This spring, Alex Laing will be at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. to receive a prestigious award. Laing is one of three recipients of the 2018 Sphinx Medal of Excellence, which recognizes emerging classical artists of color. Honorees are chosen for their artistic excellence, outstanding work ethic, spirit of determination, and ongoing commitment to leadership.
The Sphinx Award is the latest in a long list of honors for the 44-year-old classically-trained musician. He received fellowships from the Tanglewood Music Center, Aspen Music Festival, New World Symphony and Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and earned a master’s degree in Orchestral Performance from the Manhattan School of Music.
The most recent manifestation of Laing’s commitment to community-engaged music making comes in the form of The Leading Tone, a Phoenix-based nonprofit organization he founded in 2016. The name derives from a musical term describing the seventh note of a scale, which leads back to the home note. The organization provides afterschool programs that help underserved children develop musical and life skills.
How did you get started on the path to becoming a professional musician?
I was lucky that I went to a school that had a lot of music in the classrooms and in the culture of the school. I started playing recorder in first grade, like every kid does. My parents saw that I had something musical going on, but my school didn’t have an instrumental music program, so they found a summer program that the D.C. Youth Orchestra offered. I grew up just outside Washington D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
They were teaching beginning group instrumental lessons, so I started in the summer of fifth grade in an un-air-conditioned classroom, just learning how to put the instrument together and make noises on it. I really took to it, in part because I had already played recorder, so I had a knowledge base to transfer to the instrument, but also in part because I have a relationship with music. The fall after that, my parents found a private teacher for me. We were very fortunate that the person we found turned out to be a really dedicated teacher who gave me a tremendous amount of time and energy.
As you progressed through higher education and continued to play clarinet, when did you make the decision to become a professional musician and join a symphony orchestra?
The earliest memory I have of thinking about the career as a profession came pretty early. I remember overhearing my teacher say something to my mom when I was about 12 or 13 years old, in a conversation that probably wasn’t intended for my ears. I heard him say something like, “You know, he really has something, and he could be a professional; he could make it.” That was really exciting to me, that someone thought I was special in that regard. When I was about 14 or 15, I made a formal decision with my teacher that I was really going to focus on preparing myself for a professional career in so-called classical music. It had already been a priority in my life, but that’s when it shifted to being the priority.
Early on, I don’t know that I was thinking about orchestra. I don’t think I knew what being a professional musician was, but, by the time I reached college, it was pretty clear to me that playing in an orchestra was how I could make a living and what I wanted to do. For woodwind players, an orchestra presents itself as the logical career path, because there are not a ton of woodwind soloists.
How did you get involved with the Phoenix Symphony?
I was fortunate to win the audition and be selected by the orchestra to join the ensemble. For most of us in the profession, we go into it with eyes wide open, knowing that we would be fortunate to secure a tenure-track position in an orchestra, so you go to every audition you can. I feel fortunate to have a career in the business and to be doing it in a place that has so much sunlight.
Beyond music, which I am sure is fulfilling in its own right, you also have an interest in helping young people and giving back. Tell me about the organization you founded and its mission to use music as a platform for youth development.
The story of The Leading Tone is connected to my own story. I was in grad school when I first heard about community-engaged music making. This was really exciting to me, because it represented a way that I could envision a whole practice for myself – one in which the music I play, and everything that goes into being able to play this music, could connect with and serve the people that I define as community. To this point, there had been a real separation in my life between a desire to connect to and serve community and the art form. Learning about how you could practice this music in ways that were engaged with community, and understanding and developing an aesthetic that would allow that, was really exciting for me.
I was in grad school in New York and I remember seeing a story about an Olympic fencer, a black man, who had opened up a program in Harlem using fencing as a context for kids to have safe afterschool programming and support. I thought if he could do that with fencing – which is a pretty esoteric thing, and so is playing the clarinet and classical music – the idea of being useful to people beyond just the traditional aesthetic value system was exciting to me and really inspired my career.
I always thought a program like that would present itself, but I found that I was going to have to start it on my own, so I did. I see it as part of my practice as an artist. I think it’s great and amazing when people come to Symphony Hall and I get to impact people in performance. I feel really lucky to be in the Phoenix Symphony and to live in a city that has a symphony and that created a practice space for myself and my colleagues to come and have the opportunity to pursue our art. But, it’s a relatively small slice of our community that engages us in this way. The Leading Tone is, in part, about me wanting to have a bigger space and to have a practice that is more useful to more people.
The plan for The Leading Tone is to teach kids skills for music along with skills for life. Can you talk more about that?
I don’t want to hold myself or the program out as having figured all this out. We’re still in our infancy and it’s important for me to clarify that. Learning music gave me so much space to explore myself as an individual apart from everyone. It gives everybody this idea of – “What’s your voice? What are you trying to say?” – the idea of expressing yourself. That’s really important to our development. Then, there are all of the associated things that come with pursuing highly specific goals, be it hitting a golf ball or shooting a basketball or running track. There is an opportunity to learn about tenacity, patience and discipline.
There is a ton of failure in learning to play a musical instrument. That’s really what happens in the practice room. Seeing that as a context for learning skills that you can carry with you into other environments makes sense to me.
Can you think of an example of how the organization is making a difference so far?
We work with a school called Vista College Prep, and it is through them and their willingness to work with me that gave me an opportunity for The Leading Tone to really get started. They were my first real partner. When we started with them, they didn’t have any afterschool programs. In terms of a positive outcome, just start with that: now, there are people who are thinking about these young people and what they do between 3:30 and 6:00 when their parents pick them up. We create opportunities for them to keep learning, but also to have fun and engage with other members of their community, and learn that there are people in the community who are interested in them and want them to succeed and become whatever they want to become.
Vista College Prep moved their afterschool programming offsite this year. A group called Friendly House leases a building from the city and hosts programming there. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, The Leading Tone comes in and does our music programming. The new space is one big room – high ceiling, concrete and glass windows – and is extremely reverberant. We knew immediately that we would have to make some adjustments. I had taken a Beat Making course out at ASU, so, with the help of ASU professor Evan Tobias, we redesigned our programming so that we could do headphone-based music making to work around the acoustic environment.
Over the last two years, we had built up some funding in reserve. We were thinking those funds would be used to buy acoustic instruments, but it was fortunate that we had the funds to buy the digital equipment. We're coming to the end of our first semester and things are going well. We're working with the limitations of our environment and the kids like the more modern musical context.
Congratulations on winning the Sphinx Medal of Excellence. That is an amazing honor. You must be very excited about returning to Washington D.C. and receiving that award this spring.
I am deeply honored, excited and humbled to be recognized and put into this group, not only from this year, but all the people that have been recognized in the past. There is certainly an extra level of specialness that the awards ceremony is back in what is home for me. I had a fellowship from the National Symphony when I was in high school, so I took lessons at the Kennedy Center and my first orchestral experiences were with the National Symphony, which plays at the Kennedy Center. To have this career moment happening there is amazing.
Things are really coming full circle for you.
Yes, coming full circle, and starting a new lap.