Academy helps young musicians explore their potential

Chris Howell | Herald-Times

Chris Howell | Herald-Times Layla Vamos, 10, practices a Joseph Haydn concerto during a private lesson last week with Mimi Zweig, director of the Indiana University String Academy.

When Layla Vamos’ bow touches the strings of her violin, she doesn’t need to watch.

Her body sways, and often her eyes close, allowing the music to take over while she plays. Joseph Haydn’s “Concerto in G Major” fills the walls of Mimi Zweig’s room in the round Music Addition building at the Jacobs School of Music.

Zweig, the program director of the music school’s String Academy, watches and listens, correcting Layla’s stance and providing encouragement after a particularly clean section.

Layla’s been playing the violin for years now and can hear when she’s a bit sharp — a tendency when pulling out of long notes. But by and large, the music flows from her 4-foot-nothing frame with an ease that comes from a thousand hours of practice.

At just 10 years old, the incoming fifth-grader at University Elementary School has put in the time to be great. Or, at least, to be on her way to greatness.


Worldwide appeal

Now in its 32nd year, Indiana University’s String Academy allows children like Layla who wish to study violin and cello to realize their potential in a world-class academic setting, Zweig said.

This year, 135 children are participating in the Summer String Academy, split over two sessions, with at least 20 students from Monroe County. There are also students from Iceland, Argentina, Uruguay, France, Mexico, Japan and China, among other countries, all living in the Forest Quad dormitory, eating at the Wright food court for lunch, just like college students.

The students were each required to send in an audition tape to be selected for the program.

“This school offers the environment to realize their potential in just four weeks,” Zweig said. “Mind you, not their full potential. It is just four weeks, but it is amazing to see the progress they make in such a short amount of time.”

Zweig attributes the String Academy’s worldwide lure to a top-notch roster of instructors and a reputation that regularly brings in world-famous musicians to perform. During the summer sessions, Zweig has secured nearly nightly concerts for the students, many with Hoosier ties to match this year’s “Made In Indiana” theme.

“Parents are always looking for excellence in their education, and this is one of those hot spots,” Zweig said.

Simin Ganatra can speak to both sides of that argument. Ganatra is a renowned violin player in her own right, as well as a professor of practice at the Jacobs School of Music. She is also Layla’s mother and a big fan of the String Academy, first enrolling her daughter at age 6. This is Layla’s second time through the summer session.

“It’s just such a great program. It’s a great networking opportunity for the kids, and they learn so much,” Ganatra said. “Mimi is an amazing teacher. She has so much energy and is always positive. (The instructors) expect a lot, but they do it with encouragement and passion.”

Preparing for a career

When Layla was 3 or 4 years old, Ganatra was rooting for her daughter to choose the cello, the instrument of choice for Layla’s father, Jacobs professor of practice Brandon Vamos. But Layla gravitated toward the violin (because, as Layla explains it, that’s what the girls in the house played).

Layla is reaching a critical age in her development as a violinist. The young girl who enjoys playing outside and is a fan of dogs is doing all the right things to be great, Zweig said, as are the other kids who are committing themselves to their craft this summer.

By around age 12 or 14, students who have “caught the bug” should be preparing for a rigorous life of training over the coming years, Zweig said, a life current Jacobs students know well.

Zweig has modeled String Academy participants’ days in much the same way. In the morning, they practice from 9 to 11 a.m., then attend chamber music coaching for the next two hours. This is where students break out into string quartets based on levels of ability.

After lunch at the food court, students have private lessons from 2 to 4 p.m., and then practice for two more hours before heading back to the food court for dinner.

“Almost every night, then, we have class, a lecture or a concert,” said Zweig, who spends no less than 14 hours at the school each day. “They need to know how they will function in an environment like this.”

Many flourish, and Zweig said she’s had more than a few String Academy alumni later attend Jacobs as full-time IU students.

‘That’s so beautiful’

Layla closes her eyes and begins again with a confidence beyond her years. Mom nods in approval.

“Good! That’s so beautiful,” Zweig says.

Layla’s bow flashes back and forth as the fingers on her left hand slide along the strings. Her toes curl slightly into her flip-flops at the crescendo, and Zweig instructs her to hold the long notes longer.

“Do you hear the difference?” Zweig asks. “You opened up the space by using …”

“More bow,” Layla responds quietly but confidently.

“That’s right!” she says, flashing a broad smile, inciting Layla to do the same. “Now, let’s move on to Beethoven.”

Find out more

To learn more about the String Academy’s fall sessions, visit

By Jonathan Streetman 812-331-4353 | © HTO


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