How A Musical Garden Grows

Celebrating 15 Years of Strathmore's Artist in Residence Program 

November 25, 2019

By Marilyn Millstone

Good luck, some say, happens when preparation meets opportunity. If that’s true, then six young, wellprepared musicians from the greater DC-area get lucky each year when they’re selected for Strathmore’s Artist in Residence (AIR) program. Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the competitive program requires applicants to demonstrate not just musical mastery but the ability to compose and—in a live audition— project stage presence.

Those selected become a cohort that’s showered with opportunities, including solo concerts at the Mansion at Strathmore and ensemble performances at AMP, Strathmore’s intimate venue at Pike and Rose. Each artist is paired with a music mentor and attends workshops in self-promotion, band leading, job interviewing, and other skills critical to success in the music industry.

While virtually all of the 88 AIR alums consider the program a boon to their careers, for at least one alum— Chinese dulcimer virtuoso Chao Tian—the program quite literally changed her life.

After a lifetime of playing the dulcimer, Tian moved with her new husband from Beijing to DC in 2015. Discouraged by her inability to obtain an appointment at a music conservatory in China, she left behind the intricately carved instrument, intending to give up her dream.

Tian’s mother knew letting go of this talent was a mistake. “You’ve been playing dulcimer since you were five,” she told her only child, “I’m bringing it over to you.” Reunited with her instrument, Tian eventually started searching for musical opportunities in the DC area. She stumbled upon the AIR program just a week before the program’s application deadline and scrambled to submit her application on time. Program Director Betty Scott invited her to a live audition.

“I was very nervous,” Tian said. “I’d studied English in China for years and can read and write well. But speaking was difficult for me.” Scott helped her feel at home, and Tian, who was 32 at the time, was accepted into the AIR Class of 2018. It was the last year Tian could have qualified for the program, which is open to musicians 16–32 years old.

Sometimes the stars do align.

“This program literally means everything to me,” says Tian. “It took this disheartened player and turned me into a real, flesh-and-blood professional musician. I consider Betty Scott to be my grandmother, teacher, mentor, and friend. I say ‘friend’ humbly, because in Chinese culture, it is considered disrespectful to say that of an elder. But I love Betty.”

Trinidadian steel-pan player Josanne Francis, also a member of the AIR Class of 2018, echoes Tian’s feelings about Scott.

“She’s amazing,” Francis said, noting that because Scott encourages both camaraderie and musical exploration among AIR participants. Francis and Tian became not just close friends but collaborators, ultimately forming a duo called Parallel Intersections. They’ve accepted an invitation to perform at an international percussion festival in Puerto Rico later this year.

The tenacious Scott launched the AIR program just two weeks after retiring from a 40-year career as a Grammy-award winning, elementary school choral director. Fifteen years later, Scott says she has no plans to retire from AIR—thereby embodying the message she constantly conveys to program participants: stay out there, keep engaging with the world.

And engage with the world they do. From jazz pianist and vocalist Mark G. Meadows, who served as musical director for part of the opening festivities of the Kennedy Center’s new REACH complex in September, to vocalist/songwriter Margot MacDonald, whose explosive performances during a recent Woodstock tribute concert rocked the Warner Theater, AIR alums are performing in venues large and small around town.

They’ve also fanned out across the globe. Many, like percussionist Joey Antico, go on tour. “I’ve always wanted to travel while playing music,” says Antico, “and I’m happy to say that I’m typically out touring at least one week of each month with groups ranging from pop musicians to jazz groups and ragtime ensembles.”

Scott’s smartphone buzzes daily with messages from alums notifying her of their latest successes: Celtic fiddler Seán Heely has just won the first annual Claude Martin Memorial Honorary Life Membership Award from the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, an honor granted to someone under age 30 who’s made significant contributions to the local folk scene. Vocalist Christie Dashiell is performing at the Chautauqua Institution with Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Tian has just released a new album, The Girl from the East, featuring live-at-Strathmore performances with Francis, Antico, AIR mentor Tom Teasley, and local American hammered dulcimer artist Karen Ashbrook. The list of achievements goes on and on.

Scott notes that AIR’s continued success relies on two key elements: mentors like musician Cathy Fink, who has advised the program from the start, and donors who sponsor individual AIR participants. Ellen and Michael Gold, who have sponsored multiple AIRs over the years say, “It’s an honor to be part of the AIR program and see how your contribution affects an individual’s life. It’s really like joining a family.”