12/09/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Street Symphony: Showing Up for Underserved Communities

I recently had the opportunity to interview Vijay Gupta, the artistic director and founder of Street Symphony, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating live, free, on-site musical experiences of the highest artistic quality for people experiencing incarceration and homelessness in Los Angeles County. Street Symphony ensembles perform at LA County Jails and homeless shelters in downtown Los Angeles, as well as at public events for the community-at-large with the goal to raise awareness for issues of mental health, incarceration, and homelessness.

Julie Ingram: What gave you the idea to start Street Symphony?
Vijay Gupta: My colleague, Mitch Newman at the LA Phil, had done a concert series in Long Beach at a mental health association called The Village, an organization with a leading restorative justice type model to homelessness. Just amazing social workers. Mitch played a fundraising concert there once a year, and I noticed very quickly that although these concerts were highly beneficial, the musicians weren't playing for any of the actual homeless people. So I thought, What if there is a way to connect with them. I wanted to fully realize the benefit of what this music could do, not only in terms of enlivening the organization, but for the people that it's a custodian of. We started in a basement conference room on Skid Row with four LA Phil members. The social workers there even reached out of their own pockets to pay for sandwiches, cookies, and sodas. That was the beginning. There was no idea to start a non-profit. Around this time I was a TED Fellow speaker and had told the story of my experience teaching Nathaniel Ayers, thinking it was the end. But my mentors at TED told me this was just the beginning. They encouraged me to keep practicing my speaking, and the next year I came back to TED and got some funding. A private donor said, "Here's $10,000. Do what you can do."

(Photo by Cooper Bates Photography)

JI: What is your emotional connection to the work?
VG: The main question is, What are we actually doing as musicians? It's the most terrifying question to ask. Why are we spending tens of thousands of hours behind closed doors, by ourselves in a room, trying to nail one passage in tune before we can even set foot on a stage to play an audition behind a screen? That's what our lives are. We are so disconnected from our power of expression - the power that is the invitation to connect. So if the power and invitation is to connect, then who is the most disconnected? There's a mirror of consciously going into places of homelessness or incarceration where society says, that you are 'other'. You are not us. And maybe it's not only my experience of feeling that, as a classical musician, I am very much 'other' - because in our craft, when we make a mistake, we're seen as a mistake. There's so much guilt and so much shame that can be a part of making music, so literally our audiences, in creating that safe space along with us, remind us that this is all about connection.

JI: Which groups and people contribute to the well-being of Street Symphony?
VG: Midnight Mission, PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), and The Department of Mental Health Skid Row Clinic. I've worked with Judge Rubin and the LA County Sheriff's Department to facilitate concerts at Men's Central Jail, Twin Towers, Wayside Facility in Valencia, and the Lynwood Facility for Women. We've also performed in VAs and hospitals. We've done 160 free concerts since 2011, 58 of those at the jail. Street Symphony has been fortunate enough to have string performers from the LA Phil, as well as a gypsy band called "Trio Dinicu", and a jazz ensemble lead by guitarist Brandon Bernstein that includes musicians like Putter Smith and Ramon Banda. Recently, The Olive Trio, a wonderful chamber group from the Colburn Conservatory, performed for Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

(Photo by Cooper Bates Photography)

JI: How does living in LA shape your advocacy towards Street Symphony?
VG: The reality of homelessness is that in this city, there are 80,000 homeless people on any given night. LA is also home to Twin Towers Jail, the largest psychiatric facility in the country. There's a very clear revolving door between being homeless and mentally ill on Skid Row...which I mean, if you made any one of us homeless for 6 hours, we'd go out of our mind. But being homeless, having drugs pushed on you by the drug sharks, and then having a run-in with a cop on Skid Row, can have you end up in county jail. It happens. And our de facto treatment of homelessness is incarceration. I'm not an activist. I didn't come into this wanting to be an activist, but now I don't have a choice because you know - you see it in front of you. And I can't understand why after a concert I can have a conversation with an incarcerated man about Beethoven - and he's in love with the music as much as I am - and that night I get to order a pizza, and he's in Twin Towers Jail. I don't understand it. But this is one of the reasons I started Street Symphony.

JI: What is your personal mission statement for Street Symphony after having been involved in it for three years?
VG: The call for Street Symphony is to say look, just look at what's happening. The goal is not religious, it's not political, it's not to shift policy. It's just to show up for people.

If you wish to attend a concert, Street Symphony will be playing at the Midnight Mission (601 S. San Pedro St, Los Angeles, CA 90014) on Jan. 29th, March 26th, May 28th, July 30th, Sept. 24th and Nov. 5th.

As a new and growing non-profit organization, Street Symphony relies on the generous support of donors to deliver the healing power of music. To contribute, please go to this link: