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

Standing in the gazebo at Sarasota’s Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Park on Saturday, violinist Adrian Anantavan told the children gathered around a story about how furious he would become when his younger brother stole a cookie from him.

“And sometimes I got so angry that I wanted to express it in music. And when Beethoven – a composer who writes music – got really angry, he wrote a piece of music that sounded like this,” said Ananthavan, beginning to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor.

Anantawan and pianist Lee McAllister performed for about an hour, showcasing classical music and the violin’s alternate identity – the fiddle – and engaging children in spontaneous storytelling that included a king, a mobile phone and a tiger.

The event capped off a week-long artist residency at the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation for the 40-year-old Anantawan and gave kids in Newtown’s historic Black Sarasota neighborhood a chance to make their own instruments — tambourines made from paper plates — and play alongside a famous fiddler.

Ananthavan is a graduate of Yale and Harvard and has performed at famous venues such as the White House and the Olympics. But he said events like this have a special appeal.

Kerry Sheridan


WUSF Public Media

Violinist Adrian Anantavan and pianist Lee McAllister perform at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Sarasota on January 28, 2022.

“As a classical musician, it is always important for us to perform in front of the audience,” said Ananthavan.

“Sometimes just going and making art where the people are is not only something that’s meaningful to our field and classical music, but it’s just such a joy as a musician to work in the foreground with people that I wouldn’t normally see in a concert hall.”

Ananthavan said there is another reason he appreciates the chance to meet his young audience.

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

“And I think playing music really reinforces that message, so I’m very grateful to have this gift to share.”

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

Lee McAllister plays the piano in the park wearing a blue dress.

Kerry Sheridan


WUSF Public Media

Leigh McAllister, 26, says she’s wanted to play the piano since she was little

“I just love seeing the look on their faces, knowing that when I was a kid, I loved music. I wanted to be a musician since I was very young, about three years old,” she said.

McAllister said her parents initially wouldn’t let her play the piano because of her disability. But she persevered and was eventually allowed to take lessons.

“And I want kids to experience that, too, to see musicians who have overcome that and know that they can do it, too,” she said.

Arts education events like this are held at Martin Luther King Jr Park in Newtown. once a month, according to Stevie Jones, a teacher and one of the organizers.

“We’ve been dealing with this need for almost two and a half years, coming here once a month, just exposing, encouraging, exploring with our students who are based in Newtown and families who are based here,” he said.

Children make tambourines from paper plates

Chandler Balcom


WUSF Public Media

The children made tambourines out of 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, February 25, is black history.

“Music just makes a difference, and letting kids learn about good music is really so important,” said Valerie Bouchand, president of Newtown Nation, another of the event’s co-sponsors.

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