“Artists of NY” — Backstage at the Summer Arts Institute

Summer Arts Institute (SAI) is a free, four-week arts program for New York City public school students entering grades 8 through 12 in Fall 2019. 

This public-private partnership, hosted by Frank Sinatra School of the Arts with the support of key arts leaders, including Tony Bennett, was designed to increase access to advanced arts training to prepare students for college and career success in the arts. The Fund for Public Schools is thankful for the generous private support the program has received over the years.

Now in its 18th year, SAI continues to provide over 360 students the opportunity to study dance, theater, vocal music, instrumental music, visual art, or film. Participants are provided unique opportunities to perform in selected venues around the City, and work with master DOE arts teachers and professional teaching artists, to increase artistic literacy, make connections to community cultural resources, and foster careers and lifelong learning in the arts. 

As participating students prepare for their final showcase, we sat down with five talented students to learn more about their artistic craft and how the program has benefited them:

Jacquelyn, incoming 12th grader


At Summer Arts Institute, I’m directing a short film titled, “No One’s Watching.” I don’t want to give too much away, but basically it’s about a girl named Parker who takes her cousin on a tour of New York City and, well, he doesn’t want to do anything at first. It’s really about living your fullest life, and how it’s okay to let go and have fun. 

A year ago, my band teacher encouraged me to apply to the Summer Arts Institute. I had never heard about a 100% free program devoted to the Arts, let alone to film-making. I was intrigued and now it’s my second time doing it. Last year I worked on a documentary film. This year is the first time I’ve directed a film top-to-bottom; where I’m responsible for virtually every aspect, including hiring actors, which can be stressful and unpredictable.

To me, a director needs to be able to hone in on their creative style and have a clear vision of what the film has to become. I have the curse of being both a perfectionist and indecisive, but now I’m learning to make a decision and stick with it. Being a director means you have to know every aspect of film-making, in order to advise or lead others. The Summer Arts Institute has helped me get that experience, including exploring all of the different types of jobs I could pursue in film. 

For example, I remember watching the ending of the Stranger Things 3 trailer earlier this year. It’s all music and sound effects, with no visuals – it was so terrifying and intriguing. This summer I got to explore this kind of sound design and now I’m considering it as a career path as I apply to college.

As a rising senior, I’ll be working on college applications and submitting my film to festivals this year. A lot of friends I’ve met here have been talking about working on films throughout the year too. I’m considering making a “mockumentary” about someone with a tic-tac addiction.

Abigelle, incoming 11th grader 


What I love the most about playing the violin is that it has helped me learn to remain calm and to be less shy. I’ve been playing since I was 9 years old. At first I didn’t take it so seriously, but now I’m really focused on playing a little bit better every day. That’s how I got into the Summer Arts Institute -- I practiced and practiced, and eventually I got in. 

At the Summer Arts Institute, we’ve focused on reaching higher positions on the violin and we are preparing for a performance, but I’ve learned so much more than that. 

Teachers help us learn things that aren’t just about music, like how important friendships are. I love the feeling of making the audience happy and to show them what I’m capable of doing, all while my friends and I play together as one people in an orchestra. Usually, I’m very shy, but here I have made friends who love music as much as I do. We plan to keep playing together after the program is done. 

Through the Summer Arts Institute, I also had the chance to meet Yo-Yo Ma’s sister, Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma. Like me, she speaks many languages and plays the violin -- I got to speak with her in French! In addition to being a classical musician, she’s also a pediatrician. It’s inspiring to meet someone who is doing both things, especially because I want to study neuroscience.

You see, each part of your hand, each finger, is imprinted in your brain. When you play the violin, the left and right part of the brain develops. I want to explore the many connections between music and neuroscience, like how it can help people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. 

Maxwell, incoming 9th grader


I’m the only one in my family who dances. When I leave my house in the morning, my parents are still knocked out cold. What I love about performing is going from all that blood, sweat, and tears to seeing their - and the entire audience’s - reaction. I love to see how immersed they are in the performance. 

It’s really such a gift to be an artist. There is so much joy in being able to be a storyteller with my body and to share this experience with others. As performers, our job is to make you be deep in it. 

Summer Arts Institute may be four weeks long, but it feels like an eternity. As dancers, we focus on ballet and modern styles, drilling techniques and little things like eye coordination. We had an opportunity to visit an Alvin Ailey rehearsal, which was both eye-opening and daunting. Seeing their technique, their ability to incorporate feedback from the choreographer so quickly and learn new combinations so quickly. I thought to myself, “I can be that, but it won’t be easy.”

One of the pieces we’re working on at the Summer Arts Institute is called “The Offering.” The instructor had us just sit and listen to the music, then reflect on, ‘How can we bring our fullest selves to the stage? How can we stand out?’ I’ve been thinking a lot about that especially as I enter a new high school focused on the Arts. There are going to be so many talented kids. I need to be very clear on who I am in order to stand out.  

And really, the most beautiful thing is dancing with others on stage.  I look around the stage and think ‘I’m killin’ it, she’s killin’ it, and we’re all sweating and killin’ it together.’ There is this feedback and connection. We’re feeding each other’s muscles and we’re all building each other up. When we all have a shared goal, we have to pull the weight for each other and step up when necessary. If one link in the chain rips, then the whole thing is done.

Carlos, incoming 8th grader


I started playing the violin when I was just six. Now I’ve been playing for like seven years -- a long time. My Band teacher encouraged me to apply to the Summer Arts Institute to get orchestra experience with the violin. I auditioned and got in. 

The whole thing is an intensive – we do small groups and many varieties of music, like jazz and classical. The hardest and newest thing for me is playing in the orchestra. You have to stay on track with everyone and each of the sections. But the trick is to stay focused on yourself. Once you know about yourself and what you have to do, then you can focus on other sections and what the conductor is asking of you.

At the showcase. I’ll be performing “Serenade for Strings” by Tchaikovsky and “Drifen” by Shirl Jae Atwell. The two pieces are so different, one is more traditional and the other is modern, but they complement each other so well. Tchaikovsky’s piece is so moving and the other one just has so much movement. I’m really excited to perform them.

Before the Summer Arts Institute, I didn’t have any orchestra experience at all, and so I’ve really improved as a musician. I am going to continue on with music and plan to attend a music high school. And as I do, the experience I’ve gained this summer gives me a real advantage. In the future, I either want to be a musician or a vet, because I love animals.

Melannie, incoming 9th grader


When I dance, I can only think about conveying a story. At the Summer Arts Institute, I’m not only focused on becoming a better dancer, but also on getting better at conveying a story with movement, like thinking ‘how can I tell a story with my leg?’

One of the pieces we’ve worked on is called “Till the Ground to the Beat.” It’s a tribute to planet earth; how we’re treating the earth right now and how we can and must fix it. Look, our planet is pretty messed up. The earth has to be shared with animals and trees, yet we are damaging habitats. Soon there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. 

By sweeping my skirt to the ground, the dance piece conveys how we have to connect with the earth and save it from destruction. It’s basically activism, through dance.

My goal in what I do is to inspire others and put a smile on their face. In the end, I know I’ve been successful if I’ve pulled my audience into what I’m trying to convey. It’s magical. You really don’t feel that anywhere else.

As a result of the Summer Arts Institute, I’ve worked hard and become a better dancer. In September, I’ll be entering an arts-focused high school and if I hadn’t gained a lot of these techniques this summer, I may have been totally lost.

Generous funding for the Summer Arts Institute has been provided by: ASCAP Foundation, Con Edison, Exploring the Arts, Find Your Light Foundation, Harkness Foundation for Dance, HBO, Lisa and Richard Plepler, Jerold Ross, and the Fund for Public Schools.

Julian Vinocur