National Fortissima Program Inspires and Empowers Young Women of Color

2021 Fortissima cohort wearing red, pink, and white outside with trees in background

Last month, the 10 musicians in this year’s Fortissima cohort visited campus for a residential intensive that helped them gain lifelong mentors and make long-lasting connections.

Fortissima is an artistic and leadership development program for high school age young women from underrepresented minorities in classical music. Fortissima’s innovative leadership curriculum, paired with rigorous artistic development and one-on-one mentorship, is designed to inspire, equip, and empower young women of color to pursue careers in the field. As described by one of this year’s participants, “Fortissima offers the chance for underrepresented young musicians to grow and thrive in a healthy environment. The fact that Fortissima helped us to gain lifelong mentors and make long-lasting connections with esteemed musicians of color shows the value that Fortissima brings to the next generation of classical music.”

In 2021, Fortissima evolved from a local pilot to a national program to expand its reach and impact. Last fall, we announced the appointment of music director Jannina Norpoth, as well as five distinguished mentors (Jennifer Arnold, Monica Ellis, Karla Donehew Perez, Stephanie Matthews, and Angelica Hairston) who would work virtually with accepted students for six months leading up to a residential intensive on the Colburn campus. Earlier this summer, we announced the 10 young women who would make up the inaugural national cohort. They were chosen from a competitive pool of applicants recruited from programs all over the country and were selected based on their level of artistic excellence.

From May to October, students had monthly one-on-one virtual meetings with their mentors where they set their own agendas and goals based on their specific needs and aspirations. In an anonymous survey of students after the experience, one student said, “My mentor meetings were extremely helpful in getting me to realize what I want for the next few years of my life and what I need to do to prioritize my goals and values towards college and my career beyond that.” Another said, “I really connected with my mentor and learned a lot from her! I am glad to have our relationship continue beyond the program. We talked about a range of topics from community service, to career pathways, to financial advice, to real-life experiences.”

From October 30 through November 6, 2021, all 10 selected participants came to Los Angeles to participate in a residential intensive on the Colburn campus. During the intensive, students observed rehearsals and performances of the LA Philharmonic, the Sphinx Virtuosi, the LA Opera, and the Colburn Orchestra. They received training and workshops on conservatory admissions in which they met with Colburn’s Conservatory Dean Lee Cioppa and Manager of Admissions Lauren Woodward; career pathways in the arts where they heard from several of the program mentors as well as other accomplished women of color in the field; tools and personal branding for professional musicians in a workshop facilitated by Colburn alumna Gina Luciani; citizen artistry from a panel of women who have created and led groundbreaking community arts projects on stages, in kitchens, and concert halls throughout the nation; donor relations where they heard from our Vice President of Advancement Nina Zhou and got real-life practice in a donor dinner; yoga for musicians led by Leah Gallegos of Las Cafeteras and The People’s Yoga in East LA; and mindfulness and self-care in a workshop by Charlotte Nguyen of Get Free!; and so much more. Students received daily chamber music coaching from program music director, Jannina Norpoth, as well as visiting mentors and guest artists including composer Jessie Montgomery, who coached her piece “Peace,” which was a part of the final concert program.

Here is what one of the participants had to say about their time in the program and in the residential intensive: “Fortissima opened my eyes to the wonderful things I could take on with my craft of playing the violin. I was able to feel so welcome, as I was not the only person of color—which is usually the norm back at home where I perform. I was able to gain valuable advice from so many mentors on how to take on the world and its problems, on how to take care of myself as a musician, and what I can do in the future with my talent.”

Another said, “Fortissima has changed my life and my outlook on my career by helping me realize how much change I can make with my craft. Listening to the stories of all the amazing artists, and even the program’s core concept, has shown me the power I have to make a difference with music.”

We are very proud of this year’s cohort and are excited to open up applications for next year very soon! We will also be launching alumni initiatives early next year and look forward to remaining engaged with this year’s cohort of students and mentors in the years to come. As one of the young women beautifully stated during the final concert, “The Future is Fortissima!”