“Soloist” author to give keynote address at freshman convocation

Jared Morgan

The Soloist by Steve Lopez is Cal State University Northridge's Freshman common reading for 2009-2010. Photo Credit: Charlie Landon / Staff Photographer
The Soloist by Steve Lopez is Cal State University Northridge's Freshman common reading for 2009-2010. Photo Credit: Charlie Landon / Staff Photographer

He helped raise public awareness of an otherwise forgotten musical mind by chronicling his encounters with Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician who lived near the Downtown Los Angeles township known as Skid Row.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez will be the keynote speaker for the freshman convocation ceremony on Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. on the Oviatt Lawn.

Lopez’ book, “The Soloist,” was chosen for the Freshman Common Reading Program, which invites CSUN faculty to adopt a specific book and incorporate it into their curriculum.

Freshman convocation “is a relatively new ceremony and tradition (to CSUN) that welcomes the freshman class, formally, from the academic side,” said Cheryl Spector, CSUN director of Academic First Year Experiences.

Students gather in front of the Oviatt Library, a highly symbolic place, said Spector, with the (CSUN) president, the administration, faculty and staff, as well as continuing students.

“It has been designed almost as a bookend to graduation. It’s in the same place. Administrators and many faculty will wear full academic regalia,” said Spector. “It’s hot,” she laughed. “It’s just like graduation.”

And there’s even a little touch of choreography, Spector added.

At least three speeches take place during the ceremony, including one from President Jolene Koester.

“When the speeches end … the students are welcomed intellectually and formally with a piece of choreography that says ‘Please join us up here on the steps,’” said Spector.

“They ascend to join the academic campus community. Because by September they’ve already got friends, they have the social networks beginning to form, which are certainly essential, but here they’re asked to think, and it’s centered around a speaker who’s written a book.”

“The Soloist” is a book that essentially expounds on Lopez’ articles recounting his interaction and intervention with the musically gifted and mentally ill Ayers.

It’s a story of friendship, music and the therapy employed by these two principles on the spirit of a schizophrenic and musical mind.

Upon meeting Ayers, Lopez thought it curious that a former student of New York’s Juilliard, one of the premiere schools in the country for dance, drama and music, was living on the streets of Los Angeles, so he started to investigate.

What he found was that Ayers had studied music at Juilliard for about two years before having to withdraw because of disturbing episodes caused by schizophrenia.

Juilliard “is a very selective school and the admissions rate is somewhere in the vicinity of eight to 10 percent,” said Ara Guzelimian, Dean of Juilliard in an interview with the Daily Sundial. “Nathaniel Ayers was long before my time and I have no direct experience with Mr. Ayers, but I would say that his presence at Juilliard is a clear indication that he is an exceptionally gifted musician and in many ways remains an exceptionally gifted musician.”

Ayers got the news that he had received scholarships to Ohio University and Juilliard while under the tutelage of Harry Barnoff, a 40-plus-year veteran of the Cleveland Orchestra and Ohio University system.

“He wanted to go to Juilliard because I had five scholarships to Juilliard in New York at the age of 15,” Barnoff told the Sundial. “I had all my colleagues sit down and listen to him and they all said that he was a wonderful talent. And I said that if he continued on, he would one day be a member of a major orchestra.”

After Ayers left Juilliard, he remained in frequent contact with Barnoff.

“Nathaniel would call me across the country and want to talk about music. This went on for a few years and then I lost track of him,” said Barnoff. “And it wasn’t until Steve Lopez found him and he said ‘If you really want to know me, you’ll contact Mr. Barnoff.’”

Lopez said he would try to look Barnoff up in the telephone directory.

“And could you imagine it, after all those many years he remembered my telephone number here in Cleveland and gave it to Steve Lopez. He wrote it in mid–air,” said Barnoff.

Ayers and Lopez remain close friends to this day.

Jennifer Ayers-Moore, Nathaniel’s sister attributes her brother’s improved condition to his friendship with Lopez and the extensive support system provided by the Lamp Community, a nonprofit organization that offers housing and other services to the homeless and mentally ill.

“I got a call yesterday from Steve and Nathaniel,” said Ayers-Moore. “And Nathaniel…for months had been talking about swimming and he actually went swimming. That was monumental for him, because you can imagine someone that didn’t want to move from the street to living in an apartment, but now he’s going swimming.”

For years Ayers’ illness kept him far from social scenarios that involved swimming pools or beaches.

“Steve said that you couldn’t tell it because he jumped in and was swimming like a fish,” Ayers-Moore said.

Ayers-Moore started a foundation in her brother’s name, which aids the mentally ill by introducing the arts into the therapy programs they already undergo. Information on the Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation can be found at naayers.org. Visit csun.edu/afye/CommonRead.html for information about the Freshman Common Reading Program and the convocation ceremony.