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With expansion, Annapolis Symphony Academy seeks to increase access and quality of music education

When the Annapolis Symphony Academy opened its doors in 2018, it already had an ambitious mission: to provide high-quality, affordable music instruction to any student that had the drive to learn.

Now, with the launch of two new programs, the Orion Youth Orchestra and the Discovery Early Childhood Music Classes, it’s poised to become one of the most comprehensive institutions for young musicians in the area — one that aims to train its students from their first C major scale to their first professional audition.

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According to the academy’s founder and director, Netanel Draiblate, who also serves as concertmaster for the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, the goal was never merely to provide individual lessons, but rather “an all-inclusive package.”

“The premise was that all of our students get private lessons, ensemble training, guest workshops with artists, and free access to symphony concerts,” he explained in an interview.

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Jose Luis Novo, conductor and director of orchestral activities of Orion Youth Orchestra, speaks with members of the Orion Youth Orchestra during their first rehearsal.
Jose Luis Novo, conductor and director of orchestral activities of Orion Youth Orchestra, speaks with members of the Orion Youth Orchestra during their first rehearsal. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

As enrollment grew, so did the scope of the academy’s programs. Initially, instruction was limited to string instruments, and all students performed within a single ensemble. That quickly split into the Lyra Chamber Music Groups, meant to develop beginning students’ collaborative skills, and the Aries Youth Chamber Orchestra for intermediate students.

With Orion, the academy seeks to create a full youth orchestra, with players of any orchestral instrument welcome to apply, led by the ASO’s own music director, José-Luis Novo.

Jose Luis Novo, conductor and director of orchestral activities of Orion Youth Orchestra, speaks with students during a break. This is the first rehearsal of the Orion Youth Orchestra, a tuition-free orchestra for pre-college aged students started by Annapolis Symphony Academy.
Jose Luis Novo, conductor and director of orchestral activities of Orion Youth Orchestra, speaks with students during a break. This is the first rehearsal of the Orion Youth Orchestra, a tuition-free orchestra for pre-college aged students started by Annapolis Symphony Academy. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Despite the decision to broaden the ensembles’ applicant pool to students who study with private teachers outside of the academy, Draiblate’s long-term vision is that Lyra and Aries will act as feeder programs into Orion. “Basically, we’re thinking like a sports team,” Draiblate said. “We’re going to … develop our own talent.”

That, too, is where Discovery comes in — a program that teaches music fundamentals to students aged 4 to 7. Draiblate praised the work of public school music programs, but pointed out that starting in second or third grade — when many schools introduce students to their first orchestral instruments — is a little late in terms of musical development.

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“Being nine or 10 years old when you start [an instrument] — you’ve lost five years that are incredibly important,” he explained.

Additionally, the ASA seeks to recruit students from diverse racial and economic backgrounds. Since its launch, the academy has aimed for a demographic wherein 50 percent of its student body comes from ethnicities that are underrepresented in orchestral positions. That includes Black, Hispanic/Latino, and Indigenous musicians, which, according to a 2016 study from the League of American Orchestras, altogether constitute roughly 4 percent of professional orchestral players.

On the economic side, Draiblate credits the generosity of donors for creating scholarships for any student that needs it. Those range from partial scholarships to full tuition waivers for Title I students — and complete tuition remission for every student admitted to Orion.

Right, Christopher Chavez, 16, Pasadena, plays Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 6 during the first rehearsal of the Orion Youth Orchestra, a tuition-free orchestra for pre-college aged students, at Temple Beth Shalom. Chavez is a second violin. Started by Annapolis Symphony Academy, Orion Youth Orchestra is recruiting for all instruments. September 23, 2021.
Right, Christopher Chavez, 16, Pasadena, plays Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 6 during the first rehearsal of the Orion Youth Orchestra, a tuition-free orchestra for pre-college aged students, at Temple Beth Shalom. Chavez is a second violin. Started by Annapolis Symphony Academy, Orion Youth Orchestra is recruiting for all instruments. September 23, 2021. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

For students like 16-year-old Christopher Chavez, those scholarships make a big difference. Chavez started learning the violin through his school at the age of seven, but couldn’t pursue private study until he joined the Annapolis Symphony Academy in 2019.

“For about five years, I didn’t have a [private] teacher,” he said. He recalled seeing musicians at all-county orchestra and his desire to “get to their level. I really wanted to have private lessons, but they weren’t affordable.”

Now, as a member of the academy, Chavez enjoys 16 private lessons each semester, in addition to ensemble training and the numerous other opportunities ASA provides.

“I definitely have improved a lot,” Chavez reflected. “I’ve been playing much more challenging music that has made me practice even harder than before.”

Chavez was admitted, along with 23 other young musicians, to Orion’s inaugural season; beyond that, he has his sights set on college music schools. “I really want to be a violinist working in a professional orchestra,” he said. “I see their concerts and how amazing they play. It inspires me, and also makes me want to work harder to get there.”

If there’s one thing the students at the academy have in common, it’s their passion. For Maestro Novo, that passion nurtures not just the students, but also their instructors.

“Growing up as a conductor, I was always told to try to find your career early on — if you wanted to be a professional conductor, you [should] not do anything educational like youth orchestra or school conducting,” he said in an interview. “And I always sort of rejected that concept.”

“When I’m rehearsing any big piece of symphonic repertoire with young people, it’s likely they are discovering the music for the first time,” he continued. “That process is absolutely mind-boggling and so exciting. You can look at the faces of young people and you can actually tell when they finally get it — and everything shines.”

“Those moments are so inspiring for me as an educator but also as a professional. It keeps fresh how those very same processes happened to me when I was young, and how music speaks so deeply to the values that we have as human beings.”

For Draiblate, it was one of his own teachers that sparked his commitment to education. When he moved to the United States from Israel for school, he recalled wanting “to get a big orchestra job or be a soloist” — until he studied with violinist Pamela Frank at the Peabody Institute. “She changed my entire view about what I wanted to do with myself as a person, but also career-wise. When you study with someone like her, it makes you want to teach — to pass on the knowledge.”

Draiblate, like all of the ASO musicians, maintains an active career balancing a regular orchestral appointment with freelance performances, chamber music and teaching. Juggling multiple jobs is par for the course for career musicians, and Draiblate thinks that the expansion of the academy will make a position with the ASO that much more attractive to prospective members.

“To date, we’ve employed 25 percent of our tenured [ASO] musicians in the academy, whether in full-time or part-time positions,” he said. That percentage is only set to grow as the academy does. “When [the academy] hires for private lessons, chamber music and ensembles, we start within the orchestra.”

The integration of teaching positions with orchestral appointments, the mission of the ASA, and the passion of its students all make for a worthy investment for musicians like Alexandra “Sasha” Mikhlin, an ASO violinist and ASA private instructor.

The students at the academy “are so rewarding to teach because of their love for the instrument, and they want to work hard,” she said. “To me, the most important thing is the drive behind their practicing — how much they want it. Those kids always progress much further.”

Enrollment in the academy’s ensembles starts at $100 per month. You can learn more at tunedtoyouth.org.

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Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at nonemakerwrites@gmail.com.

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