Back in 1998, before From the Top had even hit the airwaves, we taped a pilot episode at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. There was a lot of excitement as we worked on that early show, especially for a 15-year-old violinist from Indiana who was to be one of the featured performers. His name was William Harvey, and it was his first time visiting Boston.
"I was so excited, I actually fell off the people mover at the airport," he recalls. William and host Christopher O'Riley performed a Gershwin Prelude, and despite his butterflies, William gave an expressive and nuanced performance.
Although his musical chops and intelligence were undeniable, none of us at From the Top could ever have predicted the impact this young man soon would make. The next time we heard from William it was via the national news.
It was a few days following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and a quartet comprised of Juilliard School students were performing at the Armory, a military building in lower Manhattan where the families of missing persons were awaiting news of their loved ones.
The quartet disbanded after performing for several hours, but for one of the students, 18-year-old William Harvey, the night was just beginning.
"A man who introduced himself as Sergeant Major asked me if I'd mind playing for his soldiers as they came back from digging through the rubble at Ground Zero," recalls William, who then made his way up to the second floor where the first soldiers were beginning to arrive.
William began to play his violin, every piece he could recall from memory. He played on and on that night at the Armory, trying in the most natural way he knew how to bring a little comfort to the soldiers in one of the most honored regiments in the military, the fighting 69th.
"Never have I played for a more grateful audience," recalls William. "Somehow it didn't matter that, by the end, my intonation was shot and I had no bow control. I would have lost any competition I was playing, but it didn't matter."
William wrote an essay about his experience, and the story caught the national media's attention for a few weeks. But the impact on William lasted a lot longer than that.
"I realized at that point that I would no longer be comfortable with one of the niche careers where you search around for a job, and you get it or not," he says. "It's wonderful… but what about changing the world through music?"
William set out to do just that. Many other transformative experiences followed, including one in Turkey with the Bloomington Muslim Dialog Group, where William witnessed first-hand how music can cross cultural divides, and another in Moldova and Tunisia where he worked with Unicef to promote early childhood education.
In 2005, William founded a non-profit organization Cultures in Harmony, which sends American musicians to conduct residencies in countries around the world, the aim of which is to foster cross-cultural dialogue through the universal language of music. Among his many projects, William has helped AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe use music to call attention to water-access issues and worked with the Tala-Andig tribe in Miarayon, Mindanao to write music that celebrates their heritage.
Cultures in Harmony has a six-point way of working, which includes collaborations with aid organizations, workshops with established indigenous musicians, and conducting benefit concerts to raise money for other organizations doing relief work.
"In 2007 we played for the local nonprofit Eyes for Africa, which provides life saving eye operations to those who cannot afford them," says William, "At this concert we raised enough funds to restore sight to 145 people."
Founding and running a non-profit organization is no easy task, however.
"The projects are great, planning them is wonderful, doing them is amazing," says William, "but raising the money and doing all the grunge work behind the scenes... that's no picnic."
But despite any struggles and discouragements he has had to face, William's commitment and perseverance hasn't waned.
"I think one of the big things I've learned is that you make your own opportunities," says William, now 26. "Sometimes we wait around for others to make that career-changing opportunity. You can prepare that press kit until the paper gleams in the sun, but at some point you need to start to realize that no one is going to come along on a white horse to hand you that gig that changes everything. I've tried to keep that in mind as Cultures in Harmony grows and as I grow - that we make our own choices and we can forge our own directions."
In July of 2009, we learned that the Ministry of Education of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had offered William the post of Violin and Viola Teacher, and he had accepted.
"Living in Afghanistan, I will have the opportunity to test the belief that animates every Cultures in Harmony project -- that music can help bring peace to our world," wrote William, in an email detailing his latest exciting news. "In no project that Cultures in Harmony has attempted will this belief be as tested as it will in Kabul. One American violinist will move to Afghanistan at the same time as thousands of American troops."
Cultures in Harmony will continue to flourish as William moves on to make yet another mark in the world.
On the occasion of From the Top's 10th Anniversary, we salute William Harvey, whose commitment to service is a feeling shared by many of our alumni and is at the heart of From the Top's mission. We encourage all of our performers to use their talents to give back to their communities and to create meaningful connections with their audiences.
"I used to see life as being something that enabled me to play music," says William. "Now I see that music is part of what I want to do with my life. I think about what I can do with my music.”