Interview by Beatriz Lorencatto, Project Create Intern
Vaughan, when did you get started as an artist, and what is your personal artistic practice?
I started expressing myself musically at a very young age. I was raised by two opera singer parents, and was told that my mom performed multiple times while she was pregnant with me. I started playing the violin when I was three, wanting to follow in my older sister’s footsteps who also played. Growing up I was always more interested in extracurricular than academics, so I played violin in the orchestra, sang alto in the choir, joined musicals, played drums in the band and ran track and field.
My artistic practice is greatly informed by those formative years, but also a shift in my life that happened when my family moved from Germany – where I’d lived for the first thirteen years of my life – to New York. It was my first time fully experiencing the American school system, not to mention American culture. It was culture shock to say the least. When we moved back to the states, my father started teaching 7th grade in one of the lowest performing school districts in NYC, in Hunts Point, The Bronx. Getting to see firsthand how broken the education system was and how many students and families unnecessarily “slipped through the cracks”, was a pivotal moment for me in thinking about what sort of career to dedicate my life to.
By the time I graduated high school, I knew that becoming a concert violinist would ultimately be unfulfilling. As my interest in education expanded and became more informed, I decide to major in English with a focus on Creative Writing and minor in Music at Mills College, where I received my B.A. Years later, after some time spent teaching K-4 and 6th grade music in public school, and then working with incarcerated youth through Carnegie Hall’s social impact programs, I decided to pursue a Master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a concentration on Arts in Education. In grad school, I realized I am most passionate about designing and actualizing music learning experiences for youth.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
There was no “light-bulb” moment when I suddenly realized that I wanted to or would be an artist. I think I always felt like one. It’s kind of hard to not feel artistic in some way when you come from family that sings ‘grace’ before a meal in four-part harmony. My family always emphasized creative expression in all forms, so I feel lucky to have that as a foundational element of my being. In addition to pursuing a career in arts education, I still practice, compose, record and perform on the violin regularly.
What are your artistic influences/inspirations?
My family has always been the greatest influence or inspiration. All the three aunts on my mother’s side were musical growing up and each had a different style – they sang together in their church growing up and were even featured on the local radio in Bishopville, South Carolina (where they grew up) as a self-made Doo Wop group. Outside of my family, I am greatly inspired by Black classical singers – Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Audra McDonald…etc. There’s something about the inherent soulfulness of a Black singer singing classical music. Aside from classical music, I love 70’s funk, afro beat/highlife, and anything vocal driven. Some of the artists I have in rotation on a regular basis are: Miles Davis’s album Sketches of Spain, Thundercat, Rance Allen Group, Kamasi Washington, Anderson Paak, Emily King, Khruangin, Kendrick Lamar, WizKid, Hiatus Kaiyote, KING, and Bilal.
I also love visual art! My favorite piece is Funeral Procession, a painting by Ellis Wilson.
What interests you about arts education? Why did you want to work for Project Create?
My interest in arts education stems from exposure to the education system through my father’s career. After discovering how broken America’s current education system is, I want to dedicate my skills and knowledge to directly address this issue. I have firsthand experience from working as a 6th grade music teacher at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School – Parkside, and I previously worked for Carnegie Hall’s Community Programs Department. In this position I designed and managed on-site music residencies for expectant mothers in transitional housing, court-involved youth and incarcerated adults across New York City. Now in D.C, I have enjoyed learning about and taking part in Project Create, whose work and mission resonates well with my interests and prior experiences. I have appreciated the chance to merge my arts and education backgrounds to provide arts education in underserved communities and to witness its impact in the District.
What are you excited to contribute to your work with Project Create? What do you hope to learn?
I am excited about working directly with Project Create’s Executive Director Christie Walser, and grateful for the opportunity to sort of shadow her as she runs the organization. In the short amount of time that I’ve watched her work, Christie has been an inspirational model of leadership in terms of how much she cares for the people we serve, and how she builds genuine relationships with her colleagues and staff. It’s a very welcoming environment and that really goes a long way for me.
Because Project Create has such a small administrative team, it has sort of a start-up vibe, which makes it feel like there is space to create, innovate and iterate. I actually met Christie about 6 years ago when I first moved to DC, before I even started teaching music in the classroom, and we talked about expanding Project Create’s classes to encompass music. I am especially looking forward to jumpstarting that initiative.
Do you have any artistic endeavors outside of Project Create?
I write music, record and perform frequently with a local band called Columbia Nights. They’re some of my oldest friends in DC., and like family. I’ve been around since the inception of the band, but am not officially a member – I like to call myself the 5th Beatle. We describe our style of music as “Electro-soul”. It’s a mix of old school flavor, mixed with contemporary sounds: analog meets digital. I love collaborating with them because I get to be very involved in the creative direction and production of the music. I also do studio session recordings for other local artists looking to add violin to their projects, I teach violin privately, and I play regularly with a group of DC based Black string players. Also, a little-known fact is that I also sing, occasionally.
(via Project Create. Photo courtesy of Project Create.)