Season 5 - Episode 528
Bradley Bolen has experienced the powerful ways that music can bridge cultural boundaries and brighten challenging circumstances. Bolen is a senior lecturer in piano in Baylor’s School of Music, a Steinway artist and a faculty member for American Voices, with whom he has worked with students in Iraq, Syria and more. In this Baylor Connections, he takes listeners inside powerful cross-cultural experiences around the globe.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and today we are talking music and music around the globe at that with Bradley Bolen. Dr. Bolen serves as senior lecturer in piano at the Baylor University School of Music. A Steinway artist since 2014, Dr. Bolen has enjoyed a diverse career as a soloist, collaborative artist and guest lecturer, with appearances throughout the U.S., Mexico, Europe and the Middle East.
Derek Smith:Dr. Bolen has also served on the faculty of American Voices, an organization whose mission is to provide cultural exchange through the performing arts and education in nations emerging from conflict and isolation. In this role, Dr. Bolen has served students around the world, some of whom have eventually come to Baylor for their studies. He has had a busy travel schedule over the years doing a lot of great work and we're excited to visit with you about that and more.
Bradley Bolen:Thank you.
Derek Smith:Dr. Bolen, thanks so much for coming on the show today.
Bradley Bolen:Thanks for having me.
Derek Smith:Well, it's great to have you here and I know we're going to be talking here over the next 20 minutes or so. You've traveled a lot of different places with American Voices and the summer months... This year, maybe a little bit different, but what opportunities do the summer months provide you, whether to travel or to participate in unique projects or just prepare for what's ahead?
Bradley Bolen:Well, this summer I got lucky. I actually get a vacation.
Derek Smith:Oh, good.
Bradley Bolen:I had a couple of engagements that were canceled in Europe. One was COVID related and one here in the States, also probably related to economic gas prices for people. But, generally speaking, summers are a time to go do workshops and piano-related things in Europe and here, so.
Derek Smith:Well, we're going to visit about a lot of those around the globe, but I'm curious. I gave you a brief rundown of your bio there. What ways are you involved in music here in central [inaudible 00:02:04]? I'll say central Texas, but sort of expand it. You know, you're here at Baylor working with students.
Derek Smith:But, it goes beyond that.
Bradley Bolen:Right. So, I grew up actually in Texas and I always say my home is the I-35 corridor.
Bradley Bolen:And, I went to graduate school in Austin, and so have a lot of connections of course in the local area and there's lots of things going on in Texas. Texas is actually a very big piano state. You wouldn't think of Texas as being a piano state, but there's many, many fine opportunities in Texas with institutes at the various universities. You have the Van Cliburn Competition, which just finished up the road. And so, lots of wonderful things to get involved in. Adjudication is something I do a lot, where... Smaller competitions or each city has competitions and I'll go and judge for those, and just finished... The Texas Music Teachers had a competition up in Dallas which I just finished judging.
Derek Smith:That's great. So, you've been busy doing a lot of that. And, you know, you mentioned you're from here in Texas, the I-35 corridor.
Derek Smith:How long have you been at Baylor and what brought you here?
Bradley Bolen:I was here since 2000. My father was an academic. He was a math professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, so I kind of grew up being surrounded with academia and watched him and his relationships with his students and his teaching assistants who would often go and river trips together and come over for dinner and that sort of thing. So, the idea of working in academia had always been attractive to me, and so, when I went to graduate student in Austin, when I graduated with my doctorate, it was a sort of mid-year off-cycle, you might say, and the job... The job searches were over for the year. And, this was back during the tech boom in Austin and I had a friend that was a stockbroker and he was begging me, "Please come over and take your Series Seven exam and be part of that." And, I thought, "Well, that's never been my goal but I'll give it a shot."
Bradley Bolen:So, I was actually out by the pool studying for my Series Seven exam when the phone rang and Baylor had a one year position they needed someone to fill in for. And, the minute that happened, I was like, that's it. I'm hooked. So.
Derek Smith:That's good. Well, it worked out. It worked out well then. So, maybe a little more of your calling with music rather than that.
Bradley Bolen:Right. Exactly.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Bradley Bolen of the Baylor School of Music. How long has music been a part of your life? And, then transitioning from that, when did you realize it could be a cross-cultural tool?
Bradley Bolen:Well, I started piano lessons what was at the time relatively late. I was eight years old. Nowadays, you'll see young ones starting at three years old. You know? It's not uncommon. And, you know, it was one of those things that I just always loved. My father had wired a stereo throughout the house that was always being... I was always being exposed to great music, great symphonies and whatnot, so I just grew up loving music.
Bradley Bolen:As far as a cultural tool, I did the things musicians typically do. We travel, we perform, that sort of thing. But, when American Voices called, I was at my desk. It was fall [inaudible 00:05:08]. December of about 2009 and this voice answered it and said, "Hey, we'd like you to come do some music workshops for us, these two-week workshops." And, of course, I'm immediately thinking, "Oh, boy. I always wanted to go to Vienna and Austria and Paris and that sort of thing." And so, where are you going? And, he said, "Well, we're going to the Middle East and we're going to go to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon."
Bradley Bolen:And, there's a probably a long silence on the phone, but I said, "Well, let me... Let me think about that." And, I went home of course and talked to my wife about it, who... She's actually quite an adventurer in that she is a conservation biologist that does a lot of work in Nigeria and she's lived in North Vietnam and she would... Her vacations would be from northern Nigeria to go to Cameroon on her own as a single woman and find herself traveling rivers with petrol smugglers and whatever would have happened to get her from point A to point B.
Derek Smith:Oh, wow.
Bradley Bolen:And, so she was used to this sort of difficult sit... These sort of difficult situations. So, when I asked her about it, she simply said, "You're going to do it." She knew it was going to be good for me and it was going to open doors. And, it really was. Ended up being quite rewarding.
Derek Smith:That's great. So, you mentioned 2009 was when American Voices called. Was there any sort of lead up? That sounds like it was kind of a shift, very much a shift?
Bradley Bolen:Yeah, it was. Organization that reminds me a little bit of Doctors Without Borders. So, they will go into places emerging from conflict. In this case, they went to Iraq. This wasn't that long after the war and do these two week workshops where we would give lessons and master classes to the youngsters there, probably ranging from eight to 25 years old was probably mostly the range.
Bradley Bolen:And, a lot of those people had had their educations frozen in place, so I might have a student that was 22 that had not finished education that passed the year of 15 years old.
Bradley Bolen:So, they were all very hungry and very eager to have us there helping with that sort of thing. And, I never forget. My first day, I didn't really know. What am I going to do? I'm in a room, non-descript room, nothing in it but dirty carpet and some plastic bottles and on one side of the room is this dilapidated piano that a young lady was gluing the hammers on because some of them had broken off to this piano. And, says, what am I going to do? Well, I'm just going to do what I would do at home and ask each of these youngsters to just tell me a little bit about themselves and what they want to do.
Bradley Bolen:And, on this side of the room, I had a Sunni. Over here is a Shia. You know, I had Arabs, I had Kurds. And, so each... I said, "I want each of us to get up and play something." And so, they play something and mention something about what they wanted to do and about third or fourth student that played... Young lady was playing some Bach, I think it was, and a mouse came running out from behind the piano.
Bradley Bolen:And, everyone of course screams and everyone's standing on chairs and this sort of thing. And then, it sort of goes back behind the piano where it was going and she started playing again and this mouse runs out again and one of the young men walked over to the piano and started playing the second Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, the significance of that being that Tom and Jerry in Bugs Bunny did this... You know, if you remember the skit, that was the piece they were playing, so that was the joke.
Derek Smith:That's funny.
Bradley Bolen:And, I knew right then it was going to be... Going to be a great time and we all bonded.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Derek Smith:That's great. So, you know, as we talk more about this I want to ask you. American Voices. You told us a little bit about them. A great comparison to Doctors Without Borders.
Derek Smith:But, who is American Voices? Who started it and what's the mission?
Bradley Bolen:They're an NGO that was started by a UT graduate named John Ferguson and they've been I think over 120 countries, something like that. And, they'll go in and just simply do a two-week workshop and it will have music and dance and various instruments. They have an orchestra we had in Iraq. We had at least one, maybe more, orchestras that first year there in 2010. And, the connections we make... I'd say a lot of them become permanent.
Bradley Bolen:We sort of bond during that period and now it's so much easier with social media of course to keep in touch with people and see how they're doing and a lot of those folks have moved. Some of them have come to Baylor. And so, I think that the bang for the buck that that organization has gotten has been just tremendous.
Derek Smith:You know, you said they... You know, you mentioned over 120 countries, 120 places, and that you said they go into these situations. Makes it sound so simple, but when you're talking about the places that you're going, it's not. What does it take? What does it take to set something like this up in some of the places you've been?
Bradley Bolen:It's pretty astonishing to me because I think that when we... When I did my first tour, there might have been 10 people that were faculty. But, what will happen is they'll have some students that volunteer and things that come up in a place like, say... We were first in Erbil, Iraq. You have an orchestra, right? And, all of a sudden, everyone says, "We need chairs for the cellists." And, all of a sudden, you get all the chairs and they're all desks that you can't sit in as a cellist. Well, you can't just run down to Office Depot. Right?
Bradley Bolen:And so, if you can picture them all scrambling, trying to find... How do they even something as basic as have chairs for the cellists? And, you multiply that times 100 crises a day.
Bradley Bolen:You know? Logistically, it's very, very difficult. But, in the end, the result was always astonishing.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Bradley Bolen, senior lecturer in piano in the Baylor School of Music, today here on Baylor Connections. And, Dr. Bolen, where are some of the places that it has taken you personally?
Bradley Bolen:Well, I've... First summer was two weeks in Iraq and then two weeks in Syria and two weeks in Lebanon. And, since then, also returned to many of those places. Iraq a couple of times and Lebanon many times. Jordan, for example.
Derek Smith:So, obviously you're talking about places where there's a great need. So, if you would now here as we kind of move into the next part of this program, take us inside as best we can in a setting like this.
Derek Smith:And, help us to get immersed in what these are like. What are the moments for you serving with American Voices that are most powerful?
Bradley Bolen:Well, always the people. You know, like I said, the connections that we make stay permanent and things that lead to other countries. These... A lot of these people, of course especially ones that have been in conflict countries like Syria, have dispersed all over the world and... You know, Canada. I have a very close friend that was a student in Syria that's now in Poland. So, I've done a lot of work in Poland now as a result of connections from him. You mentioned you had interviewed [inaudible 00:12:16] some time ago and he was one of my students in Syria.
Bradley Bolen:And, he's now getting a doctorate in environmental science at North Carolina.
Derek Smith:Yeah, his story, what... From Syria, war-torn country, and he ended up at Baylor studying under music and science at Baylor.
Bradley Bolen:He was at... He was at Baylor. Mm-hmm. He got his piano pedagogy degree with me and his electives were lots of hard science courses. You know, organic chemistry, whatever it might be, that weren't typical of what required for music majors. And, he went over to a retreat that the environmental science department had and they said, "Well, you don't need a master's. You need a doctorate." And, they just put him right into the doctoral program, so.
Derek Smith:That's great. Yeah. Graduate from Baylor in 2017 after being in some really tough situations in Syria.
Bradley Bolen:Mm-hmm. He was one semester from having his undergraduate degree in Syria when that war started, so he had to literally start over when he came here.
Bradley Bolen:So, it took him about eight years to get his undergrad.
Derek Smith:You know, you mentioned the people. What do their stories...? You know, you're around human suffering and at the very least great challenge. What does that...? What does it mean to be around situations like that and people trying to make the best go of it?
Bradley Bolen:What I remember... The most difficult thing for me was coming back because I had been made aware of maybe that the biases I had about the way people live in places like that or... You know, I always thought of myself as being progressive-minded, open-minded, in the sense that I wasn't unaware of the things. But, it's different when you see it.
Bradley Bolen:And so, when I came back, little things might have irritated me a little more. It's like, you just don't know what it's like for some folks. You know?
Bradley Bolen:And so, it put me in a better place, I think, just to understand just culturally things people have to deal with in other places. And, like I say, something as simple as needing those chairs was... People that live there have challenges of course way beyond that. But, you just can't always run down and fix it.
Derek Smith:What are some...? You know, I think you mentioned one, telling us the story of the mouse and the piano. But, what are the moments that are the most fun? What are the moments that I'd like to think that maybe the conflict falls away at least for a little bit for people?
Bradley Bolen:Yeah. We didn't... I didn't really have to see a lot of the conflict. Now, there was one... There was one instance that was a little nerve wracking in the sense that we decided that we were going to have a trip down to from northern Iraq into Kirkuk. This was, I think, my second tour. We had been working in Duhok, northern Iraq, and so we took three days to go down to a Save the Children center in Kirkuk. Well, Kirkuk is Iraq Iraq. It was a little rougher. And, John, the director, had had to go to Baghdad to deal with some issues that had to do with the government relations with us and had asked our communications director to take us down there.
Bradley Bolen:And so, three days, we took... Went with military escort and machine guns mounted on the back. Not typical piano teacher type stuff.
Bradley Bolen:And, it was very, very hot. You know, 115, 120 degrees. And, we take these escorts down there for three different days. Had to go different routes each day so nobody could know we were going in and out. And, get there and the children were just fabulous. Just, children are children. Right?
Bradley Bolen:And, on the last day when we were coming back, there was an explosion up the highway in the distance and of course the military folks were scrambling. We suddenly were off road, very rough desert whatever you want to call it. And, we didn't know what had happened. We thought maybe there had been some sort of a terrorist attack or whatever, that sort of thing. Those kind of moments... You know, you're sitting there having these great interactions with children in a place like that. At the same time, there's this looming worry. And, it turned out to be that an oil tanker had run off the road and exploded.
Derek Smith:Oh, wow.
Bradley Bolen:But, then the day after we left, the police building next door to us was bombed in a coordinated attack and it killed 41 of the police, some of whom had been protecting us the day before.
Derek Smith:Oh, wow.
Bradley Bolen:So, when you say fun, I look back on it. It's the most rewarding work I may have ever done. But, I'm not sure... When you say fun, the fun is the connections that I still have.
Bradley Bolen:Like, you know what I'm saying?
Bradley Bolen:That's the the part that I think I cherish the most.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Bradley Bolen from the Baylor School of Music. You know, you're not just going there to recruit students, but some of them have ended up at Baylor or other schools in the United States. What...? How do the relationships you build foster that?
Bradley Bolen:Well, a perfect example would be a current student I actually have from Poland. When I was in Syria, one of my piano students there, soon after I left, went to Poland to study and it happened that the war had started so it was good he was away, but he had already planned to go to Europe and study. And so, he ended up being very successful in Poland at the Academy of Music in Krakow and he got a job at a couple of the conservatories and we had kept in touch and I was invited to do some things and he began working for an institute, a music association in Vienna, and they started a big piano competition.
Bradley Bolen:So, he had asked me to go over and be part of that festival that had this piano competition and do some master classes. And, the young man that won that competition that summer was from Poland. Name's Cezary Karwowski. I didn't meet him during that period but one of the other judges that was there invited me to come back three months later and do some master classes in Woosh, which is another city in Poland. And, it just turned out to be the same school that Cezary Karwowski was in.
Bradley Bolen:Well, I ended up teaching him for that period and on the evening before I left, had gone to dinner with him and one of the other administrators and in our conversations, I just happened to say, "You know, I don't know if I can get to the train station tomorrow. None of the signs are in English and I'm a little nervous about getting back and missing my connection in Warsaw." And, Cezary says, "Well, I'll take you to the train station."
Bradley Bolen:So, we get into the train station and I'm just about to get on the train and he very nervously asks me. He says, "Dr. Bolen, can I ask you a question?." And, I said, "Sure." He said, "If I came to the States, could I study with you?." And, I'm thinking, well, you know, who wouldn't want a student like that that had already won a nice competition? And, he is currently at Baylor.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Bradley Bolen:In fact, he just won the National Music Teachers Association piano competition for students.
Derek Smith:That's fantastic. [inaudible 00:19:26] recently.
Bradley Bolen:And, this all came about... This is all connecting the dots, right? This all came about because of Syria in 2010 and then going to Poland a few times and all these connections that we make.
Derek Smith:That's great.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, it's great to have him here and doing some exciting, exciting things. I know you have to be proud to see him winning the competitions as well.
Derek Smith:I want to ask you now. This isn't... This is someone who's not a Baylor student but someone you work with. Myron Maletskyi. Am I saying that right?
Derek Smith:Yeah. Who is he? Who is he?
Bradley Bolen:He... I actually met him in Vienna about three years ago and was doing some master classes there and he's from Ukraine and lived... Him and his family live in Odesa. And, of course, we kept in touch because he is a very talented, very talented young man, and when the war started in Ukraine I was particularly concerned and had been in contact with his mother and she was sort of holding the family together in a difficult time with... She has three sons.
Bradley Bolen:And, we were talking about how he could no longer go out at his home to go to piano lessons because they were preparing for invasion in the city and everything's being barricaded and whatnot. And, I said, "Well, maybe I can help him out. We could do some online lessons via Zoom." We certainly have practice doing that, right? With the COVID and everything.
Bradley Bolen:And, it'd be a nice distraction for him. And so, sure enough, we had some lessons. In fact, I'm meeting with him again tomorrow and I beg and plead with them to leave at the end of each lesson and they finally did. They went to Hanover, Germany where they are now. And, just a very talented young man. He's 11 now.
Bradley Bolen:And, I would love to have him visit us for a summer institute next summer.
Derek Smith:That would be great. So, they're in Germany and doing well, the family is right now.
Bradley Bolen:They seem to be doing better now, yes.
Derek Smith:Yeah. Of course, you know, you think about the upheaval, that kind of change, and you can only imagine what that would be like. But, we're glad that they're... That we're safe. That they're safe, excuse me. As visit with Dr. Bradley Bolen. And, Dr. Bolen, we're heading into the final couple of moments of the program here and I'm just curious. You've painted a great picture of the work you've been able to do. What has it meant to you to be able to use your discipline for you and your colleagues to really try to harness that ability of music to connect people and to serve in some really distinct situations?
Bradley Bolen:Well, like I said, I grew up in a family where the father was a professor and I just always valued teaching. I've always sort of had the philosophy of people are people and so finding societies where people are particularly hungry for information or for education has been very valuable to me personally. It's been very motivating for me. Never take anything for granted.
Derek Smith:Sure. Well, I know you've got a quieter summer on that front, but we look forward to hearing what travels are in store for you ahead and continue to look forward to the fruits of the work that you are doing with American Voices. Thanks so much for taking the time to share that with us today.
Bradley Bolen:Absolutely. Thank you.
Derek Smith:Dr. Bradley Bolen, senior lecturer of piano in the Baylor University School of Music, our guest today on Baylor Connections.
Derek Smith:I'm Derek Smith reminding you you can view this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.