ArtistYear Fellow Inspires A New Generation Of Musicians at Waterside School

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If you are walking through the halls of local middle school, Waterside School of Leadership in Rockaway Park, you may hear the sonorous notes of classical piano, drums and singing wafting from the classrooms like soft cotton buds blowing through the air. However don’t be fooled, most of these middle schools students were only introduced to the technical aspects of music just under a year ago, and with the help of ArtistYear AmeriCorps Fellow Ava Nazar, have begun their path to not just appreciating music, but emerging as the next generation of accomplished acoustic and song-writing artists.

ArtistYear, founded by Margo Drakos and Elizabeth Warshawer, is the first national service program dedicated to partnering with U.S. school districts to provide underserved students with access to arts education through a year of national service. The program trains and supports AmeriCorps members and accomplished artists such as Nazar to serve as full-time teaching artists alongside established arts educators or classroom teachers in federally-designated Title I schools. Drakos and Warshawer piloted the program with three Philadelphia fellows in 2014. It grew to a 501(c)3 nonprofit and nine fellows in 2016. In summer 2017, Americorps offered ArtistYear $1.45M in funding, giving the program the needed bandwidth to expand to 25 fellows in Philadelphia, Colorado and now NYC.

According to Drakos, an active duty U.S. Military spouse and former professional cellist, ArtistYear just expanded to NYC this past year. “We worked very closely with the NYC Department of Education (DOE) and DOE’s Queens Borough Office of Arts & Special Projects to help us identify underserved, high-needs schools where we could enhance, expand and deepen arts for NYC’s students. They were thrilled when we shared Ava’s musical background and found a placement for her at Waterside, ArtistYear’s first initiative, not just in the borough of Queens, but citywide,” Drakos said.

The manner in which Nazar gushes about her Waterside students belies her own tremendous accomplishments as a classical pianist.

Born in Iran, Nazar received her bachelor’s degree in Piano Performance from the Manhattan School of Music and received her master’s degree in Collaborative Piano from the Juilliard School. She has had numerous performances as a soloist and chamber musician in her home country and across the U.S. in venues such as Lincoln Center, Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, the Aspen Music Festival, and La Peña Cultural Center in San Francisco. She has been featured at Académies Internationales d'été du Grand Nancy in France, and is also is a prizewinner of several competitions in Iran including the Fajr International Music Festival. She released a CD, Memoires, from the conservatory in Iran, which includes recordings of works by Oskar Rieding and Ferdinand Küchler for violin and piano.

However for Nazar, her dream was not only to help students experience music as a way of artistic expression, but to use it as a positive avenue for upliftment.

Nazar said, “I was born in Iran, one year after the Iraq-Iran war, which was a really difficult time in my country. My father is a musician, so under his mentorship, I learned to play music from a very early age. Music has always been a companion in my life. It really helped me get through a lot as a child. Basically music saved me. So I think it is really important that every child has access to art and music. For example, not all U.S. public school students have access to art. So when I discovered ArtistYear, I was blown away, thinking this is exactly what I was looking for — a  platform to realize my dream to teach music to underserved students.

At Waterside, Nazar not only teaches classical piano, but percussion and songwriting.

“What my Waterside students have been able to accomplish in just under a year is nothing short of amazing. They have learned to play classical piano, percussion and the saxophone. For the songwriting class, they composed their own hip-hop music and lyrics. Independently they picked themes and collaborated to write group songs accompanied by the band. For Black History Month, they wrote a song about Martin Luther King Jr. It was really beautiful seeing their team work and eagerness to create something original together.”

When asked what were some lessons she learned herself in her first year teaching the students, Nazar laughed, “I have a classical music background and of course not every student was into that. For example, I realized some were more interested in percussion instruments or writing and playing hip-hop songs. I had no experience in those areas, but because they are so amazing on their own, I just went along with what they really were passionate about. It was about flexibility and connection.”

Recently, Nazar launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to purchase music instruments for the school. Nazar said, “The school needs instruments for all the students to be able to learn and play. If these much-needed instruments are purchased for the school, they will not only be available for the present-day students, but also for generations to come.”

Nazar’s Waterside students have two recitals coming up this spring. On April 15, they will be performing at the Scholes Street Studio in Brooklyn (375 Lorimer Street). There will also a Mother's Day tribute performance at Waterside, in which the chorus, band, and songwriting club will perform.

To show some love for these Waterside music enthusiasts, you can donate towards their GoFundMe campaign, visit: gofundme.com/middle-school-music-class-supplies. Also, feel free to donate instruments to the school.

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