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A violinist blooms in St. Pete

By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003


Four years ago, Gayland Weston, then 11 years old, lived across the street from a YMCA in a Pinellas County working-class community. Walking down a hall in the YMCA one afternoon, he heard a violin and peeked inside the room. There, he saw a woman playing for a group of children.

"As I listened, I told myself: 'Wow. I want to play like that one day,' " he said. "So I just went in there and started watching her, and then I started taking lessons with her -- free group lessons sponsored by the YMCA. She was a volunteer."

Today, Gayland, 15, a freshman at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, is considered one of the best young violinists in the country. He is a member of the Pinellas Youth Orchestra. A perfectionist, he lives to practice. Currently, he is rehearsing for a performance of Les Miserables, which opens at the Mahaffey Theater April 18.

"We practice four hours straight every day after school," he said. "I get home at about 7, and then I have to do homework. It's very tiring. But you have to wake up the next morning and do it all over again. Somehow, my grades are still A's and B's. But I don't have much of a social life."

For his hard work and talent, Gayland, an African-American, was permitted to attend the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan last summer. This year, he has been awarded a $2,000 scholarship -- half of the tuition -- to attend the 42nd annual summer season, June 21-July 26, of the prestigious Eastern Music Festival and School.

Held at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., the program accepts no more than 200 students, between ages 14 to 20, nationwide. Competition for the slots is stiff, with each applicant auditioning for professional musicians and teachers. In their acceptance letter to Gayland, EMF officials describe his audition as being "very impressive."

EMF challenges students to discover their real talent and to learn to push themselves beyond their own expectations. The school has had great impact on thousands of young musicians, and the list of alumni is impressive. Several, like Wynton Marsalis, are sought-after soloists, others are successful educators and many are affiliated with the nation's top ensembles.

After high school, Gayland wants to attend the Juilliard School in New York City, and he sees EMF as an important step toward that goal. EMF has two orchestras that rehearse simultaneously. Each rehearses six times a week and presents a full-length concert. All students are required to participate in the chamber music performances, a one-hour private lesson each week with an individual teacher, and master classes with visiting professionals, such as Jamie Laredo, Nelita True, Norman Schweikert and Horatio Gutierrez.

"EMF has been my dream for a long time," Gayland said.

But Gayland still needs to raise another $2,000 for the remainder of the cost to attend the school. The oldest of three boys, he lives with his siblings and mother, Gayle, in government housing in south St. Petersburg. Because the mother's salary is their only source of income, the family has to watch every dollar. He also needs money to repair and maintain his violin.

His most immediate concern is paying his tuition in full by the June 2 deadline. He also needs additional money for travel and living expenses during his five weeks in North Carolina.

To date, the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation Inc., which supports underprivileged students nationwide, has donated toward Gayland's expenses. Three individuals also have contributed.

A friend of the family, a patron of the arts, has opened an account for the young violinist.

"Gayland is a great talent," she said. "This is only the beginning of his career. He'll need help for years to come. I don't want to see him scrambling every summer to raise money. We need patrons willing to help him until he reaches his goal of becoming a professional violinist."

"With the New York Philharmonic," Gayland said.

People interested in contributing may write checks payable to The Gayland Weston Scholarship Fund. Mail to: AmSouth Bank, 3505 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33704.

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