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Healing and Wholeness Through Music
Posted 02/08/2021 01:45PM

World-renowned violinist and social justice advocate Vijay Gupta becomes an Eagle for a day

Vijay GuptaSt. John’s Prep welcomed esteemed violinist and social justice advocate Vijay Gupta this past week as part of its Brother Robert Sullivan, C.F.X. Lecture Series, presented by the school’s Center for Mission and Research. In keeping with the Prep’s commitment to cultivate globally minded engagement and vision among young people, Gupta spent the day immersed in the school community, participating in hour-long classroom sessions on music education and social advocacy, hosting a fireside chat with students, delivering the evening keynote address and giving a performance. All events were virtual.

The 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Gupta joins an impressive group of accomplished professionals and dignitaries to appear as part of St. John’s lecture series, including former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and NCAA All-American and U.S. Olympic Team wrestler Joe Heskett. Other recent guest lecturers on campus have included Vice Admiral Richard Brown ’81, commander of all U.S. Naval Surface Forces, ALS advocate Nancy Frates P’03 ’06, and former Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien ’88, now the defensive coordinator at the University of Alabama. 

Gupta played his way into the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra at age 19 and is perhaps best known for founding the nonprofit Street Symphony, a grassroots community of more than 70 world-class musicians that performs monthly programs at Skid Row shelters, county jails, and for severely disenfranchised communities in Los Angeles County. The 34-year-old New York native graduated from college with a pre-med biology degree at 17, then from Yale with a master’s in music at 19. As a child, he completed the Suzuki method music curriculum in two years, gained entry to the Juilliard School at six, performed solos on three continents at 11, and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. 

“Anything worth doing sometimes makes you want to throw the whole (endeavor) out the window,” Gupta told students. “I still have moments when I want to quit the violin. But that’s the discomfort that leads to growth. We live in an instant-gratification society, so how do we discipline ourselves? To wean ourselves off that dopamine addiction of instant gratification we really need to lean in to that discomfort. Do it in small, compassionate ways, but keep doing it.”

Established to help students meet global challenges and better understand their place in the world through a wider lens, the Brother Sullivan Lecture Series is designed to underscore how an ethics-based education can shape decision-making in modern society by bringing the world to St. John’s, and St. John’s to the world

“In one of his classroom sessions, Vijay talked about the power of music and how it connects different parts of the brain that don't normally talk to each other,” said Nora Maginn-Fame, director of innovation studies at the Prep’s Center for Mission and Research. “I found this to be such a beautiful metaphor for the work that Street Symphony does—music as a connection for people who don't normally come together: acclaimed concert musicians and the incarcerated. He talked about how both groups deeply benefit from this relationship. At the Center, we’re trying to make connections across people, disciplines, and contexts by exploring the richness at play when diverse perspectives are brought together and valued.”

Gupta explained how that dynamic continues to play out in his lived experience, both musically and personally. 

“I’m classically trained in Western classical music, but I grew up around the classical traditions of Indian music,” he said. “Learning to perform the latter led me to approach that from an improvisational point of view rather than just notes on a page. But composers like Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Hayden were all master-improvisers, too. It’s been a profound shift of my identity to be in dialogue with these two spaces—they are a tangled connection that shapes the way I see the world.”

Future speakers in the lecture series, scheduled to resume later this year, include Father Greg Boyle, founder of the world’s largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program and author of the “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” as well as groundbreaking environmentalist and Gandhi Peace Prize winner Bill McKibben.
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