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A world-renowned violinist gives Newtown children a lesson in music - and overcoming challenges

A male violinist and female piano player perform on a stage. He does not have a right hand, but still holds a bow.
Kerry Sheridan
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WUSF Public Media
Violinist Adrian Anantawan and pianist Leigh McAllister perform Jan. 28, 2023 in Sarasota.

Violinist Adrian Anantawan and pianist Leigh McAllister were born with disabilities, but found ways to excel in music.

Standing in the gazebo at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Sarasota on Saturday, violinist Adrian Anantawan told the children gathered around a story about how furious he'd get when his younger brother would steal a cookie from him.

"And sometimes I got so mad that I wanted to express it in music. And when Beethoven — a composer who wrote music — got really mad, he wrote a piece of music that sounded like this," Anantawan said, beginning to play Beethoven's 5th Symphony in C Minor.

Anantawan and pianist Leigh McAllister performed for about an hour, showcasing classical music and the violin's alternate identity — the fiddle — and engaging the children in spontaneous storytelling that involved a king, a cell phone and a tiger.

The event capped a week-long artist in residence stay with the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation for Anantawan, 40, and gave children in the historically Black Sarasota neighborhood of Newtown a chance to make their own instruments — tambourines made from paper plates — and play along with a famous violinist.

Anantawan is a graduate of Yale and Harvard, and has performed at high-profile venues like the White House and the Olympics. But he said events like this have a special draw.

Violinist Adrian Anantawan and pianist Leigh McAllister smile on stage at the park in Newtown
Kerry Sheridan
/
WUSF Public Media
Violinist Adrian Anantawan and pianist Leigh McAllister perform at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Sarasota on Jan 28, 2022

"It is always important as a classical musician for us to come out to the audiences," Anantawan said.

"Sometimes just going and making art where people are at is not only something that is meaningful for our field and classical music, but it is just such a joy as a musician to work up front with people who I wouldn't normally see in a concert hall."

Anantawan said there's another reason why he appreciates the chance to meet his young audiences.

"I grew up with a visible disability. I am missing my right hand and a lot of times children come up to me and ask me what happened, why are you different?" he said. "And a lot of the times I tell them some people are tall, some people are short, some people have darker skin, some people have lighter skin, but we are all the same on the inside.

"And I think playing music really amplifies that message, so I am very grateful to have this gift to be able to share."

He was accompanied by McAllister, 26, who was born with three fingers on her left hand. She also relishes performing for young people.

Leigh McAllister plays piano at the park wearing a blue dress.
Kerry Sheridan
/
WUSF Public Media
Leigh McAllister, 26, says she wanted to play piano from a young age

"I just love to see the look on their faces, knowing that when I was a kid, I loved music. I wanted to be a musician at a very young age, about three years old," she said.

McAllister said her parents initially wouldn't allow her to play piano because of her disability. But she persevered, and eventually she was allowed to take lessons.

"And I want the children to experience that too, to see musicians who have overcome that and to know they can do that too," she said.

Arts education events like this take place at Newtown's Martin Luther King Jr Park. once a month, according to Stevey Jones, a teaching artist and one of the organizers.

"We've been addressing this need going on almost two and a half years, coming out here once a month, just exposing, encouraging, exploring with our students that are based in Newtown and families that are based out here," he said.

Children make tambourines from paper plates
Chandler Balkcom
/
WUSF Public Media
Children made tambourines from paper plates to play as their own instruments

Each month they have a different theme. This time, it's "music is for everyone." The theme for the next one, Feb. 25, is Black history.

"Music just makes the difference and to let children learn about good music is really so important," says Valerie Buchand, president of Newtown Nation, another of the event's co-sponsors.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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