Midori Samson

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


With a bachelor’s degree from Juilliard and a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Midori Samson is not only exquisitely trained in her instrument, the bassoon. Throughout her education she also studied social work, even minoring in the field as she earned her Ph.D. For Midori — who describes herself as equally a bassoonist, educator, activist and scholar — her commitment to equity and social inclusion are inseparable from her artistry.

She is a longtime member of Arts Ignite, a non-profit that works with artists to unlock children’s imaginations and potential. Arts Ignite works throughout the country and as far away as India and the Philippines. She is also the proud co-founder and artistic director of Trade Winds Ensemble, a group of professional musicians who teach workshops incorporating music composition, songwriting, interactive games and creative writing to children around the world. Midori’s most recent educational foray abroad took place a few days after this interview when she flew to Turkey to take part in past Art Restart guest Sahba Aminikia’s Flying Carpet Festival, where she was looking forward to creating music with refugee children.

In this conversation with Pier Carlo Talenti, Midori explains why her musicianship relies on her social-justice work and vice-versa and discusses the many ways in which the teaching and performing of classical music could be transformed to be radically welcoming.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo: At what point in your musical education at Juilliard did your interest in social justice arise? When did you understand that you could combine both passions?

Midori: I think it starts even before Juilliard. My parents, I think of them as two of my favorite hero activists in my life, both in very different ways. My dad is pretty involved in antifa in Portland, and he is always on the streets doing real boots-on-the-ground protests and activism that some of us are too scared to do.

Pier Carlo: Did you protest with him when you were a kid?

Midori: Yeah, I did actually. That was very much part of my life and part of my childhood. But that always scared my mom, who is a dialysis nurse and does home dialysis with patients who are in rural communities and can’t get to their treatment because it’s too far because of other issues of accessibility. I think both of my parents are dealing with social-justice issues, and I saw this, even though they have no proximity to music, especially classical music. I was still very much around it. I think that started much before undergrad and was part of my whole life.

But I will give Juilliard some credit for being a school that, when I was an undergrad in 2010 to ’14, was pretty, I think, ahead of things as far as combining social-justice efforts and the arts. I remember them really encouraging us to incorporate artforms into social-justice work, combining them. I was really nurtured to do that there.

Pier Carlo: When did it start?

Midori: I got involved during undergrad. I got involved with an organization called Artists Striving To End Poverty. They’re now called Arts Ignite. They match teaching artists in all artforms with communities, schools and other organizations worldwide that are doing social-impact work but don’t necessarily have arts programming.

They first sent me to India. I went to the Philippines with them and did residencies where we worked with the school and partnered with them to make a curriculum and do a series of arts workshops for the children they serve. That was some of the first things that I did.

Pier Carlo: Do you ever feel like one pursuit or passion detracts from the other, or do they feed each other?

Midori: Of course they feed each other! I wouldn’t ever want to do one without the other. I remember after my first year at Juilliard, I was struggling with injury, I was struggling with mental health issues and really being sad about music and my relationship to it. But I went to the Philippines with ASTEP, Artists Striving to End Poverty, and I came back having truly not practiced at all [she laughs]. I had only done small, casual performances for children all over the Philippines, several different islands, but I was comfortable in playing from the heart and doing things that were challenging in other ways. Who cares about the excellence? I had to get through how hot it was and how buggy it was and how wet it was and how uncomfortable it was. That stuff was way more important than playing well at the time.

When I came back, I played a little bit for my teacher, Frank Morelli, and he said, "You sound better than ever. How hard did you work this summer?" I said, "I didn’t, but I had these other really transformative artistic experiences, making music with children all over the Philippines and composing with them and singing with them, dancing with them. The holistic education that provides is way better than practicing." I explained that to my teacher, and he totally agreed, and I’m so thankful for that because he nurtured that in me. So many other teachers would have punished me for that or would have shut down that behavior, but he really nurtured that and allowed me to do that. Of course, it impacted the way I played and still do.

Pier Carlo: One of your passions of course is examining the pedagogy of music. It sounds like your bassoon teacher understood the value of life experience. Are you finding that the way music is taught is already changing, that there are more Morellis out there?

Midori: Oh, definitely. I’m teaching now at a state university that really prioritizes the pedagogy part of it. For example, with my undergrad bassoon students, I’ve really focused on teaching them how to teach. I have them read articles about social-justice issues in music, and I have them reflect on and ponder those. That is just as important a part of the curriculum as learning the scales and making reeds. It goes alongside of all those things.

In the holistic approach that I try to do, I’m inspired by many of my colleagues that I see doing the same thing, where caring for the body and caring for mental health and caring for the community is just as important as the practicing part. I mean, I think it’s way more important, but sure, we should also practice and work hard.

Pier Carlo: [Laughing] Your students might be hearing this. Careful.

Midori: [She laughs] They should hear it because I will be so impressed if they care for themselves in those ways. They’ll play better anyway. Yeah, I think it’s definitely different, and I’m really grateful for that.

Pier Carlo: It now makes me think about the traditional classical concert hall as I know it, which I think of as being so hierarchical and really focused on excellence, for obvious reasons, and maybe less focused on mental health.

Given that some music students are being taught in a different way, are you starting to see those changes reflected in the concert-hall culture? Or what is yet to be done there?

Midori: Maybe in some ways, yes. Hm, where do I start? Well, first of all, this is when I’m glad we’re not on video because when you say the word excellence, especially in the context of the concert hall, I just have this huge eyeroll.

Pier Carlo: Oh no, I wish we were on video!

Midori: [Laughing] I know, I know. For the sake of my students, I’m glad that they don’t see that.

But really, a big part of my dissertation research was thinking about a concert hall in the context of a trauma-informed lens. I think there is, across the history of classical music and still today, so much trauma and humiliation around striving for excellence, and I think humiliation and excellence have also been used as weapons of white supremacy. I think of the concert hall as another expression of trauma hierarchy, white supremacy, power, dominance, all the things.

The way that social workers define being trauma-informed is things like natural light, furniture that can be moved, having clear sightlines, having easily accessible chairs and spaces that you can navigate through, having equal-level seating and no hierarchy of power. All these things are so exemplified in the concert hall in the bad way.

Pier Carlo: I want to make sure I understand the term trauma-informed.

Midori: Being trauma-informed acknowledges that all people have experienced some kind of trauma and not just a single event trauma. It could be trauma over time, sustained trauma, collective trauma experienced by a group, generational trauma experienced across generations. All of these things are under the umbrella of trauma. Being trauma-informed acknowledges that that is an experience that a lot of people bring to their everyday lives. What kinds of things can a trauma-informed strategy do to eliminate making that worse or prevent re-traumatization?

A space that is lacking in being trauma-informed is a space, like I said, that has no natural light, which is our concert halls. The stage is elevated, so there’s automatically power involved. You very rarely can decide where you sit, and even if you can, the seat is bolted down and you can’t decide which direction you’re looking. Having an escape plan or an exit plan is very important, and that’s usually lacking in crowded seats. All of that is how I think of a concert hall.

Maybe I’ve drifted kind of far from the original question, but I think this is part of the discussion of pedagogy and how we think of excellence and what we prioritize in the way we teach.

Pier Carlo: To my ear, trauma-informed also means it’s just more welcoming.

Midori: Exactly. That’s one of the big tenets of being trauma-informed: Is the space welcoming? How many times have we accidentally turned away a concertgoer because there are so many barriers of entry that could be unwelcoming? The person who greets you at the door, the parking situation. Everyone has acknowledged that parking is a big barrier of access to going to a concert. Then all the steps along the way. Finding your seat is stressful and not welcoming. Then once you do sit down, are you around patrons who have certain etiquette expectations of you that you don’t know about? There’s a lot about it that’s unwelcoming.

Pier Carlo: You’ll soon be teaching and playing at the Flying Carpet Festival in Turkey. How or what will you be teaching the children there?

Midori: One of the projects that we’re going to try to do is having the students that we work with compose short pieces that are in the style of “In C” by Terry Riley. This is a piece with aleatoric techniques where there are around 50 short one-bar segments of music and the performers play them at their leisure, moving through all 50, playing them multiple times. It creates this beautiful soundscape of slightly improvised but organized music.

What I’d like to do in Turkey is have children compose their own short segments of music. These are children who have not composed music in that way before. All children compose all the time; they’re always singing and dancing and creating. I want to utilize that but then have them document it in a way, keeping the compositions really tiny. It could be one short bar, like Terry Riley does: [She sings a repeating two-note phrase.] Over and over again, just a small gesture like that. But if the student is handwriting it and composing it themselves and then they’re holding up their piece of music that they made, watching the performer play it for them, there’s so much pride. They’ve gone through the experimentation process, they’re so validated hearing their little piece played, and then it gets to fit into this wider composition with all the students’ short pieces being played. That’s real autonomy, where they actually co-created the work of art.

Pier Carlo: How beautiful.

Midori: I think that’s so much more effective than trying to convince them to like Mozart or something. [She laughs.]

Pier Carlo: How has your vision of your musical career changed because of the social-justice work you’ve done?

Midori: I started with a very traditional orchestral training at Juilliard, and luckily alongside that, I was doing other activities to feed my soul. That was also not necessarily sustainable because in general I think the classical-music world doesn’t have the vocabulary or tools to talk about anti-racism and anti-oppression and white supremacy because those things have been so ingrained in the discipline since it was created. During my doctorate, I minored in social work because I found that that discipline does actually have a vocabulary for talking about those issues. There’s no need for musicians to try to start from scratch with it because there are already experts that do know about this.

I think my musicianship has changed so much by going to other disciplines, and I think I’m a better musician because I am involved in social work and involved in the critical thinking that they engage in, whereas I couldn’t have become me and done the work that I’ve done if I was only doing music. I don’t think that undergrad me would’ve known that was an important thing to do. I used to be so focused on getting the dream and practicing and doing all the things that I was told was what success should look like. But branching out my interests and my knowledge and my sources that I use, I think, has made me a better player and a more holistic musician.

Pier Carlo: How do you think the fundamentals of a music education could benefit the training of social workers?

Midori: Ooh! Well, it’s funny because when I talk to my social work friends, they are always like, "Why are you always complaining about music? Music is beautiful. We go to your concerts, and we just want to close our eyes and listen." [She laughs.] I think that’s part of it. I think from what I observe of my social work colleagues, they need more opportunities for healing and for self-care. Back to the idea of trauma, social workers confront trauma every day when they’re doing work with individuals and communities. The trauma that they absorb is real. I think it’s such hard work to learn how to prioritize self-care, for everybody in all professions. I wonder if social workers could get some healing out of some of the best parts of the classical-music world.

I also think that social workers could learn a lot about white supremacy and oppression by looking at the history of music and looking at how gatekeeping has worked in music and how elitism has been and how that’s expressed as social injustice across the history of music. Maybe they could learn from that.

Pier Carlo: I realize I didn’t ask you how you first picked up the bassoon. It’s not the typical violin or piano or clarinet.

Midori: And it’s especially not expected from me, someone who is a first-generation college graduate who comes from a family of non-music, non-arts people. I think that makes it a little extra unusual.

Pier Carlo: It’s also a very tall instrument for a young person!

Midori: [She laughs.] Yeah, I’m 4’10” also. I’m small, and it’s almost as tall as me. It’s always been quite large for me.

Pier Carlo: How did you pick it up?

Midori: I think the story goes that when I was four years old, I came home from school and somewhere somehow I had heard a bassoon. I said, "I think that’s my thing. I think that’s what I want to do." I had to wait until I was big enough, so I waited until I was 11. In the meantime, I learned how to play piano, which wow, talk about trauma and humiliation! I think so many people have stories about that with their piano lessons. That wasn’t really my voice. Then I played the clarinet for a while, and that also wasn’t my voice. Then finally, when I was big enough, I could play the bassoon, and somehow I found my thing. And it still is my thing.

Pier Carlo: It sounds like you’re clearly self-driven, because neither of your parents sounds like people who would force you to practice three hours a day.

Midori: No, they did. [Laughs]

Pier Carlo: Oh, OK. I got it totally wrong!

Midori: No, I mean, it wasn’t forced, and it was still very kind. But they didn’t really know, first of all, that that was a thing that I had to do. You’re not completely wrong. That was not something that they knew was needed. But what they did do really well was make sure that I had the best education I could have and the best resources that I could have. If I was going to commit to something like that, then they knew that I had to commit to it a lot. Even though they weren’t music people, they still knew what dedication needed to look like. They did instill that in me.

And I was surrounded by educators and teachers who gave me everything. They gave me free lessons and free equipment and free music and everything that I didn’t have access to.

Pier Carlo: Wow.

Midori: That’s also what has defined my definition of activism and what we need to do now if we do have the privilege and the means: How can we make sure that other people benefit too?

Pier Carlo: Right. To be graced with so much generosity in your education must change your worldview in a radical way. That’s beautiful.

Midori: Exactly. Yeah.

I also know, having done performances for children, that the bassoon is just weird and mysterious and so versatile and that maybe a lot of times in our teaching of it and our learning of it, we limit what it can do.

Midori Samson

Pier Carlo: Since we’re talking about the bassoon, it is an instrument that historically has been limited to the European classical canon, but I know you’re not satisfied with that. Could you talk about how you’ve been working to expand the bassoon repertoire?

Midori: Yes. This is another part of my research. I can tell you really read up on me and read all my manifesto and everything, because I do like talking about how bassoon has ties to colonialism and is very close to that history. I have to acknowledge that in the work that I want to do.

I also know, having done performances for children, that the bassoon is just weird and mysterious and so versatile and that maybe a lot of times in our teaching of it and our learning of it, we limit what it can do. In 2017, I started commissioning several works by composers from all over Africa. I did a lot of cold calls and a lot of Facebook messages, a lot of WhatsApp texts out of nowhere.

Pier Carlo: Why did you pick that continent in particular?

Midori: It’s because I have an organization that I co-direct called Trade Winds Ensemble, and some of our early work was in East Africa, working with communities and schools in East Africa because one of our founding members grew up there. We were over there and knew how important it was that we were performing for our students works by people who came from similar musical traditions and similar cultural traditions. I connected with, I think it’s 12 composers now who have each composed a new solo work for bassoon.

Of course, because it’s a huge, diverse continent and I’m working with people in 12 different countries, the works are quite diverse in style, in notation system, in texture and instrumentation. They are incredibly diverse, and the one common denominator is that the bassoon is somehow involved. For example, Elsa M’bala, who wrote me a piece, is from Cameroon and lives in Germany. She sent me the score, and it was entirely a graphic score that she created digitally, and it comes with a soundscape track that I play with.

But then there’s also Grace Bernard Oforka, who comes from a very old traditional vocal style in Nigeria. Her notation was familiar to me, and the singing style was familiar to me. That also came to me in this commissioning project. Then there’s a very traditional piece — how the bassoon is used in the playing, that’s what I mean by traditional piece — by Peter Nyabuto, which is basically a bassoon-and-piano sonata, but it’s based on rhythms from the eastern part of Kenya. There’s so much, so much diversity in style and notation system in these commissions that I got! I think that shows people, reminds people that Africa’s not a country and that there are so many diverse artists who are creating there.

Pier Carlo: Do you get a sense that colleagues, different instrumentalists, are starting to do this kind of commissioning work just to give themselves a variety of new things to play?

Midori: Definitely. I have a colleague who always talks about how musicians are getting better at having diverse artists on their music stands but that it’s much harder to have diverse artists in the room and in leadership positions. I think there’s definitely a lot more work to do, and the work does not stop with commissioning, especially if it’s just a commission and that’s it and we don’t acknowledge the person behind the work and their life and their stories. A big part of my commissioning effort was to also document interviews with the composers so that whenever I perform the work, there’s always a multimedia component where their interviews are played before the piece and we can really see their voice and their thinking behind the music, their approach to composing and also their identity as a person and musician.

Pier Carlo: Have you had a chance to perform these pieces anywhere in Africa yet?

Midori: I did, yes. Some of this was supposed to happen in 2020, and it obviously got postponed. There are still plans to do that. I also think it would be great to have musicians over there take it over and they can own it and do that.

I also have a grassroots sheet-music distribution where, through my website, bassoonists can purchase the works and I send payments to the composers, because there are a lot of just logistical, tricky things about getting U.S. currency to all these different countries.

Pier Carlo: [Laughing]Oh, my God, how did you rope yourself into this?

Midori: Oh, it’s wonderful!

Pier Carlo: I’m getting anxious just hearing about this.

Midori: Well, it’s because when George Floyd was murdered, there was a lot of guilt around people realizing that they didn’t play diverse music at all. I heard from a lot of people who wanted to purchase sheet music, and there wasn’t a mechanism to do that because a lot of the works were unpublished and a lot of the composers did not have a way to publish or receive money from the U.S. I have my own ways with each composer, anything from sending a PayPal once a month to once a year or sending cash with a friend that they take to the Congo to deliver to the composer. There are different ways that I do it with everybody.

There are some people who have purchased them from all over the continent of Africa, so I know that there are other people performing them there, which is even better than me doing it there.

Pier Carlo: Do you have any interest — you touched on this earlier —in taking a leadership position in a musical institution?

Midori: [She chuckles.] No.

Pier Carlo: That’s a totally honest answer. I get it.

Midori: Well, it’s hard for me because I have, like I said, really benefited from institutions, and I still do. The secret is that I work at a university so that I can get some of the benefits that come with that, because working at an institution does mean that I can pursue the projects that mean a lot to me, like this one. But I also really dislike a lot of things about institutions, and I really dislike all the problems that come with dominance, and that is really expressed in institutions. But I also know that the way to make change is to be in that position.

Pier Carlo: Right.

Midori: So I really struggle with this question. I don’t know if I have the patience for it.

Pier Carlo: You can’t be the only musician or composer of color who faces this quandary, right?

Midori: Yeah, I mean, everybody. This is the struggle of going into academia, I think. Yeah, it’s really hard for me, and I every day question it and think about it, and you’re inviting me to do the same, so thank you.

Pier Carlo: Oh, my God, I don’t want to end this interview on an ugh.

Midori: No, it’s not sad! But it is definitely something to ponder, because what really makes me happy is composing weird sound art and working with diverse collaborators and going to places to meet diverse collaborators. But how do you make that happen for yourself?

I also know that it’s really important that my students see me doing that. The way for me to make an impact as an educator would be at an institution where I can directly impact the lives of students who can maybe think about how music and social justice fit into their lives too.

Pier Carlo: Well, you’ve already surprised yourself in your career. I’m guessing there are more surprises in store for you.

Midori: Yeah, thank you. I hope so, and I think so.

Pier Carlo: Finally, what upcoming project are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

Midori: We already talked about the trip to Turkey next week. I think that’s really going to be a highlight of life, but since we already talked about it, I’ll name one other thing.

In May I did a pilgrimage with my parents to the camp in California where my grandmother was incarcerated during the incarceration of Japanese people during World War II. It was incredible to see the land and to learn about some of the stories that would have been true about my grandmother who was there at Tule Lake. We learned her family’s ID number, which I now have tattooed on my arm. It was a very transformative trip.

But part of the trip was that I took audio sounds and soundscape recordings of the land and of sounds that I heard both outside and inside one of the prison cells, just all over the camp. I’ve been mixing that into a track and composing a bassoon part that goes with it, all a tribute to my grandmother and to the Japanese incarceration. That is a big recording project that I’m doing right now, which deals with trauma and resilience and identity. It will go on my album, which will come out someday.

September 27, 2022