Celebrating Earth Day
Interview with “From the Top” Fellows Winston Schnieder and Viviana Alfaro

The radio program “From the Top” is dedicated to supporting and celebrating the talents of young musicians. Currently, the show is presenting a festival called Where Music Lives, including an episode devoted to Earth Day, based on the suggestions of many young musicians in their applications. As part of this series, the show shares a new playlist of works, four of which were written by living composers such as Tan Dun and From the Top fellow composer, Winston Schnieder. In this article, composer Winston Schnieder will join harpist Viviana Alfaro and share with us their experience as fellow musicians of From the Top and talk about this Earth Day episode.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What instrument(s)/composition do you play/write?

Winston Schnieder

Winston Schnieder

Winston Schnieder: My name is Winston, and I’m a 16-year-old composer from Omaha, Nebraska. My main performance instrument is piano, but I also play the cello. I’m a lover of insects, arachnids, and other crawling arthropods. I first started composing shortly after I began piano lessons, exactly twenty-nine days after my fifth birthday. For fun, I would play my pieces in different keys with different articulations and dynamics and in various styles. Sometimes, I’d play one hand in one key and my other hand in a different key, and to top it all off, I’d close my eyes! It wasn’t long until I began to write down my own ideas. The second piece I ever composed was called “Cicada Named Fada.” I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the first of many insect-inspired compositions. I’ve caught, studied, and released over 100 different species of insects, arachnids, and other crawling arthropods. I often say that musical ideas, like insects, can be found anywhere.

Winston Schneider’s Harmonious Projection performed by Rico Amador, Carmelo Galante, Rob O’Brien, Tim Strang, and Katie Wychulis

Viviana Alfaro: Hello, I am Viviana Alfaro, a 17-year-old classical harpist. I started Celtic harp with Margie Butler from Golden Bough at the age of four. At eight years old, I began classical harp with Dominique Piana. I joined my first orchestra as a freshman in 2020 with the Modesto Symphony Youth Orchestra. Last year, I began playing with the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, Modesto Junior College Community Orchestra, and the CSU Stanislaus Orchestra. I also joined SFCM’s (San Francisco Conservatory of Music) harp ensemble under Jennifer Ellis. Last April, I began my studies under Linda Wood-Rollo.

Maurice Draughn’s The Doralice Suite performed by Viviana Alfaro

Over the past 13 years of my harp career, I have performed in at least 50 recitals with Margie Butler, Dominique Piana, Jennifer Ellis, and Linda Wood Rollo. When I was nine years old in 2016, I participated in a masterclass with Susann McDonald and participated in that year’s Yvonne La Mothe Schwager Competition For Young Harpists administered by the Bay Area Chapter of the American Harp Society. In that same competition, I went on to win the Silver Award Level II (2021) and Silver Award Level III (2023). In addition, I participated in the American Harp Society 2021 National Competition. In March 2023, I won 3rd place in the Hampton Roads Harp Festival and Competition with Anastasia Pike. Last summer I toured and performed in Europe with Oakland Youth Symphony Orchestra (OSYO), attended the North Coast Harp Institute with Yolanda Kondonassis, and the MPulse Harp Institute with Joan Holland. In November of 2023, I won 2nd place in OSYO’s annual concerto competition and will be performing with the orchestra on May 12th. I was recently also featured on NPR’s From the Top and the Daily Joy Newsletter. I will be attending music conservatory in the fall of next year and was given full-tuition scholarships to all the schools I auditioned for.

In the Earth’s Day episode, what are you going to introduce to us?

Viviana Alfaro

Viviana Alfaro

Winston Schnieder: On the Earth Day episode, I’ll be sharing about how insects inspire a significant amount of my work. You’ll hear my Salt Creek Tiger Beetle Quintet, which is the first in a series of Tiger Beetle chamber pieces that I’m currently working on. This piece is particularly important to me, not just because it’s about insects but because it’s about an endangered species of Tiger Beetle called the Salt Creek Tiger Beetle. The only place in the world where these insects are found is on the sandy banks of the Salt Creek in my home state of Nebraska. They’re brown and green and are about a half-inch long. They’re also some of the fastest insects in the world. For several years, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha has been breeding, hatching, and releasing Salt Creek Tiger Beetles back into their native habitat to help this species survive. In 2016, when I was eight, I toured the zoo’s labs and saw the work they’re doing to help the Salt Creek Tiger Beetle. It was extremely fascinating. This piece has also won three national awards and will soon have a total of three performances, all in different states.

Viviana Alfaro: I will be performing Gary Schocker’s “Memory of Trees”, a beautiful piece for solo pedal harp. This work was written for Yolanda Kondonassis’s album, Five Minutes for Earth, an initiative that donates all profits to earth conservation organizations. “Memory of Trees” is a sweeping melodic work that tells a musical tale of hope and loss. While composed in 2020, the story of the piece begins in the past, with a singer standing in a windy forest, singing that soon they may be in an empty place where only wind remains. Audiences can hear this story through the recurring melody that ebbs and flows like the wind. “Memory of Trees” is a warning for those in the present and the future that what we see growing will not always remain.

What did you learn from participating in From the Top (FTT)?

Winston Schnieder: I realized the importance of impacting individuals through music, not just the audience as a whole. Music can be very personal, and recognizing and cultivating this individual impact is very significant. I learned this through From the Top’s fellowship project of the “Community Engagement One-on-One,” where we interviewed a member of our community and created a 15-20 minute performance experience for them. I chose to interview nationally acclaimed photographer Charles Kay Jr., who’s based in Omaha. He’s best known for his black and white architectural series “Paris Still Lifes,” and an exhibit at the Kaneko Museum called “Unseen – Emerging from the Currents of Assimilation.”

In the interview, I learned about his story and his connection to music. He has five favorite songs that especially resonate with him by U2, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Styles, and the Cranberries. I hadn’t heard of any of these songs before and had only previously heard of two of the artists. I listened intently to each song several times and extracted and manipulated motifs from each of them, which I incorporated into a new piece for the FTT project. It’s for Flute (doubling on Piccolo), Clarinet (doubling on Bass Clarinet), Bassoon, Percussion, Harp, Violin, and Contrabass. I also learned that we hold a love of nature in common. For me, it’s insects; for him, it’s the ocean. So, toward the end of my piece, I incorporated some ocean sounds. Together, we named the piece Bringing Light to the Shadows, because he’s shared that he likes to bring light to the shadows through his photography. I enjoyed this project very much, and I gained valuable takeaways that I’ll always carry with me.

Viviana Alfaro: Participating in From the Top’s Earth Day episode is one of the most exciting projects I have been involved with. Before I worked with the From the Top team, I had very little idea of what was involved with the recording/collaboration process. After this experience, I was surprised by the process of recording and was left with a memorable sense of community. From the casual environment during the interview to the performance, the From the Top team helped everything to go along so seamlessly and smoothly that all previous anxiety vanished, leaving me to perform in a relaxed and friendly environment. This experience has helped me to understand the vastness of the music world, but also the sense of community that can be found between musicians, regardless of background.

If you are interested in the Earth Day episode, please visit: https://fromthetop.org/show/earth-day-special-show-446/

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