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Performers use music to break barriers

Cause Celeb talks with singer Vanessa Carlton and violinist Joshua Bell about their work with Music Unites, a nonprofit charity that brings music to students, especially in underserved communities.
Singer Vanessa Carlton shot to fame with her single “A Thousand Miles,” which went platinum in the United States.
Singer Vanessa Carlton shot to fame with her single “A Thousand Miles,” which went platinum in the United States. Kurt Iswarienko
/ Source: NBC News

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with singer and violinist about their work with and music education. Music Unites is nonprofit charity that supports emerging talents as well as established musicians by bringing their music to people, especially students, in underserved communities. Aside from schools, musicians also perform in a variety of other venues through partner organizations. Classical pianist Michelle Edgar founded Music Unites in 2008.

Music Unites is composed of a group of professionals from a range of industries who share a passion for music. The Music Unites Youth Choir brings together public high school students from New York City to study and perform songs in all musical styles. They will be debuting at Carnegie Hall on March 2 in a tribute to The Who presented by Michael Dorf.

Music Unites partnered with and Bell to host a recent fundraiser at Bell’s New York City residence. The event celebrated the release of Bell’s newest album “” and the announcement of ETM's partnership with Music Unites, which shares the goal of bringing music to disadvantaged youths. The evening ended with a classical set performance by Bell in his living room.

Joshua Bell’s career as a classical violinist started when he debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14 and made his first recording at 18. Since then he has played in many of the most famous music halls in the world including Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. A Grammy Award winner, Bell has serenade audiences worldwide through his live concerts as well as over 30 CD recordings, including performing on the soundtrack for Sony Classical’s "The Red Violin," which won the Oscar for Best Original Score.

Vanessa Carlton became involved with Music Unites through a shared passion for music and education. Carlton shot to fame with her single “A Thousand Miles,” which went platinum in the United States. Since releasing her debut album "Be Not Nobody," Carlton has released two additional albums and is working on her fourth.

Vanessa Carlton

Q: Please tell me about the work of Music Unites.

Carlton: It’s an important philanthropic organization.

Q: What prompted you to become involved with the organization?

Carlton: I just linked up with Michelle [Edgar], through some event. Actually it was before she started Music Unites. Then she kept me in the loop of what’s going on with her. So it was through Michelle directly.

Q: Why is it important that young people of all backgrounds are exposed to live musical performance?

Carlton: Music is some kind of emotional therapy that you don’t have to pay for. It affects you and your state in ways that are incredibly feeling. I am someone who believes art is one of the reasons we are on this Earth to produce it and to experience it. When you’re a developing person — which you probably are forever — but particularly when you’re a kid, you’re dealing with a lot of fundamental shifts. Music can profoundly shape one’s life, and it is different. It does hit you differently. When you see it and experience it live, it can be transcending and cathartic and integrate all these emotions that I think are imperative. Again, feeling wonderful.

Q: How can there be more opportunities for emerging artists to perform their music?

Carlton: Music Unites helps do that, in many different ways. But I think that it’s a creative forum that encourages new artists with unique points of view to share their work, particularly if they’re struggling artists and you need support. Music Unites is saying a little and doing that and I really respect what Michelle’s created. I’m happy to be talking about it, because they’re an organization. How could you not want to support?

Q: What has been the most rewarding/memorable part of your involvement with the organization?

Carlton: It’s ongoing, I’ve gone to one or two of her events, and I look forward to kind of use that — when I finish this next record that I’m working on — linking up with Music Unites in some ways to incorporate choirs around the city and expose them to what around are up to, if they want to be into it, if they are interested in it. I think I have yet to really have any kind of marquee impact on it, but I’m looking forward to that.

There’s a children’s choir that I’m using on my record that is based in London, that I think kids around here, around the city, would probably be interested in hearing. Being part of a choir when you’re young, or playing music when you’re young has impacted the music world on a whole.

Joshua Bell accompanied by Music Unites founder Michelle Edgar at a fundraiser held by Music Unites and Education Through Music in New York City on January 25, 2010.Giacinta Pace

Joshua Bell

Q: Why is music education important?

Bell: There are a couple of things. Music Unites happens to go along with something I really believe in — that music should not always be categorized into their little departments. For instance, I’m a classical violinist, but I’ve done a lot to try to kind of branch out, to reach audiences outside of classical music, to try to bring them into classical music.

My CD that I just did, “At Home with Friends,” I did with Sting, Regina Spektor, and a lot of others … Chris Botti, Josh Groban. Hopefully, that brings some of that to classical music and brings some classical listeners to other areas of music. Music Unites seems to do that.

My big passion is getting kids involved in music, because I feel, it’s sadly, something that is being taken away from schools. Music is such a big part of culture, if the kids aren’t exposed to it, it’s not part of their education, like reading and math, which I think it should be.

Education Through Music brings music programs to these inner-city schools that have no music programs at all. It actually leapfrogs other programs because every kid has a violin, and they bring these great teachers.

They brought me to a school once in Harlem, the first time, that had this program and I was just very touched by the kids. It’s just unbelievable what it does for the kids in so many ways. Their whole self-esteem is much higher, they each have their own instrument, they learn how to play together, they’re smarter from being in music, I really believe that. It starts with the kids.