Then & Now

For many, NMS is a place for firsts - a first music lesson, for instance, or first day of preschool. But it quickly becomes a second home of sorts for so many students who enter its doors, a place they return to again and again.

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Take NMS alums Rebecca (Becca) Weinzimer and Miguel Benitez, who just finished six weeks in their leadership roles at Audubon Arts, the dramatics-focused summer program wrapping up a very successful fifteenth year.

For both, working in the Audubon Arts program - Miguel as Upper Art Director and Becca as a counselor - has been a chance to inspire young minds.

In fact, these are kids are a lot like they used to be: Becca and Miguel are former NMS students and Audubon Arts participants.

"It was such a big deal every summer to see each other for those six weeks," says Becca, remembering her own Audubon Arts days.

"It was almost like a special bond," adds Miguel.

Both have extensive histories at NMS. Becca took piano lessons for ten years before switching to oboe, and was also enrolled in the dance program, eventually becoming NMS Dance Chair Tracey Albert's teaching assistant. She started Audubon Arts as a six-year-old in the Indigo Group and became a counselor for the Blue Group - for ages 6-7 - this year.

Miguel started music lessons with faculty member Julia Blue Raspe as a child, an experience he credits with developing his love of singing at a young age. He was an Audubon Arts camper at five-years-old, and again as a teenager, before being hired as Lower Art Director - working with Audubon's younger kids - a job he held for three years. He's been Upper Art Director, working with older campers, for the past two.

NMS is such an important place for both Becca and Miguel, where their childhood passion for the arts morphed into what Miguel calls "a really good summer gig."

Their experience here did more than provide them space to exercise their artistic muscles, though; it helped shape their creative philosophies. Plus, through their leadership roles in Audubon Arts, they had the chance to explore artistic possibilities with kids just as excited about creative endeavors as they once were - and still are.

Not to mention that their experiences have been so much fun, according to both Becca and Miguel. This summer they've watched Audubon Arts campers gain confidence right before their eyes, throwing themselves into dance numbers, songs and dramatic performances. They also observed campers making what could be lifelong friendships; much like the friendships they once made. "It's like a big family," Becca says of the program.

"I had this special place to do visual arts and theater that didn't happen the rest of the year," says Miguel of Audubon Arts. Now a graduate of Southern Connecticut University, he's making a go of it as a ceramicist, and hopes to get his MFA someday. "Working at Audubon Arts helped me develop the leadership to be a self-directed artist," he says.

Becca, who received the 2015 Presidents Award at NMS for involvement and volunteering, will be studying psychology as a freshman at Wesleyan this fall, and hopes to keep up with dancing as a hobby. She says NMS helped her develop a stress-free relationship with the arts, and sees that in the campers and young dancers she works with, too. "It's such an accepting environment," she says. "The environment is so creativity-based, not perfection-based."
Becca and Miguel's positive feedback cap off another summer year at Audubon Arts, with a whopping 212 campers aged 4-18, 53 staff (including 15 who were prior participants!), 34 performances by campers and seven by staff.

"Becca and Miguel are perfect examples of how Audubon Arts supports kids and encourages themto be creative within a unique arts-filled community," says Audubon Arts Director Anne Tubis. "The magic of Audubon Arts is that each group collaborates to create an original musical from the ground up, within just three weeks! Every person here shares a special passion and sense of fun, and as you walk i the building, the energy is palpable. Participants start in our youngest group at 4 years old, and by the time they are 11 or 12, they are already planning on being counselors!"

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Former students often recall the happy hours they spent at NMS, and how much that learning experience has impacted their lives.

For alums Nick Platoff and Rebecca Nathanson, being NMS music students in elementary and high school gave them the confidence to choose careers in the arts. Today, both are professional musicians!

"I wouldn't be doing this right now - making a living, supporting myself only with classical music - if I hadn't had that great experience," says Nick, who currently plays trombone in Miami's New World Symphony.

He began trombone lessons at NMS in fourth grade with Jim Fryer - who performed at our Twilight Tuesdays Red Balaban tribute concert last summer! - and went on to study with Terrence Fey throughout high school. He also participated in the Youth Orchestra, Wind Ensemble, various chamber groups, and studied music theory and was part of the Certificate Program with Jody Rowitsch.

"I felt like I was at Neighborhood all the time!" says Nick, whose family was incredibly involved at the school, with two sisters also taking music lessons. His father, John Platoff, is a musicologist, which also helped spark an early love of music.

After a rich musical life at Northwestern University, majoring in Trombone Performance and Music Theory, Nick ended up at the prestigious New World Symphony. He says he may not have had the confidence to try his hand at being a professional musician if he hadn't been part of such a "tight knit community of musicians" at NMS early on.

"At my high school it was sort of cool that I played the trombone. It wasn't as cool as being the captain of the football team, though." Nick says. "But at Neighborhood I was a normal person because everyone played an instrument, and people there think it's cool to want to practice and to major in music in college."

"I feel really lucky that Neighborhood Music School introduced me to this at an early age," he says.

Rebecca is now a professional opera singer, with an illustrious career performing at well-known festivals and opera companies, including participating in a young artists' program at the LA Opera and a residency at the Palau de les Arts in Valencia, Spain. She has received major accolades for roles including Abra in Vivaldi's "Juditha Triumphans" and Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni."

Plus, she recently filmed a pilot for a potential reality show about her life as an opera singer!

Her musical journey began at NMS when she was just six or seven, taking piano lessons with Michelle Zingale, who she studied with for years. Like Nick, Rebecca's siblings - a twin brother and younger sister - took lessons as well, meaning her family was at NMS frequently.

As a teenager, Rebecca's interests turned to singing and she began studying with voice teacher Maria Spacagna in Rhode Island, and once won NMS's annual Concerto Competition as a singer. But those initial years studying piano with Michelle made a huge impact on her life and career, she says.

"She was always patient and super receptive with my musical excitement which didn't always match with my work ethic," says Rebecca of Michelle, laughing that she did not practice as much as she should have.

But she was an enthusiastic learner, and as a professional singer now realizes how much that musical education benefited her career, especially when comparing herself to singers who don't have the same background. "I can accompany myself in an aria. I can teach myself very difficult music," she says.

Like Nick, Rebecca says NMS instilled the confidence that pushed her towards a career in the arts.

"If I hadn't had all those years of training - but also hanging out at NMS, being around all these other musicians, being exposed to music that I wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to - I have no idea if I would have had this level of success," she says.