enough motivation for me to be able to keep going, at least for that day. 

Rachel: I think it depends on what music you’re listening to. For me, listening to certain music when I’m sad actually makes me sadder, so I have to pick carefully! But I think that just speaks to the ability of music to represent all facets of emotion accurately, which is kind of weird if you think about it. How is it possible that music makes all people feel something?

As a cellist, I find that working on different pieces gives me a chance to be an individual and not worry about outside perception. I spend a lot of time trying to make what I play sound like what I envision in my head - something that I imagine I will spend a lifetime working on.

Eva: Classical music has had an impact so big in me that it made me want to become a professional musician, great passion for achieving a level of interpretation where you feel you can play passages and communicate different things to the audience depending on how you play them. I'd like to think that I could make people 'understand' a piece of music differently every time based on how much I can bring out differently in every performance. But since it is my profession and it is something I do day in and day out I tend to forget about that power, none the less I do find myself going to music (listening to non-classical music) when I'm dealing with emotional things in my personal life, I sometimes become obsessed with one song and listen to it on repeat because of the way it makes me feel, and it is so good that I don't want to stop listening to it. I kind of use it as a mantra to restore my emotions.

Who is your favorite composer and why?

Hannah: That's an impossible question for a musician! I'll give two: 1. Shostakovich. His musical language is full of such hauntingly beautiful paradoxes: joyous and pained, empty and full, public and secret, theatrical and extroverted, and yet deeply introverted. 2. Bach. He's like the granddaddy of western harmony and structure. His pieces hold for me a feeling of purity and purification, akin to shedding many worn layers of skin, both musically and technically, until you get down to what's real and solid again.

Rachel: I love Mendelssohn! I like him because he just writes great melodies and keeps thing harmonically interesting. His overtures are just incredible and brimming with interesting ideas! Great writing for orchestra and solo instruments alike! The scary thing is that he wrote a lot of that music when he was just a teenager!!!

Eva: I have many favorites, but my top two that I like listening and performing would be Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I like Brahms' music because it resembles nature, I always feel like I'm seeing landscapes and/or taking a walk either in a forest or looking down from the top of a hill, and it can be sweet and charming or dramatic and serious, all those different facets of his music I love, all of them. And Tchaikovsky's music to me is very human, to me it depicts clearly the many emotions (the passionate moments are my favorites to play) that we as humans experience. His music can sound like crystal clear naïvete and it can also sound like a devastating heartbreak.

Favorite classical piece of music to play?

Hannah: Whatever we're performing or working on at the moment. Usually.

Rachel: Luigi Dallapiccola - Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio. Amazing cello writing and an incredible emotional journey is experienced through this piece. I’ve been playing this piece for years and I’m still thinking about how to exactly translate the feelings of the piece into what I play.

Eva: Two favorites: Brahms Symphony no.1 and Tchaikovsky Symphony no.5