Heather Wittels and the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative
Violinist Heather Wittels joined the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra in 2009. She keeps a busy solo recital and chamber music presence in the city and teaches at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. Since 2019 she has also taught private violin students connected to the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative.
CMPI is an organization whose goal is to increase diversity in America’s professional, musical landscape, particularly in orchestras. They accomplish this by providing a Chicago-area training pathway for talented student musicians from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. They help pay for instruments, lessons, audition fees, and summer music programs.
“Even a halfway decent violin can cost many thousands of dollars and a bad instrument can limit your ability to imagine colors,” Heather explained. Helping pay for good instruments makes an enormous difference. The program includes students from 5th through 12th grade. Everyone must audition and all are expected to be accepted into a conservatory by the time they graduate from high school.
“I look at the 5th graders and think, any one of these students could make it into Juilliard if they work hard and have a good ear,” Heather said. The 108 students in the program are required to practice 90-120 minutes per day and must play in a youth orchestra.
This year Heather has two 15-year-old students in the program. She is passionate about teaching them how to practice. “My goal is to teach them to listen and to use their time effectively. It’s gratifying when someone starts to hear something they haven’t been hearing. “
Both of her students passed auditions to attend music programs this summer. One of them works in a restaurant when she’s not in school. This summer she’ll be attending the Kinhaven Music School in Weston, Vermont, a program Heather attended when she was a young violinist. “Her only job this summer will be to play the violin.” Heather beamed. Her other student will attend the Interlochen Summer Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan.
As for how to create diversity in an orchestra, Heather is convinced that CMPI’s model is an excellent one. Conservatories are where the doors open to a rich musical community and CMPI supports deserving young performers on their way. Heather’s first student at CMPI went on to the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas, Austin. Perhaps she will join us in the pit someday!