An Interview with AYAP Director Natalie Spehar
Annapolis Young Artist Program (AYAP) Interview with Natalie Spehar (NS) - interviewed by Emily Kohlenstein (EK)
EK - Let’s start by talking about your background...Where you grew up and how you got started playing music.
NS - I grew up in Northeast Ohio and spent much time in Cleveland studying music and watching The Cleveland Orchestra. I had a pretty eclectic musical upbringing … In addition to other full-time work, my dad is an accordion player and my mom is a singer. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my uncle’s recording studio as well, listening to rock and metal bands I probably wouldn't have heard of otherwise, especially at a young age. At age four I started classical piano lessons and aural skills class. When I was ten, the high school orchestra came to play for my elementary school class and I immediately fell in love with the cello. I went home that day and told my mom that’s what I wanted to play. She rented me a cello that week, and things pretty much took off from there.
I think because I already had a lot of musical experience when I picked up the cello and could read music, I learned quickly and was able to start recording a couple years into my studies. My uncle would rope me into projects in his studio and also threw me into a contemporary folk band, where I learned how to improvise. I continued to pursue formal classical training as well.
EK - Do you write your own music now, after all of that?
NS - I have composed a few songs and arranged many projects. Usually, though, I find myself improvising in a studio setting or interpreting other composers’ repertoire.
EK - Was there ever a time where you thought 'I don't know if music is exactly what I want to pursue as a lasting career?'
NS - Yes -- I have always loved medicine and still like to read medical journals and articles. I know a lot of other musicians have those shared interests... there are actually a few amateur adult orchestras made up of doctors! Many of the kids I grew up with did take a medical career route. I knew I couldn’t live without music being my focus, though, and decided after my sophomore year of high school to pursue it full time.
EK - That brings us to AYAP... how did that come into the mix of being a musician? Did you always know you wanted to work with kids?
NS - I think what draws me so much to live instrumental performance is the intense amount of communication required, and that it most often must happen without using words. With words out of the way, you must physically move more and create with great intent and openness in order to achieve an experience that draws other people in. You also must be open to what your other collaborators are sending your way, and be able to sit back, listen and respond meaningfully with your instrument. It is always a challenge - and a reward - to connect with other people on that level and it is an excellent exercise in being an effective communicator and leader.
Those experiences shape the way that I listen to and connect with people in general, including kids. In highschool, I formed a volunteer quartet that would play at libraries and present free children’s shows. Since then, I have regularly pursued that kind of teaching and outreach work with young audiences and it over time inspired the idea for AYAP. When I moved to Annapolis and it came time for me to build a private cello studio here, I wanted to create something that was a well-rounded experience -- that introduced my current students not only to great musical repertoire but also to what I think is the overall most important part of being a musician: the joy of connecting with other people.
EK - One of the obvious objectives of AYAP students is performance skill but the other is civic leadership. One does not always see that in a young audience outreach environment. Why did you decide to include that in your curriculum?
NS - I participated in an Arts Leadership Program during my undergrad studies at Eastman School of Music and was exposed to every aspect of what was going to be vital in a professional performance career. I was so thankful for that training because I learned basics of grant writing and took accounting classes on my own, which are both skills I use weekly in running my own program. At ESM, we were also mentored as performance majors by the Ying quartet, who worked with us to develop outreach programs for local elementary schools and assisted living centers. They pushed us to be active collaborators out in the community and that shaped my professional life so much and influenced the way I interact with other people in general. I figured, why not start this training with even younger musicians! It is invaluable information that makes the experience of sharing music that much more rewarding.
As a result of that training, I also discovered that my passion for music could be a force that I use to address other social and community needs -- outside of the music world. For example, my outreach work with music at Maryland Hall has now developed into weekly, free music programming that serves at-risk youth in the area as well as public school students being mentored by our local juvenile justice system. In these situations, music is far more than a fun group activity -- it is teaching collaborative abilities, career skills and leadership concepts that will benefit students in any eventual professional setting. Several of the AYAP students have volunteered to coach these beginning music classes at Maryland Hall and have also taken initiative to create similar, small-group outreach initiatives in the community.
EK - Can you explain the new relationship between AYAP and Maryland Hall?
NS - To now have access to such inspiring facilities [at Maryland Hall] and an entirely new audience of people in Annapolis is wonderful and has greatly expanded the opportunities for our AYAP students. Over the years, we have been able to host phenomenal performers from across the country including local musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, and Annapolis Symphony. With Maryland Hall being an important intersection of community arts organizations, our circle continues to expand and we are grateful for that! Maryland Hall is the ideal educational environment for AYAP’s activities and we feel privileged to now be officially operating as a part of Maryland Hall’s outreach program.
EK - Do you choose what events the kids should volunteer for?
NS - What draws a lot of students to the program is our initiative called AYAP Reach, which is a student-led effort to serve the community through volunteer musical work. AYAP faculty serve as mentors for the initiative, but the participating students are the ones tackling the creative as well as administrative responsibilities for most local performances that they present.
I’ve found that when students come in the door and are expected to collaborate at a professional level, something exciting happens -- the kids take pride in their roles and tend to go above and beyond what we expected, creating extra-innovative aspects of their art and new opportunities for their peers. I can facilitate those opportunities and mentor along the way, but do not assign students to specific activities. I simply include those that find the project meaningful and are motivated to help.
EK - Is the program currently open to members of Maryland Hall?
NS - It is open to all young musicians in our community, ages 12-18. AYAP hosts events year-round at Maryland Hall, providing a workshop and masterclass series during the academic year and a Summer String Institute in August, both of which can be registered for at www.marylandhall.org.
AYAP Reach functions year-round in a club format and new members are always welcome! The group meets on the first Saturday of each month for a formal student meeting and then performs and volunteers at local community events throughout the month. For more information about AYAP Reach, please feel free to inquire via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EK - Can you talk about the Urban Initiative?
NS - A couple of years ago, AYAP started a collaboration with a Capitol Heights, Maryland branch of a national non-profit organization called Urban Initiatives. I was deeply impressed by their effective programming for local citizens in need, which included nutrition information class, summer camp, and a GED class for parents. AYAP teamed up with them to create a music addition to that programming, offering free string mini-camps with local children [in Capital Heights]. During a mini-camp, the kids come for 2 hours every day after school. Some have never played an instrument before so it is very fun and interesting for them. After two weeks, we perform a community concert in which they present individual solos learned as well as a group orchestra piece. It is such an awesome experience for all involved and we look forward to collaborating again soon!
EK - Is there a way people can donate to the program?
NS - Absolutely. We are thrilled to accept instrument donations or funding toward the maintenance of the instruments that we do own -- we currently have several violins, guitars and a piano and use them daily. Financial support of our Outreach Program at Maryland Hall in general is of course always appreciated and used to create important opportunities for youth in our community. Thank you for your continued support!
For further information on funding opportunities and the meaningful influence that has on our outreach programming, please feel free to contact email@example.com.
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