Building citizenry through music

  • Detroit Symphony Orchestra bassist Steve Molina.

  • Steve Molina (center) teaches a bass masterclass during the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's 2019 Interlochen Arts Camp residency. Photo courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

  • Steve Molina rehearses with the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in 1968.

  • Steve Molina (middle row, second from left) with his cabin in 1966.

  • Stephen's son, David (middle row, third from left) with his cabin in 1994.

In early 2019, it was announced that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) would resume their summer residency program at Interlochen Center for the Arts. For many DSO musicians, including Assistant Principal Bassist Steve Molina (IAC/NMC 66-68), this meant a return to a place where they spent their formative years honing their craft and taking agency of their identities.

“I always look forward to working with the students again,” Molina said during a recent interview with Crescendo. “However brief it might be, it’s important to me to make that contact.”

As a teacher whose credits include the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Eastern Michigan University, Wayne State University, and Oakland University, Molina is a firm believer in the power of arts education.

“Whatever field or endeavor that a person seeks, studying an instrument teaches you discipline, how to manage interpersonal relationships, and so much more,” Molina said. “All of it is transferable. All of it is important.”

How did you end up on the bass?
When I was very young, I played the accordion and a bit of piano. I just loved music. Loved singing. I really had no inkling on what instrument I wanted to play, but I happened to be an athletic kid and a pretty big kid in terms of heft. So, a teacher said, “How about you try bass?” Which turned out to be a very fruitful opportunity. I took to it very quickly, and I’ve loved it ever since.

I was fortunate to grow up on Long Island, where my music teacher was a member of the Metropolitan Opera. In addition, especially at that time on Long Island, there where a lot of things going on in the arts. We had a lot of youth orchestras, semi-professional orchestras, music festivals, and so forth. I found so much joy soaking it up. I think all that exposure was paramount in contributing to who I became as a musician.

Could you tell us a bit about your own experience at Interlochen?
My relationship with Interlochen goes back to when I was a kid. The National Music Camp, as it was called then, was a really wonderful, exciting, nurturing, and yet competitive place. I often think about many of my Camp-mates from those summers, and how many of them went on to have great professional careers—in and out of music.

What does it mean to you to be back at Interlochen?
I have been a part of every DSO trip to Interlochen since 1991. It has always been a neat experience being back. Also, for three summers in the 90s, I had the joy of seeing my own son David [Molina IAC/NMC 90, IAC 91, 94] go to Interlochen. He played in the World Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO) so it was really nice having the opportunity to share the stage with him as a kid.

One summer [during a DSO residency] at Interlochen, I shared a stand with a young WYSO bassist named Alex Hanna. Only a few years later he joined the DSO as our Principal Bass. He was there for four years, and now he’s Principal Bass of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Back then, at Interlochen, he was a wonderful young man, but who would have known that just a handful of years later he would have evolved into this glorious musician?

Those kinds of experiences are very special. Every year that I come back to Interlochen, I love seeing how it’s still evolving after all these years, but at the core, it’s still providing the wonderful experience that I had in the 60s.

This visit wasn’t just about having the Detroit Symphony Orchestra performing at Kresge Auditorium. During this and previous visits you and your colleagues have spent time working with Camp students. What do you hope students glean from that experience?
You know, I have taught my whole life, and I just love to see kids being interested and enthusiastic about playing good music. So, first, I genuinely hope that they’re enjoying what they’re doing. That’s key.

I always hope that I can impart a few pointers that they can take with them to use down the road, but more than that, it’s about the ensemble. I want students to gain a sense of how to look and react on stage in an ensemble, how to observe what’s going on beyond just what’s on the page, and to learn to listen a little better. We’re creating an opportunity for these young musicians to witness and learn from how a professional group works together on stage.

Why is arts education important?
I really believe in arts education in many levels. Whenever you enrich someone’s life through the arts, that person is better for it. That person becomes a more learned individual that contributes back to their community in a strong way.

If you listed what a person needs to live, you could just simply say food and shelter. But I think that would be rather limited life experience. So when you add all these other things—arts, music, visual arts, and so on—to their call it pumps that person up.

Being involved in the arts, even as a spectator, is a social activity.

I think there’s something critical for society, for being a part of the citizenry of this world, and I think that’s something that is often overlooked.

Are you still interested in sports?
When I went to Interlochen a lot of kids who went there also enjoyed sports as much as I did. I ran track and played basketball, amongst others, on the varsity teams throughout most of high school. Loving the arts and enjoying sports are not mutually exclusive at all.

As a musician, I see a lot of other musicians doing things to keep their bodies healthy and in really good shape. A lot of us bicycle, do yoga, pilates, work out. I still play tennis to this day.

Something that people don’t often recognize is that playing an instrument can sometimes create asymmetry in muscle development. So, it’s really important to understand that and to find ways to strengthen your body in a symmetrical fashion.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
All of my children are accomplished in the arts in some way. My son is a bassist at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain; my daughter, Claire, is an arts educator in Baltimore, Maryland; and my daughter Lauren is a Broadway and New York theatre actor.

I look at my children, and I look at my students, and I see how they’ve grown as young men and women. Some of them will have successful careers in the arts, but for others they’ll use their skills to instill joy in those around them. Regardless, being in the arts has made them all better people.

For the rest of us, we must do everything in our power to make sure that we take time to enjoy great music and art, and to support those making the art in however big or small of a way we can.

A full recording of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s July 27, 2019 performance from Kresge Auditorium can be found online via Interlochen Public Radio.