There is a feeling permeating throughout LIC – that there is still a potential to make something happen. One can insert themselves into the neighborhood – the scene – and make a significant contribution to the community because there is still room to do so.
Oliver Sohngen came to LIC and saw the need for a music school to help enrich the people of Queens’ most up-and-coming area. Sohngen’s pedigree is suited for such a task, as the German-born musician has been up and down the fret board of the music profession.
But it didn’t start out that way, as Sohngen grew up in a house “without music” and didn’t have his first professional lesson until he was 19 years old.
“I was given a cheap guitar at [age] 10 and was told to learn it on my own,” said Sohngen, who is the director of the LIC Academy of Music (LICAM). “That’s what I did.”
After playing bass and guitar in various rock and jazz groups in his high school years, he was eventually awarded a full scholarship to study in the United States at Cleveland State University. Once there, it didn’t take long for Sohngen to establish himself.
He took the musical community by storm, producing, designing and performing in Viktor Ullmann’s opera "Der Kaiser von Atlantis" at Cleveland Public Theatre. It was hailed as the year’s premier achievement on Ohio’s arts scene and was subsequently awarded the Northern Ohio Achievement Award.
“I put a lot into that production. I was on a shoestring budget so being awarded for it was very satisfying,” he said. “I actually defeated my voice teacher – he was pissed.”
Once he completed his stay at Cleveland State University, Sohngen knew it was time to get out of the Midwest and go somewhere his talents could be challenged even further – and New York was that place.
Sohngen spent some time singing and performing around Manhattan in various gigs, trying to establish himself among the island’s crowded and hungry masses.
Ever since arriving, Sohngen has been saturating the area and befriending the most talented musicians he could find. He believes his teachers are the best in the city – not only skilled in music, but also exceedingly adept at instruction. Sohngen himself has seen students win competitions, perform at Carnegie Hall and get accepted at major conservatories.
However, not all of Sohngen’s students are remarkably talented – a fact that he freely admits – but talent only takes a student so far. Motivation in music, as in most of the arts, is key.
“I will always choose motivation over talent. The highly talented musician, no matter the age, feels privileged. They feel like they don’t have to work hard,” he said. “The motivated student will push forward and eventually pass the talented student.”
And while teaching, Sohngen and his instructors use different methods for different types of students. There is no cookie-cutter technique for teaching musical instruction to kids or adults.
Sohngen wants to work closely with his fellow musicians, and also with other members of LIC’s artist community. In that vein, Sohngen is teaming up with the LIC School of Ballet, Queens Paideia School and The Secret Theatre – all located in the LIC Arts Center – for a summer camp program aimed at providing diverse activities for young people.
The camp is one way for kids to be exposed to different ways of expressing their creative sides. For Sohngen, music is more than just a soundtrack to life – it is a sound way of living.
“It is incredibly enriching to be able to express oneself in music,” he said. “Nobody is remembered for just amassing great wealth. Teach music, learn music – uphold the tradition.”