Take lots of notes, students!
Q: You are the general music and orchestra director at Siesta Key’s Out-of-Door Academy’s lower school, where you’ve spent 38 years. Tell us about your path that landed you there.
A: “I started teaching general music in the Grand Rapids, Michigan public schools, where I taught for eight years and founded a talent-education violin program based on the Suzuki violin method. I traveled from school to school, as a general music and strings specialist.
“My husband, Yuri Vasilaki, was the principal violist of the Grand Rapids Symphony and DeVos String Quartet. founding member of the New World String Quartet, and a violist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. When he joined the Florida West Coast Symphony (aka Sarasota Orchestra) as principal violist in 1982, I joined the symphony and started a Suzuki violin program.
“As our three children grew, we researched the best schools and the Out-of-Door Academy was our favorite. Gordon Davis, headmaster, hired me. I was drawn to the school as it reminded me of Interlochen Arts Academy, where I spent many wonderful years in the high school, the National Music Camp, and working as a college student.”
Q: Can you describe the early years with your program and his it has evolved?
A: “When I first started teaching at ODA in 1984, there were 72 students in the school. The program was basically designed by the teacher in charge. In the early days, we offered the Suzuki violin lessons after school and general music during the school day. When I was hired, I was told that if I didn’t enjoy directing musicals, I should not consider the job. Pageants seemed to be a focal point of the music program. As the program evolved and more children were interested in lessons, we created the ENCORE program on campus. I reached out to music colleagues in the community who helped me found the program. We offered dance, drama, instrumental lessons, and voice.
“Our ‘Show Stoppers’ chorus and the ‘Dem-Team’ (string students) would take field trips to perform in local schools and at special events. It was such a great bridge for our students. We loved joining students from other schools to give concerts together. Our three children were the perfect instant feedback for me. From their reactions, I could tell if the curriculum was kid-friendly and engaging.”
Q: Is there an ambitious production or two that stand out from your career?
A: “My first experiences with pageants at ODA were in the evening. Candlelight lit the paths and twinkle lights in the trees turned the campus into a fairy land. As our school grew and we outgrew the evening concert venue, I remember vividly the holiday productions of the ‘Nutcracker’ and ‘Scrooge’ held at Van Wezel, thanks to a generous and supportive parent, Ann Curtis. The children rehearsed at Van Wezel during the day and the performances were be held in the evening. It was such an amazing experience for the students and faculty.
“At the time, my music room was the tiny green room adjoining our stage in what was originally the MacKinlay-Kantor Theater, named after the award-winning Civil War author who wrote Andersonville. How the students managed to take their songs and dances to the huge stage at Van Wezel from my tiny music room remains a mystery to me. Our students from ODA always seem to have a knack for performance and adjusting to new situations. The entire lower school, pre-K through 8, was involved, so I can say that we had casts of 300 to 500. Parents made everything possible by helping to make costumes, prompting and supervising backstage, and planning for cast parties. To my disbelief, we outgrew Van Wezel!”
Q: The pandemic has been hard on everyone, and particularly on children. How has the music program helped them cope?
A: “Music is such an important part of brain development and growing up. It is sometimes children’s main means of expression. Due to the pandemic, we have learned to make music on Zoom, where rehearsals and lessons know no limit.
“Since this all started, I have noticed that my students gravitate toward more serious music or songs with a meaningful message, much more so than before. I always give them choices and am surprised at how many select more challenging music and take time to listen to their friends’ recitals and performances. They love sharing their music.
“During lessons on Zoom, I strive to introduce something technical, such as a new rhythm pattern or note-reading exercise. Then, we follow up with some favorite songs and a musical game or two. I make sure that we end with songs that have actions and a little exercise attached to them.
“I made each of the students a Music Kit (at least 300 of them) when the school went remote last year so that all of our lessons can be interactive. Each one consists of a little drum and beater, sand blocks, shaker, rhythm sticks, a deck of rhythm cards, a beat keeper, and I tell the students to bring a ‘found sound’ to our lessons to share (something they discovered around the house that can make music, such as a set of keys, an empty coffee can, a Tupperware container with a plastic top, a set of sticks and the back of a chair, and so on). We often have a hoedown at the end of the lesson and children are invited to play their ‘found sounds’ or a portable instrument, such as a violin or a keyboard.
“The kids respond well to the structure of our music lessons. They can improvise, create, perform, and play games within the structure of music lesson.”
Q: What unique methods did you introduce to keep music in their lives during the shutdown?
A: “I have had a lot of fun with the students making iMovie music recitals and short video clips. As they practice and polish a piece, I have taught them to record themselves. They send the recording to me, and we send it back and forth to fix certain passages so that it can be as professional and artistic as possible. When the students and I are happy with the finished product, I put it into a music app with special effects. I can add a piano part and/or harmony parts, special acoustics or imagery. Often, we share these videos with the school in virtual weekly assemblies.
“Monthly, we produce iMovie recitals and share them with our favorite ‘fan club’ at Bay Village Assisted Living. These friends have watched the students grow up through the years and they love watching them mature as new little ones join the team via our monthly concerts, which are now monthly iMovie recitals. Their director streams the iMovie to all of the residents’ rooms and we hear great things from them. It is very rewarding, both for us and for the residents. After we finished our St Patrick’s Day iMovie and as the students sent me their pieces, we discussed the piece that they will strive to learn for the next month’s iMovie recital, which were created in April with a spring theme. It is very motivating and gives us great goals for which to practice.”
(See the students in action at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CpSP0ONJKg)
Q: Have any of your students made music a career choice? If so, can you share some examples?
A: “Several of our students have gone on to make music their career. They have attended prestigious music conservatories and earned music degrees and awards, including doctorates and major competitions.
“Ms. Rosena M. Hill Jackson has been a star on Broadway and has won major awards. She played star roles in Carousel, The Color Purple, After Midnight, Come Fly Away, Ragtime, and other Broadway musicals. She is co-founder of Jack & Hill Music with Jason Jackson, her husband and award-winning trombonist.”
“Dr. Aaron Romm earned a Bachelor of Musical Arts degree at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, where he studied with Allan Cox. He completed his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Illinois, where he studied with Ronald Romm, Dr. Jake Walburn, and Charles Daval.
“He performs with his family all over the world, as well as locally with several of our symphonies. Currently, he is principal trumpet with the Venice Symphony, and he teaches at State College of Florida.”
“Shannon Ross is an up-and-coming cello star. She has performed around the world and is featured in prominent concerts every year. She is studying at the Royal Conservatory of London. Shannon was recently promoted to principal cellist in its top orchestra.
“During this past year, she loved playing ‘Rachmaninov Sonata’ as part of the festival Verão Classicó in Lisbon to the U.S. ambassador of Portugal and the Fulbright Commission.
“Following her progress since she started cello in the fifth grade at ODA has been very exciting. She was selected to perform in Boston for a program called ‘From the Top’ and she performed as soloist with the Anna Maria Island Chamber Orchestra, in which my husband and I were members. We were able to hear her high school senior recital at Walnut Hills School for the Arts in Dover, Massachusetts.”
“Abbey Graham recently graduated from Liberty University as a music major in recording, engineering, and producing. She plans to continue her education in Germany and earn a Tonmeister degree. Abbey often helped us during music summer camps at ODA and plays stringed instruments and oboe.”
“There are many other students who have gone on to pursue music and I am proud of every one of them. Some have developed a deep appreciation for music while others teach, write, and arrange music or have gone into the business side of music.
“One of our former violin students, Alexandra Dee, is a conductor of orchestra at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. We just purchased an orchestral piece that she arranged and will soon learn it in ODA orchestra class.”
“They all have shared their music with us in-person or via the Internet. They mentor and inspire our students through their coaching and performances.
“We don’t teach music to make professional musicians, but to enrich and expand their experiences and to give them a lifetime appreciation for music. If some decide to pursue music professionally, our music program has what they need, from well-trained professional music educators to theory classes and advanced ensemble in which to play.
“One of the most endearing experiences was when my very first violin student from Grand Rapids, Patrick Foley, came to ODA to guest-conduct our orchestra about 20 years ago. Foley was a star violinist, attended prestigious music schools, and has since created his own computer company.
“Last year, when we all had to quarantine, he ‘Zoomed’ into our music classes and conducted MasterClasses. It was such a thrill to have him work with my students in that capacity. Since he is a master with the technical side of music, he was able to teach me a lot about the sound and special effects that musicians need when teaching on the Internet. It is so much different than simply speaking to a class. The delay in sound and the quality of sound requires special microphones and techniques when producing music online.”
Q: How about you? What outlets have kept you musically engaged during the pandemic?
A: “Last summer, I was able to play ‘virtually’ with the Detroit Symphony.
“We played ‘Jupiter’ and we sent in our parts so that they could stream them together. I am playing the viola part. It was exciting and was the beginning of my realization of how much could be done remotely, musically speaking. I am so grateful that the Detroit Symphony offered this opportunity to interested musicians.
“I also sang with a choir that included hundreds of music teachers from around the world, as part of a workshop that was offered by two master teachers. They were demonstrating different ways that music could be taught online. One teacher taught from her home in Canada and the other from her studio in Florida. It has given me a whole new respect for sound engineers.”
(Community Spotlight each month features a resident who has an interesting occupation, activity, or story to tell. Please submit subjects you feel are worthy of some recognition to managing editor John Morton at email@example.com or by calling or texting 941-313-6992.)