+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety  + Photos by Sarah Jane Holden

Maybe you can identify. You’re a young student with your future unfurling before you toward a horizon you cannot see. Watching television, or maybe a clip on YouTube, you’re suspended in awe by a performance by Yo-Yo Ma, who’s deeply engaged in producing sound from a cello and evoking a thrilling chill in you. Or maybe it’s Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the young cellist who performed at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who enthralls you. Or a sublime orchestral piece that carries you on the alluring pulsation of crescendos and diminuendos. 

Whichever the piece or artist, dreams were sparked in you of maybe one day, some way, possessing similar virtuosity.

For some young musicians who aspire to greatness, the reality of attaining their dreams is fraught with obstacles. There’s the struggle to find the right teacher who can propel them toward their goals. And then there’s the unremitting lack of resources to secure such instruction if a teacher is found. Many students might decide to give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, casting out their dreams, leaving their potential talent unrealized and the world the poorer for it. 

Such stories caught the interest of the leadership at the ASO (Annapolis Symphony Orchestra). Concertmaster Netanel Draiblate is the founder and director of ASA (Annapolis Symphony Academy), an after-school and weekend education program in its inaugural year. This new, youth-centric offshoot is an example of following through until you see your dreams realized. Draiblate has long planned to bring high-quality musical education to fill a void in Annapolis and build a program encompassing aspects that musical education advocates may believe are missing in Anne Arundel County. 

Draiblate launched the program starting with middle- and high-school-aged students to start addressing an issue brought to his attention by public school system educators: the music dropout rate that occurs around middle-school years, due to so many interests vying for top spot on a student’s ever-burgeoning calendar. 

Patrick Nugent, ASO’s executive director, came up with the socioeconomic element of the program. It took him and Draiblate three years to build, and in their research they came across thought-provoking statistics. In the United States, only four percent of musicians in orchestra come from either Latino or African-American backgrounds. According to Draiblate, many programs were started in the country but focused only on minority students. The ASA was created with the idea of an integrated, even balance of student backgrounds coming together in a music education program. 

Another aspect considered was the ability to pay for a program such as this, which while affordable compared to similar programs, is still well beyond some households’ financial reach. To this end, Draiblate wanted to ensure that, if a student is really interested in learning an instrument and has the chance for a musical career, then household income below the poverty line shouldn’t be a disqualifying factor. The ASA uses a waiver program that can cover tuition costs, based on certain criteria and thanks to a generous founding gift. Qualifying students must audition, and both students and parents are interviewed. 

Once accepted into the ASA, students must commit to a private lesson during the week, ensemble training on the weekends, and workshops during the semester, along with the requisite practice at home. To help motivate students in their commitment, they’re provided a subscription to attend ASO performances, where they can see their teachers perform. Ongoing participation could bring opportunities, such as college scholarships, with schools recognizing the inherent benefits of a rigorous program that promotes discipline and fosters the ability to collaborate. 

Such potential opportunities appeal to 15-year-old twins and program participants Holland and Rome Davis. Both have been homeschooled all their lives and have played their respective instruments for over seven years. “Because orchestra for adults is so prestigious, the fact that I’m in the program for younger people, I think it’ll open doors for college,” says Holland, who plays violin. Her brother Rome says, “I really enjoy playing the cello, and any opportunity to play it in a group is great.” 

Their prior experience included private lessons and playing with their church and in a youth orchestra. They find the program challenging, but in the best way. “When I first started cello in elementary school, I was eager to grow and had time to practice a lot,” says Rome. “As I got older, it was harder to find time to do that. But the program is really challenging and has got me to practice a lot more.” Holland adds her perspective on the program: “I like how I’m challenged; it’s a little hard to find that in other programs. I find I’m trying really hard to get it right, trying to live up to the level of the ASO’s professional musicians.” Their mother, Von, notes that the rigorous program is helping them both grow as musicians. 

Draiblate says that even more plans are in the works. “The ASO Board of Trustees recognized the current framework as robust already and approved the initial structure of the program. When we worked to build the program, we dreamt up a lot of new ideas and expansion plans, which we intend to implement pending future fundraising efforts” 

The program has received strong community support and, as it evolves and money is raised to ensure its longevity, Draiblate is keen to promote another benefit gleaned from his research—the neurological and other health benefits of learning to play an instrument from a young age. “In Anne Arundel County, lots of students gear toward sports, which is great and they keep healthy,” he says, “but with all of the research coming out about the benefit of music, the balance will shift dramatically. It’s an area we’ll want to develop, as it promotes longevity and it’s actually a great healthcare program.” █

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