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Lyra Music Festival and Workshop fosters young talent



For the Bulletin
Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Lyra Music Festival and Workshop is a three-week program in July for young music students. Based on the Smith College campus, the program provides an intimate community in which young musicians study music, form friendships with other dedicated students, and have the opportunity to perform solo for audiences. 

With its curriculum focusing on solo and chamber music, Lyra aims to instill confidence in students whether they’re playing alone or with a group. The small size of the program — this summer, there are only 18 students, ages 12 to 19; there are nine staff members — allows the faculty to provide an individualized experience for each student.

It also means that every student will have multiple opportunities to perform in the three-week period, “which is unusual,” said Akiko Sasaki, Lyra’s founder and artistic director who also teaches piano.

“I wanted to create a program that was a balance of a camp and a conservatory,” she continued. “A lot of programs in the area are intense, conservatory programs, and then there are these camps that are fun, summer programs. Lyra is a combination of the two; it’s very intense for the kids, but we do a lot of team-building and fun activities. Since it’s a small group, they really form a bond, a family-like feel; it helps them build their confidence.”

Founded in 2010, Lyra was originally based in Vermont. “We were in a very small technical college in Vermont, so we were shipping in pianos [for students and staff to play]. And as it started to get larger, we couldn’t ship in as many pianos,” Sasaki said with a laugh.

The program’s success prompted their move to Northampton three years ago. Lyra now uses Sage Hall’s facilities on Smith’s campus. “We wanted to find a community which would be interested in classical music,” said Rachel Odo, Lyra’s executive director.

Lyra invites internationally renowned musicians to perform as part of the program’s concert series; the musicians also offer master classes to their students and to music teachers in the area. (This year, Lyra will welcome violinist Kristin Lee, cellist Nicholas Tzavaras and pianist Gilles Vonsattel.)

In addition, students perform free outreach concerts, visiting nursing homes and churches, and they collaborate with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and Stamell Stringed Instruments, both in Amherst, on performances for young children.

“They really enjoy giving back,” Odo said of the Lyra students. “It helps them understand the power of music because they see firsthand and up close what an impact it has on the audience.” 

Almost half of the students who attend the program are on scholarships, which Lyra provides. All of the scholarships are need-based, except for one that is merit-based and that students compete for every March in New York City. One student was offered a partial scholarship and self-produced a solo concert in her hometown to raise the remaining funds to attend Lyra this summer. 

Lyra has sought additional support for scholarships and other costs from cultural councils; they’ve also made connections with businesses around the Valley to get the word out about the program.

“Northampton is such a great town,” Odo said. “It’s welcoming and interested in the arts, so this was a great community for us to land in. We’ve just been overwhelmed by how welcoming people are.”