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Young Musicians Leave Nest For New Opportunities

Nathan Schram (back row, third from left) performs with his students from PS 75 in Brooklyn.
Stephanie Berger
Getty Images
Nathan Schram (back row, third from left) performs with his students from PS 75 in Brooklyn.

The odds of making it in the classical music business are long, but for the past two years, 25-year-old viola player Nathan Schram has received a stipend, health insurance, lots of amazing performance opportunities and a real-world education teaching violin students at an inner-city elementary school in Brooklyn. Now, Schram and his colleagues have to say goodbye to The Academy.

"It's kind of like getting booted out of your parents' house," Schram says. "You kind of want to stay, you kind of want to go — there's a little bit of anxiety. But I think we're all realizing how many opportunities we have."

The Academy is a training program for young musicians, sponsored by Carnegie Hall and the Juilliard School. It's the brainchild of Clive Gillinson, the executive director of Carnegie, who wanted to find a way for young musicians to develop an entrepreneurial approach to their musical careers in a landscape where 15,000 music-school graduates compete for only 150 jobs in orchestras every year. He says he feels strongly that for a classical musician to make it today, it has to be about more than performing.

"One should be looking at what should the musician of the 21st century be able to contribute back to society, as well as fulfilling their own personal talent," Gillinson says.

A Tight-Knit Group

Since the first Academy fellows left the nest two years ago, they've had many opportunities. Violinist Anna Elashvili was part of that class and, through Carnegie's alumni program, has traveled the world playing and teaching.

"I did several residencies this year," Elashvili says. "I went to Germany, Mexico City — which was one of the most fun residencies I've ever had — and I went to upstate New York, also. And it's fun. I love doing that work."

Elashvili was Nathan Schram's mentor in The Academy and is also first violinist for the Bryant Park Quartet. When that group lost its viola player last year, she became Schram's bridge to a new professional opportunity.

"I told the quartet about him and I said, 'You know, I think we should reach out to him,'" she says. "He was very excited to take us up on the offer. He played for us, and it's been a happy story."

The Bryant Park Quartet embodies the ideals of The Academy. The group doesn't just play concerts: Schram says part of its mission is to be music educators.

"It's been really a spectacular kind of growth of everything I've been doing in The Academy," Schram says. "All the outreach and all the community engagement and all the playing, the chamber music — I've really gotten to do [it] on kind of an independent basis with this ensemble."

Teaching With Passion

Last March, the Bryant Park Quartet was invited by the Long Island String Festival Association to coach high-school string quartets. Its members first played games with the kids to loosen them up. Then, each quartet member went to a classroom to work in depth with the young musicians. Schram was assigned to a group from Manhasset High School. They played a fugue by Haydn.

During the session, he kept reminding them to look at each other and to play with more expression.

When Alexandra Golway, an 18-year-old senior and the group's violist, complained that her part wasn't as interesting as the others, Schram passionately defended the viola's role in a string quartet.

"What I love about chamber-music playing as a violist is the kind of subtle power you have to really change a mood. Maybe you're not playing a solo, maybe you don't have everyone's attention — [but] you know, that pure emotion that they're playing," Schram says. "By playing the accompaniment in a different way, you can really drive an ensemble."

When the quartet began again, Golway played with more spirit. Afterward, she said she took Schram's comments to heart.

"I think it's great, especially with the things that Nate told me about how a violist is supposed to kind of help drive the piece and sort of give it an extra tone or energy," she says. "I think he was very encouraging."

New Beginnings

Schram says he's encouraged by what he sees just over the horizon. The graduates of The Academy have formed a new ensemble called The Declassified, and Carnegie's alumni programs continue to expand. Schram says he and several friends from The Academy are hatching new projects in addition to the Bryant Park Quartet.

"We're all getting excited to say, 'OK, well, I've got these projects, let's get them rolling,'" he says. "It's motivation — you know you're going to be leaving the program and you're saying, 'OK, well let's do what we've been trained to do, and let's go out into the world, and let's bring music to where it's needed.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.