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Ensuring a Dream: The Norman E. Johns Chair Award


Meghan Berneking

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In 1995, a young clarinetist named Kazem Abdullah became the first recipient of the Norman E. Johns Chair Award. Established in partnership with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Multicultural Awareness Council (MAC) and in recognition of Mr. Johns’ (the CSO’s Assistant Principal cellist who holds the Karl & Roberta Schlachter Family Chair) over 40 years of service to the CSO and the community, the Award funded Mr. Abdullah’s tuition to participate in the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra. Twenty years later, in October 2014, Mr. Abdullah returned to the CSO, this time as a globe-trotting conductor leading the Orchestra from the podium. He attributes a great deal of his success as a musician to the opportunities he received in the CSYO.

“These opportunities planted the seeds for my professional musical development,” said Mr. Abdullah. “Practicing and studying the repertoire we performed and also preparing a concerto developed not only my musicianship but also my work ethic, concentration, etc. I would say all of these skills developed and learned while in the CSYO shaped me into the musician and conductor I’ve become.”

These days the Norman E. Johns Chair Award continues to have an impact on the lives of student musicians. The Award, which continues to cover the cost of CSYO tuition, is given annually to talented middle and high school African-American, Latino/Hispanic and Native American student musicians with the intention of encouraging their pursuit of orchestral music. Students must first audition for and be accepted into the CSYO; they then audition for another panel of judges (which includes Mr. Johns and other CSO musicians) for consideration for the Award.

“It’s critical to the CSO’s larger mission that we continue to foster the talent of musicians who are underrepresented in classical music at all levels, including within the Youth Orchestra,” said CSO Director of Community Engagement and Learning Ahmad Mayes. “By enabling their participation, we help ensure these students have the tools they need to go as far as their desire and natural ability will take them.”

2015's recipients of the Award, (Mahmoud Said, bass trombone; Haleigh Willingham, viola; Hannah Willingham, percussion; and Myles Yeazell, cello) were honored Nov. 12, 2015 at an event at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Actress and writer Regina Taylor, who was in town to narrate the CSO’s One City, One Symphony concerts, spoke at the event, along with Mr. Johns.

“I came out of high school in 1968, and things were tough back then,” said Mr. Johns. “My family, community and teachers encouraged me, and I think I made the right choice. These young people have many more distractions and influences than we had in our youth. The most negative of these influences can cause them to defer their dreams, if not erase them altogether. And we don’t want that to happen.”

Endowing the Award for Future Generations

The CSO and MAC, a division of the Cincinnati Symphony Volunteer Association, recently launched a fundraising effort to endow the Norman E. Johns Chair Award in perpetuity. MAC hopes to raise $40,000 in coming months to endow and grow the program.

“It is truly incredible to see the community come together to ensure future CSYO members have the opportunity to seek and share inspiration alongside their peers,” said Mr. Mayes. “With this fundraising effort, we will be able to grant the Norman E. Johns Chair Award to underrepresented student musicians well into the future, and also become even more intentional with diversity initiatives within our youth orchestras.” 

MAC member (and former MAC Chair) Aurelia “Candie” Simmons helped to launch the Award in 1995, and is thrilled to chair the fundraising effort guaranteeing its future. “This is a critical step in the right direction to ensure middle and high school students have the support they need,” she said. “While we’ve done a lot of work to diversify audiences through MAC Open Door Concerts and Classical Roots, this Award helps with the diversification of the musicians on stage as well.”

The endowment of the Award is part of the CSO’s larger commitment to increasing diversity and inclusion in the orchestra, audience, Board and partners, and to fostering this diversity and inclusion in the wider community. The recently announced Diversity Fellowship Program with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music—which will officially launch in the fall of 2016—is one such element that will help support underrepresented musicians through the graduate school level.

“We have a continuing responsibility to inspire these talented young people, and all young people who show promise,” said Mr. Johns. “Pull them aside, share your experience. They need to know firsthand what it takes to overcome, and not defer a dream.”


To contribute to this new fundraising initiative, please visit cincinnatisymphony.org/johns or call the CSO’s office at 513.621.1919 and ask to speak to someone in the Philanthropy Department.