Writer Joseph J. Airdo

Photography by Loralei Lazurek

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]rue artists need not even pick up an instrument, brush or other tool to illustrate their talent. Their virtuosity manifests through the way they see the world around them and, in turn, the way they talk about it.

Nineteen-year-old Phoenix resident Haley McKeown speaks of the new handmade violin that she won as the victor of North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s Summerford Violin Concerto Competition in such a way that indicates her artistic aptitude and foreshadows her long and prosperous future as a musician.

“I really like this instrument a lot,” says McKeown, noting the differences between her new violin and the one that she had previously been playing. “What I like most about this instrument that I have now is that it sounds really bright. I like the openness it has to it. The other violin that I own is a little bit darker, which also sounds nice, but I like the change in tone that this one provides.”

North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s Summerford Violin Concerto Competition is an annual contest that aims to nurture and develop young musicians in the Phoenix community by awarding the competition victor a handmade violin—valued at more than $5,000—and an opportunity to perform on stage as a soloist before a live audience. Phoenix luthier Jody Summerford donates the prized violin each year, with McKeown walking away as this year’s winner.

McKeown could have easily been propelled down a completely different musical path with a single decision she made a decade ago. In fourth grade, she was presented with the opportunity to join either her elementary school’s band or its strings program. She initially wanted to play the flute, but destiny intervened and McKeown ended up playing the violin instead. She enjoyed the instrument so much that she pursued private lessons within the year.

“I had always enjoyed music growing up,” McKeown says. “I liked the sound of [the violin]. I also liked all of the expressive things that you can do with it and just how diverse of an instrument it is. I was learning things really quickly, so I approached my grandmother and asked if she would pay for my private lessons. She saw it as a natural talent that I had and supported me through it.”

McKeown notes that her grandmother played piano and had always wanted one of her grandchildren to continue her family’s musical legacy. She calls her grandmother her greatest inspiration. However, she was also inspired by her first public performance. 

“The music director at my church asked me if I wanted to play violin with him at one of the services,” McKeown recalls. “I was about 10 or 11 years old. I had just started playing. It was just a lot of fun and I knew right then and there that I wanted to play the violin for a very long time.”

Upon entering middle school, McKeown was approached by a classmate and fellow violinist who invited her to start a string quartet. The group stayed after school to play music that they dug out of the music department’s filing cabinets.

The side project solidified McKeown’s interest in the instrument, leading her to join North Valley Symphonettes—a division of North Valley Symphony Orchestra that serves middle school musicians. During her freshman year of high school, McKeown successfully auditioned into the organization’s advanced-level orchestra for high school and college musicians North Valley Youth Orchestra.

McKeown was also a member of Paradise Valley Unified School District’s regional and district honor orchestras, as well as Tri-M Music Honor Society. As a high school senior, she successfully auditioned into North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s adult ensemble.

“I really liked the challenge,” says McKeown, acknowledging that her involvement in the various orchestras required a lot of commitment and even more time. “I liked playing music that was more difficult.”

McKeown initially dedicated about one hour per day to practicing her violin. As she became more serious about her craft, that rehearsal time increased to three or four hours per day.

“When my private teacher first told me that I would have to practice three or four hours every single day if I wanted to be successful, I thought that sounded like a lot of work,” McKeown says. “And it really is a lot of work. But the improvement that I have made since I started being very disciplined with my practice is just astronomical.”

That discipline and the talent that her grandmother and her church music director saw in her a decade ago propelled her to win North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s Summerford Violin Concerto Competition.

In January, McKeown began the application process by composing answers to five essay questions.

“I just spoke from my heart,” McKeown explains. “Music is a huge part of my identity and I spoke to that.”

She also obtained a letter of recommendation from her private violin teacher, Aquiles Figueroa, and auditioned in front of a panel of judges. McKeown was thrilled to learn that she had won and felt as though all of her efforts up until then had finally paid off.

McKeown was especially excited about the opportunity to perform Italian Baroque musical composer Antonio Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto in A Minor” as a solo during North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s March concert. 

North Valley Youth Orchestra Music Director Josh Lynch believes the performance will be the first of many in the musician’s future as a recognized soloist.

“During Haley’s audition, the judges were impressed by her stage presence,” Lynch explains. “She plays, moves and carries herself as a soloist does. They felt that she was the best-suited candidate to be awarded the victory.”

McKeown intends to take full advantage of that victory and the opportunities that it provides. She is currently taking several music classes at Paradise Valley Community College and will transfer to Arizona State University this fall to pursue a degree in violin performance or music education. She aspires to one day join the Chicago Symphony.

“I love everything about Chicago,” McKeown says. “I’m just drawn to that city. It is within perfect distance of universities to which I could apply as an adjunct professor once I complete my master’s work.”

In the meantime, McKeown will continue to play in the pit orchestra for Valley Youth Theatre as well as with the North Valley Symphony Orchestra, which will present its Summer Salute concert 7 p.m. Saturday, May 11 at Shadow Mountain High School. She says that the ensemble has allowed her to meet people from many different backgrounds and walks of life who all share one very powerful thing in common—music.

“The community of North Valley Symphony Orchestra is what makes it so successful,” McKeown notes. “We’re a member-run organization, so we all kind of act as a team in making decisions for a lot of things. I have always loved being a part of that, going in every week, seeing the same people and building relationships.”

McKeown adds that the violin has afforded her a strong work ethic and taught her how to think outside of the box, work through challenges and overcome obstacles.

“Even if I can’t get past something right now, if I look for a different approach or solution, I will eventually find one,” McKeown says. “Sometimes it is just a matter of being able to look at things from a different perspective.”

Lynch hopes the far-reaching benefits McKeown has received as a violinist inspire other young musicians to join one of North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s youth ensembles for the 2019-10 concert season. Auditions will take place May 19, June 1 and June 2 at Desert Ridge Music Academy, 21043 N. Cave Creek Road in Phoenix.

“North Valley Symphonettes, North Valley Youth Strings and North Valley Youth Orchestra are unique in their approach to community involvement as well as their training structure,” Lynch says. “North Valley Symphony Orchestra has a seat for musicians of any level and will train them to perform all the way to a professional level.

“The staff and directors of these groups work closely with each other, planning out scope and sequence to make the training process effective, exciting and fun. For any strings student who feels the drive to get better, there is no other organization in Phoenix like North Valley Symphony Orchestra to get them where they want to be.”

North Valley Symphony Orchestra’s Summer Salute Concert

Saturday, May 11 | 7 p.m. | Shadow Mountain High School | 2902 E. Shea Blvd., Phoenix | $5 | 623-980-4628 | northvalleysymphony.org