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Strings attached as music students learn from master

Students from left, Megan Brunner, 15, and Matthew

Students from left, Megan Brunner, 15, and Matthew Barnard, 15, both of Riverhead, and Alaina Cruse, 17, of Remsenburg, rehearse a Mozart piece conduted by Nico Olarte-Hayes. during a rehearsal in an intensive nine-week workshop. East End Arts Music Masters Fellowship ProgramThe East End Music Masters Fellowship Program during a rehearsal at the East End Arts Council in Riverhead. (Oct. 28, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

Nine students sit in a semicircle, string instruments at attention, as the late-evening sun floods in through windows of the loft space at the East End Arts education center in Riverhead. Their eyes dance across the pages in front of them, taking in the tightly packed notes of the upbeat first movement of Mozart's Divertimento in F major.

It's the first time they've seen the piece, and as night falls they'll work their way through all three of its movements.

The students are part of the East End Arts Music Masters Fellowship Program, an intensive nine-week workshop series begun in 2011 that this year is focusing on string instruments. The program, whose students hail from across eastern Long Island, culminates in a concert in early December.

As the musicians get started, conductor and professional cellist Nico Olarte-Hayes lifts his baton, but before it reaches its peak a whine escapes from a violin whose bow hit the strings too soon. Olarte-Hayes lowers his arm.

"From the beginning," he says, but premature notes sound again.

"OK," he says. "Let's start again. Take a deep breath before you start. Breathe together."

In a sweeping motion, Olarte-Hayes lifts the baton skyward and exaggerates his own breath as the students imitate, hitting the first note in sync. Less than 20 seconds later he stops them to correct an error.

"This is a totally new piece," he tells the group. "When you're just starting out, you want to get from beginning to end without stopping. That can be hard."

Students must apply to join the Music Masters program and submit an audio or video clip. They are accepted based on an audition and recommendation from a music teacher.

The group, whose students play the violin, viola, cello and double bass, meets for about two hours each Monday. They tackled the Mozart piece in their third week together.

Olarte-Hayes, 24, has performed at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center in Washington, and in Japan and the Netherlands. He travels from Plainsboro, N.J., for each rehearsal. Though he said recently that the group was still in the "getting to know each other" phase, he was starting to recognize the players' individual strengths and weaknesses.

"There are a lot of moving parts," he said. "This is a machine that takes a while to get going."

One member of the machine, Sarah Halpin, 16, of Riverhead, started playing the cello eight years ago and said she is excited to work with Olarte-Hayes because she has never had a conductor who was a cellist.

"He's taught me how the cello part should sound," she said of his instruction on the Mozart piece.

Shenole Latimer, who joined the Riverhead-based East End Arts as education director in July, said individual attention is one of the masters program's most beneficial features.

"It's much more in depth," he said. "When you're working in large groups, like they might be in school, you can only do so much. In a small group there's a lot more for the individual."

He said the fellowship aims to give young musicians free exposure to professionals, in keeping with the nonprofit's mission to provide accessibility to the arts.

In the fellowship's first year, drummer Corky Laing of the rock band Mountain ran the show, and last year singer/songwriter Lauren Kinhan took the reigns. Each musician teaches in his or her own genre.

"We pair them with a master musician to give them a taste of what it's like in the real world," Latimer added. "And it's pretty rigorous."

Olarte-Hayes developed a relationship with the East End of Long Island about a decade ago when he began studying at the prestigious Summer Music School on Shelter Island still led by world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. He said he was eager to partner with East End Arts as a "master" because of the opportunity to form a valuable and mutually beneficial relationship with the students.

"Every time I teach I feel that I become a better musician, but also a better person," said Olarte-Hayes, who started playing the violin at 3 and switched to cello at 6.

Matthew Barnard, 17, of Riverhead, has played violin for seven years and intends to study music education in college. He said one of the things that attracted him to the fellowship was the opportunity to play in a chamber orchestra.

"It's so much more intimate," he said. "You feel connected to the other players."

That is a lesson Olarte-Hayes emphasizes even more than the nuances of Mozart.

"When you're rehearsing with a group, you're working with others in a very unique way," he said. "When you've created something together, it's very beautiful. It's very inspiring."

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