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An Interview With Bithyah Israel: Composer, Cellist, and the Founder of City Strings

Bithyah Israel is a composer, cellist, and the founder of City Strings, a youth cello ensemble that provides free musical opportunities for youth in the Boston area. She is also the Social Justice Fellow for the Arts and Humanities with the UU Urban Ministry. We got to speak with Bithyah about her compositional process, the inspiration behind City Strings, and her time as an Arts & Business Council Creative Entrepreneur Fellow.

During her compositional process, Bithyah focuses on her emotions and transforms them into her pieces. Bithyah describes her compositions as “ambient mood music” and “a way to express things that maybe I don’t have the words for or words wouldn’t do it justice.” Her most recent piece is about George Floyd and she “was able to process [her] feelings through writing.” Her music is also often inspired by films she has worked on for NYU and Columbia University graduate projects. Through these pieces, she works on “conveying the feelings that seem to be playing out in the narrative.”

Recently, Bithyah has been organizing her home studio, refining past pieces, and setting up an online store to tentatively launch in Spring 2021. She is also very busy keeping up with her City Strings program, which has shifted to virtual rehearsal sessions three times a week. Bithyah asked her students what they wanted to focus on and found that they want to improve their music literacy and composition skills. These have become the focus of their online learning.

Bithyah has always been passionate about music and helping others find a creative outlet. She herself received free music lessons for six years from a former San Diego Symphony cellist, and her family was part of a local singing group. She credits these early experiences with opening a lot of doors and helping her “emotionally work through things.” In 2010, Bithyah read an article about the impacts children face when growing up in a low socioeconomic environment. “That was the switch,” Bithyah recalled. She realized that the musical opportunities she experienced in her youth could affect positive change in her community now. This realization became the inspiration behind City Strings.

City Strings was initially founded on a $1,500 donation. It has grown immensely since then, now teaching up to 22 children at a time, and integrating peer leadership into its programming. Bithyah focuses on letting students come into their own through leadership opportunities and helping each other. City Strings seeks to break down the notion that a musical education or being part of a music ensemble is an exclusive position. Rather, at City Strings, everyone is entitled to a cello and the opportunity to thrive in a creative and joyful environment. Just as Bithyah has had a positive impact on her students, they have also made an impact on her. She was particularly touched when visiting a student after he was moved to a new foster family. Upon her arrival, she was told that he “kept talking about his cello teacher.”

In 2019, Bithyah was a Creative Entrepreneurship Fellow with the Arts & Business Council. Before her time with A&BC, Bithyah says she “had goals for music and had dabbled in film stuff but art as a business was not a concept that I had any background in.” Bithyah was particularly grateful for the connections she gained as a result of the fellowship. “To sit in a room of fellow artists and hear about what they’re trying to figure out and what they’re doing successfully [was] really strengthening,” she recalled. She and the other fellows from her year remain in contact even now through virtual means. Since her fellowship, Bithyah has been continuously informed of potential opportunities by members of the A&BC team. This support has aided Bithyah in being awarded another fellowship.

When asked to share what she was excited about these days, Bithyah cited, “the possibilities…I feel like I have all the tools around me and it’s recognizing what I have at my fingertips.” The other night when she decided to take a break from her busy day, she realized that she “didn’t feel the need to escape into a movie because [she] was so excited about real-life…the every day.” She urges us to ride through the wave of emotion of the current moment and “just be present. We all have talents, we’re all uniquely us, and we can share that with somebody else.”

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