This summer’s Music Niagara Performance Academy was forced to be delivered via a virtual format for the first time.
According to academy director Barbara Worthy, this novel approach due to the pandemic actually offered a whole new set of opportunities that previous in-person sessions with students usually did not.
Worthy, a writer, performer, producer and teacher who has had a long association with both the Shaw Festival and CBC Radio, has been the director of the Performance Academy for seven years. The academy brings together a faculty of world-class musicians to offer a unique summer experience for specially gifted young performers.
Each August, students learn from masters of the violin, piano and cello. The 2020 faculty included pianists Dr. Victoria Korchinskaya-Kogan and Michael Berkovsky, academy alumni violinists Bora Kim, Emma Meinrenken and Jasmine Lin, and cellist Matthew Christakos. Of course, Music Niagara artistic director Atis Bankas is also involved in the sessions.
Worthy is quick to point out, though, that there is a good reason it is called a “performance” academy. Each year she and fellow Shaw veteran Patty Jamieson run sessions called Now Add the Drama.
“It’s always been a part of the academy,” Worthy explains, “adding performance arts and skills so that they get a fully-rounded arts approach to their learning and their presentation skills.”
For the gifted young musicians, these sessions are key to their development as performers. “They grow up with just playing music,” adds Worthy, “but they don’t get experiential exposure to some of the other arts. One of the things we want to do is give them exposure to the complementary arts.”
That includes exposure to spoken-word, performance and presentation skills, in an effort to build confidence in themselves at a young age. It is one of the aspects that makes the Music Niagara Performance Academy a unique experience.
“When they present their music,” Worthy continues, “they then have the strong physical presence, and with the vocal skills, they can also speak and be understood. When you study the performing arts skills, you study interpretation, the same as you do in music. Studying interpretation in text can inform how they study interpretation in music.”
Worthy says Now Add the Drama sessions also aim to build their “joy of play,” through theatre games and vocal training, which they can then apply to their musical education.
Those efforts to instill confidence, and a sense of joy, have certainly paid off for at least two of the academy alumni who joined the faculty this year.
At only 20 and 21 years old respectively, Emma Meinrenken and Jasmine Lin came across as consummate professionals in their live performances for Music Niagara’s At Home Series this summer. The two joined together as one half of the Kiri Quartet for a performance that can be enjoyed via the Music Niagara website and YouTube channel.
Worthy took special pride in seeing Meinrenken, Lin and Bora Kim take the next step in their development as mentors to the younger musicians, as well.
“Atis did a wonderful job using them as instructors this year,” she says. “They bring their level of knowledge, what they’ve learned at Julliard, Yale and the Curtis Institute of Music, they share it with our young students, and that is priceless.”
“The students (who participated) identified with them, and could see where they could go. They were mentoring them, and teaching them, and showing them the path,” she adds.
The daily sessions were about seven hours long, and included instruction specific to their instruments, as well as the performance sessions. This year, 13 musically-gifted students, aged 10 to 18, took part in the academy, seven of whom were able to have the opportunity to participate from their own homes in Mexico.
The Mexican students were all from the Conservatory of Music and Arts of Celaya in Mexico, with whom Music Niagara has developed a partnership.
Worthy says nothing seemed to have been lost in the Zoom format, which included a few chances for Music Niagara Festival supporters and fans to sit in and observe.
“Atis has always been really keen on having his audience be able to see behind the scenes,” explains Worthy. “That’s been a part of his mandate for years. Even when we were live (in-person), he would always invite supporters to certain workshops. It’s all part of peeling back the covers behind the music, so you can see how it gets done.”
Worthy says she is amazed at how much she learned this year through the Zoom sessions. “Watching these young instructors pass on their knowledge to the students, and then informing things to Atis that even he didn’t know, the teacher was learning from the student, that was really important. And I think he (Atis) was deeply respectful of that as well.”
Using the online format, it was also quite easy for the full sessions to be recorded for future use. In fact, three of the performance academy sessions can be viewed in their entirety via the website and YouTube channel.
One other opportunity has arisen due to the online version of the academy this summer. According to Music Niagara Festival general manager Karen Lade, the sessions went so well, they are looking into ways to be able to extend the academy to offer instructions throughout the year.