A Lasting Connection
There is something about the daily pursuit of artistic excellence that unifies those of us who have been lucky enough to attend the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. During my time at the institution (MM ’02, DMA ’07, bassoon), I solidified friendships and fostered artistic collaborations that have spanned well over a decade.
My father, Dennis (BM ’70, MM ’71, clarinet) and I often reminisce about the significance of our Michigan years. Those friendships-that pursuit, that pride-immediately connect us to our classmates and create an extended family.
For me, this family was born in the fall of 2000 when I formed a woodwind quintet with Aaron Hill (BM ’04, oboe), Rachel Childers (née Parker) (BM ’03, MM ’06, horn), Michael Wayne (BM ’03, clarinet), and Ema Avsharian (née Cakmak) (BM ’02, flute). It would prove to be not only an incredibly rewarding collaboration, both personally and artistically, but one that would have a profound influence on our careers and on our development as artists.
As a new master’s student at Michigan, I was eager to become intertwined with returning students, securing my position as a part of the artistic and social fabric at the school. I had a strong desire to create an interconnected network of artists. But the ensemble really came together by happenstance.
“It was our first USO [University Symphony Orchestra] rehearsal of the semester,” recalls Aaron Hill. “We all just kind of looked around our sections and put the ensemble together.”
Hill, who received a master’s degree in oboe performance at Yale and is now on the faculty at the University of Virginia, remembers the speed at which it all happened. “I think the group formed and scheduled its first rehearsal in about five minutes! I was just a freshman at the time, and what was wonderful from the start was the fact that the ensemble included students spanning freshmen to first-year grad students. The openness to mix up the ensemble based on ability rather than age was a big reason we grew so fast.”
The quintet rapidly developed, holding weekly rehearsals and coachings over the course of two years.
“For me, the most memorable part of working together as a quintet was the realization of how much more accountable I needed to be in a group of such fine players,” said Rachel Childers, currently second horn in the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and a faculty member at the New England Conservatory.
“The pressure of playing for/with peers that I had such regard for, combined with the terror of our coachings, really made an impression on me. Interestingly, I was a last-minute sub in the quintet. The group had initially asked Eric Kuper (BM ’01, horn) to join, but he had a scheduling conflict during the first semester so I happily took his spot. I don’t think he ever forgave me for nabbing the good quintet!”
The new group became a place to test and synthesize the fundamentals being taught by our respective applied teachers.
“By the time the quintet formed, I was already well on my way to preparing for and taking several orchestral auditions a year,” said Michael Wayne, formerly of the Kansas City Symphony and now second clarinet in the BSO. Since joining the orchestra in 2008, he has also served on the faculty at the New England Conservatory and at Tanglewood Music Center.
“What was nice about being in the ensemble was that the music gave me a break from the very tedious work of preparing excerpts,” said Wayne. “While the quintet music had its share of challenges, the group ultimately allowed me to focus on my ensemble work and music-making, which has been helpful for me throughout my career.”
“Professionally, I don’t think I can underestimate the benefit of having sat next to Michael in quintet for so long,” said Childers. “By some luck, the job I won in the BSO puts his chair right in front of mine. We hadn’t played together in a very long time, but as soon as I joined the orchestra, I remembered exactly how to play with him through his body language (though his posture is a little bit better these days!). He was such a familiar presence to grasp onto when I was getting to know my new band, and I was so grateful to have my old colleague around.”
After her time at Michigan, Childers studied for an artist diploma at the Colburn School and served as the acting assistant principal/utility horn in the Colorado Symphony before landing in Boston.
Unlike the rest of the quintet members, Ema Avsharian’s career path took a decidedly different turn when her passion led her to study law at Michigan State University. She finished among the top one percent of her graduating class and landed a position with one of the top metro-Detroit law firms.
Avsharian believes that playing in the quintet 15 years ago helped her tremendously when she decided to switch gears. One of her law school professors observed that musicians often do exceedingly well in law school because they typically have an excellent work ethic and great listening skills-precisely what playing within the ensemble taught Avsharian. Dedicated work, careful listening, attention to detail, and profound awareness of the intricate nuances of competing story lines (such as those found in complex chamber pieces) were skills that transitioned seamlessly to practicing law.
“My experiences in the quintet-including the interpersonal relationships we formed over the course of two years, learning to work closely within a small group, and most importantly, always carefully listening to the other members of the group-have had a lasting impact on my professional career as an attorney,” said Avsharian.
From my perspective, I know that working with Ema, Aaron, Michael, and Rachel made me a better artist and collaborator. Collectively, they demanded technical proficiency, challenged my musicality, and required a level of preparation that had never before been expected of me. I can remember countless rehearsals that went well beyond the established end time in order to get a particular passage correct. Those high artistic standards carried me through my DMA and to a professorship at Bowling Green State University in Ohio for five years. Today I serve as the director of community engagement and career development at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.
I don’t think any of us would claim that working together was the defining moment in our career paths. However, I often find myself channeling the high artistic standards instilled upon me during the two years I was in the ensemble. These standards have manifested themselves in countless ways throughout my career, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had my artistic and professional skills honed by the members of the quintet.
The famous quotation, “The University of Michigan provides an uncommon education for the common man”-often attributed to U-M’s third president, James B. Angell-really struck a chord with Aaron Hill.
“My experience playing in the quintet with peer musicians is really an embodiment of that quote,” said Hill. “Being a part of the group was the perfect combination of high talent, high intelligence, and high aesthetic ambitions, combined with an openness and desire to get the work done in a no-nonsense, unpretentious way. That seems to be something that resonates across the whole Michigan culture, and it certainly was a defining factor for our ensemble.”
I feel so fortunate to count among my experiences the time I spent with the quintet. Though my time at U-M was fleeting, my memories of Michigan are deep, and it is the undeniable pride I have in the success of my woodwind quintet that resonates most with me. Not for the success of the ensemble as a whole, but for who we are-and where we are-15 years after graduation.
By Nate Zeisler, Director of Community Engagement and Career Development at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, where he is building a pipeline of sequential arts learning for hundreds of children of all backgrounds, supporting the careers of world-class artists and passionate entrepreneurs, and offering career advice and action-based learning opportunities that prime them for the 21st-century workforce. When he’s not passionately developing programs and careers at the Colburn School, you can find him checking out the SoCal tidal pools with his wife and two children, contributing to his blog, and (painfully) attempting to surf. Keep up with Nate at nathanielzeisler.com.