Backstage with Youth Performers

Youth Performer Sam Clarinet

Many parents of artistically inclined children say their child’s talent and motivation emerged early. The parents simply had to recognize the interest and provide access to instruction and performance opportunities. And they didn’t have to leave the Triangle to nurture their children’s blooming gifts. The area is home to a wealth of schools, studios and performing arts centers that train and showcase young performers.

Carolina Parent talked with three highly motivated, standout young performers and those who support them. Here are their stories.

The Ballerina

When Triangle parents take their children to Carolina Ballet’s production of the The Nutcracker this holiday season, chances are the Clara they will “ooh” and “ahh” over is Ashley Burnett. Ashley, an 11-year-old from Raleigh, is now in her second year playing the coveted role and appears in about half the performances. (Two other young dancers share the role for the other half.)

Ashley was already a seasoned performer with three Nutcrackers under her belt when Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss plucked her from the ranks of the “Truffles” to be his Clara.

“Mr. Weiss saw something special in her,” says Elizabeth Parker, Carolina Ballet’s communications manager. “Ashley just exudes a sort of joie de vivre and has a tremendous amount of poise.”

Ashley has taken roughly five hours a week of ballet and jazz dance instruction at Carolina Dance Center in Raleigh since she was 4, and she embraces the three-month commitment that performing in The Nutcracker requires. For her, the two best parts about being in the role are working with the “amazing” older dancers and seeing the awe on the faces of the youngest audience members.

“It just makes me feel good to see those adorable little kids looking up at us,” Ashley says.

Ashley has performed in other Carolina Ballet productions, including The Tempest. She also will appear in the company’s production of The Little Mermaid this spring.

“She’s loved dancing from the beginning, and was always willing to do more, like fill in during another class’s performance when they were missing a dancer,” says Ashley’s mother, Tammy Burnett. “Early on, her teachers identified her as being special.”

Sure, Ashley might not go on as many sleepovers as other sixth-graders, and she needs to watch the French fries and ice cream to help stay fit. And yes, the family drives a lot and eats many hurried dinners. But they don’t regret these sacrifices.

“One minute, your little ballerina is 4 with chubby legs tiptoeing on stage, and the next thing you know, she’s a preteen pirouetting with the Carolina Ballet next to a principal dancer,” Tammy Burnett says. “It’s such an exciting and wonderful opportunity, and makes all the work worthwhile.”

The Actor

Next time your child whines about having to wait while you get something done, tell him what happened to Akin Williams two years ago.

Akin, who was 9 at the time, was hanging out in a church in Apex while his mom, Kristina, rehearsed with a community band. In walked a man looking for adult extras to appear in a new local kid’s show he was writing and directing. When he was about to leave, he happened to notice Akin and, as they say, the rest is history.

The man was Kevin R. McDermott, a well-known Hollywood child-acting coach with many filmmaking credits to his name. McDermott was in the area to write and direct The Rusty Bucket Kids, a live action show that takes its inspiration from a real general store in Apex called the Rusty Bucket. Created by a former actor and producer now living just outside of Apex, the show’s first two episodes have aired locally.

“Casting is a strange and mysterious thing,” McDermott says of “discovering” Akin. “I thought the camera would like him. It turns out he’s just a natural even though he had no experience.”

In the Rusty Bucket Kids, Akin is Myles, the foster son of Peak City’s town manager. When the show is in production, Akin spends about four hours a week in rehearsals and filming.

Akin, now a sixth-grader at Lufkin Road Middle School, concedes that when he first took the part, he was a little nervous. Now, he says, “It’s pretty fun. I get to meet a lot of different people. We have to be very bold and be nice to each other.”

Acting wasn’t on Akin’s radar. Dance was, though. Akin had been with the Academy for the Performing Arts and has performed in several local shows and competitions. “Since he could walk, he would choreograph dance routines,” his mother says.

McDermott feels that Akin has the acting chops to take his career to the next level, and his mother has been approached by several agents wanting to sign him. But nobody — not even Akin — is in a rush. “I don’t want to throw him in this whole new area and have him miss being a kid,” Williams says.

The Musician

After taking chorus, Sam Sparrow discovered he didn’t much like singing, so he signed up for the only other arts elective his school offered fifth-graders: band. Six years later, Sam is a principal clarinetist with the Triangle Youth Philharmonic, the most elite of three musical groups for young people run by the Philharmonic Association. Sam, 16, lives in Durham and is a junior at North Raleigh Christian Academy.

“He honked like a goose for a while,” says Sam’s mother, Margie Sparrow, of his early days with the instrument. “But we never had to ask him to practice.”

When Sam was in sixth grade, he decided, on a whim, to audition for the Durham Youth Orchestra. He made it, which was when both he and his parents realized he was really talented. Soon came private lessons with instructor Jimmy Gilmore and winning a place on the Triangle Youth Philharmonic.

“There are times when a young musician stands out, and every time Sam plays I feel he has a special talent,” says Hugh Partridge, artistic director and conductor of the Triangle Youth Philharmonic.

To achieve at a really high level in classical music, performers need to make lots of sacrifices, Partridge asserts.

So far, Sam has been up to the challenge, practicing up to an hour on his own each day, taking lessons with Gilmore once a week, and making it to the Philharmonic’s weekly two-hour rehearsals for at least two concerts a year. Oh, and he also plays in his school’s three musical groups and for his church’s orchestra.

“I see myself going to a music conservancy like Juilliard or Oberlin and playing clarinet professionally,” Sam says.

But even if he never performs professionally, Margie Sparrow is glad her son is serious about music.

“We need amateur musicians for lots of things, like live church orchestras,” she says. “Otherwise we’ll all go to recorded music.”

Positive Support for Aspiring Performers

You’ve heard stories of the so-called “stage moms,” those ruthless creatures who micromanage every aspect of their child’s career and bulldoze past anything — or anybody —standing in their way.

While such parents are few and far between, it does takes a thick skin and plenty of determination to help young performers realize their gifts and manage their hectic lives.

Here are some tips on being an effective advocate for your budding young actor, singer, dancer or musician while staying sane:

  • Start at the top. If your child shows early promise with an instrument at school, “research the teachers of that instrument and take them to the very best teacher you can find,” says Hugh Partridge, artistic director and conductor of the Triangle Youth Philharmonic. “And get them appropriate equipment that will support their goals. Plus, don’t encourage them to spread themselves thin by playing in too many groups.”
  • Listen to your child. Frequently check in with your child to make sure he or she is still committed to the discipline. “If they’re losing their passion, find out if there’s another direction they might want to go in or whether they may want to take a break,” says Margie Sparrow, whose son, Sam, plays clarinet in the Triangle Youth Philharmonic.
  • Take advantage of summer workshops. Kids can devote more undivided attention to their discipline when they’re away from the pressures of school and homework.
  • Spend your time wisely. Tammy Burnett, whose daughter, Ashley, is an elite ballerina, sings the praises of laptops. “When you’re waiting around for hours for rehearsals, you can get work done — and avoid the ‘backstage’ gossip and shopping to fill the time.”
  • Focus on the process, not the payoff. Given the odds of becoming the next Hollywood superstar, encourage children to love the work itself. As Kevin R. McDermott, writer and director of The Rusty Bucket Kids Show, puts it, “Performing should be a wonderfully fun experience. It’s not about being a professional in a professional production; it means giving these kids an experience in the acting arena, helping them build the love of the craft.”


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