Name: Bithyah Israel
Organization: City Strings United
Title: Founder and Executive Director
Music Genre: Cello! Varied styles
Years in the Field: 20
What do you do at City Strings United?
At City Strings United (CSU) I run all operations from recruiting teachers and students, teaching classes, replacing instruments, recruiting volunteers, and donor relations.
Why do you do what you do?
I do this work because when I was a child, I received free cello lessons, since my family could not afford them. A symphony cellist took it upon himself to do this, which gave me opportunities to perform in youth and civic orchestras. That experience lifted my heart and made my spirit soar. I want more children to experience such overwhelming joy. Having been blessed with such support growing up, I had hope even during trying times. I wish the same for today’s children.
What comes easiest to you in this work?
The easiest part of this work is dealing with children. They show that they feel valued and they reciprocate. Kids are just fun. One day, as I was rushing down the aisle of the church we teach out of, probably to locate rosin or a cello pin holder for a student, I heard a little voice: “Lady, lady!” a high-pitched voice said. I noticed a 3-year old little girl looking up at me. She had been observing our cello class – probably a student’s little cousin. I stopped in my tracks. She looked up at me and confidently said, “I need a violin.” This took the cake. She saw that all the other children there had an instrument, and she knew she deserved one, too. Moments like that refresh me and push me forward, reiterating to me the vision for which I strive.
What challenges you in this work?
What challenges me is operating amidst a lack of adequate financial support for our grassroots organization. I must work long hours freelancing, so that I can pay my bills in addition to running CSU. I have many projects within CSU just waiting to be completed, when funds provide a staffer’s hours to do them. It’s scary every year when our resources become scarce, and grant applications, on top of all else I’m doing for the kids, are time consuming and not promised. Every year, I find I am able to accomplish more and more – this year, 4 grant apps have gone out…improving!!
What does it mean to do this work in this community?
The community tells me we give them hope, and that our program is providing our students a great platform. In the five years we’ve been running, we’ve appeared in The Boston Globe twice, on New England Cable News, at the Museum of Fine Arts, and been invited to collaborate in shared performances with a Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Ensemble and Celebrity Series of Boston. We’ve also performed with a Grammy-awarded drummer Terri Lynn Carrington and saxophonist Walter Beasley. So, the community is inspired with the great accomplishments and recognition our students have received in a relatively short amount of time. I have countless inspiring stories.
How do you blow off steam?
Let’s see… I talk it out with my friends or executive coach, drive to the beach, watch a movie, say a prayer, listen to gospel music, play my cello, laugh, exercise, and just take a nap (it took me 2-3 years to understand part of survival is to just STOP and REST.)
What do you create in your free time?
I enjoy writing music, cooking, and reaching out to loved ones and also community members who have been exceptionally supportive. I also like telling about my experiences or self in a comedic way, making others laugh. I get pleasure out of making others chuckle, even at my own expense. Being transparent seems to have a cathartic effect on others.
What music do you like listen to (if even a little too loudly)?
I listen to gospel, jazz, classical, pop (I have a ‘Road Tripping’ station on Pandora) and classic rock “Dream On…”
Seen any good movies lately?
I recently saw Hidden Figures. Once again, I am inspired by stories of triumph despite initial conditions of little support or appreciation. Integrity always wins.
What are you currently reading?
The autobiography of Frederick Douglass.
Hopefully succeeding in fulfilling our modest $50,000/year budget, then heading to the $100,000 level.
Besides writing music for CSU students to perform, I’ve begun writing music and acting in theatrical productions, usually historical plays. I hope to continue building my professional composing portfolio.