Marian Anderson Award lifts young artists

Max Chambers, 13, of Berwyn gets help from the Marian Anderson Young Artist Study Grant.
Max Chambers, 13, of Berwyn gets help from the Marian Anderson Young Artist Study Grant. (Musicopia)
Posted: November 20, 2013

When he plays with his youth orchestra in front of more than 300 people, 13-year-old Max Chambers of Berwyn isn't nervous.

He's done this a lot, he says, looking every bit the professional despite his age, in a white button-down and black dress pants. Max sits in the first chair of the second violin section of the Musicopia String Orchestra, which played on Sunday at the Benjamin Britten Festival Concert at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

Since he was 9, Max has known that he wants to spend his life playing the violin. But he might not have been able to pursue his dream without help from the Marian Anderson Young Artist Study Grant, a program of the Marian Anderson Award that supports aspiring student artists.

The Marian Anderson Award, presented annually since 1998, honors artists who have had a positive impact on society, through their work or support for a cause. Past honorees include Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, and Mia Farrow, and Tuesday night's ceremony will recognize Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.

But early on it seemed to Patrick Moran, executive director of the Marian Anderson Award, that the once-a-year gala didn't fully capture the legacy of its namesake, the celebrated Philadelphia-born contralto. "We wanted to make sure that we were a constant positive presence in the community," he says.

So the Young Artist Study Grant, now in its 12th year, was established to financially assist aspiring high school-age artists in the Philadelphia region.

"We realized there was virtually nothing available to support kids in their high school years, which is the time when most frequently they begin dropping away from something like arts training, oftentimes because of strains on family finances," Moran says. "We're not talking about thousands and thousands of dollars. Sometimes it's $500 that makes a huge difference."

According to Moran, an average of 12 youth grants are awarded each year, ranging between $500 and $2,500. There is no restriction on how the money is used, as long as it helps the students in their artistic pursuits - summer programs, private lessons, a better instrument, or even nice black pants and black shoes for performances.

For Max, a two-time grant recipient, the money goes to violin lessons. He is homeschooled because of his time commitment to his instrument and takes lessons from three teachers, studying classical, jazz, music theory, and performance work. One of his teachers is Kimberly Fisher, principal second violinist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Max recalls the first time he played the violin. "It was amazing," he says. "It felt so good to hear the notes, even though they weren't all that good in the beginning. It felt like I belonged, like I was meant to play it."

His mother, Belinda Chambers, says the Young Artist Study Grant has been instrumental in Max's progress as a musician. "It gets expensive," she says. "That's what happens with a lot of kids of color, especially - they get to a certain point and they can't go on. . . . It's about leveling the playing field. All of these kids have talent. It's just about making it a little easier."

Violinist Lily A. Mell, 14, of Society Hill, is another two-time recipient. She used the grant to attend the Philadelphia International Music Festival, a two-week summer immersive camp taught by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"I've wanted to be a violinist my whole life," she says. "The grant has certainly made it easier for me to get there." Her dream is to play with a major American orchestra.

Former grant recipient Yang Bao, 22, is further along in realizing that dream. A piano student at Juilliard in Manhattan, he was 12 when he moved to Philadelphia, where he won a grant in all four years of high school.

"I spent my most important years of my musical education in Philadelphia," he says. "Philadelphia has such a tremendous, great art scene." The grants gave Bao scholarship help and also opportunities to perform - he played at the Kimmel Center at the Marian Anderson Award gala in 2010. Now he is in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Moran hopes to provide more performance opportunities through an expansion of the Young Artist Study Grant program called "Studio to Stage," which he hopes will launch in 2014.

For now, the young musicians working to make the most of their Marian Anderson Young Artist Study Grants will continue to be inspired by the greats. On Friday, a woman from Max's church is taking him to see his hero, violinist Itzhak Perlman, playing and conducting at the Kimmel Center.

It will be his first time hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra live. It is also his 14th birthday.

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