String Theory: Nurturing a Love for Sound

Cellist Jeannie Woelker leads the new chamber ensemble at East End Arts' music school.
Cellist Jeannie Woelker leads the new chamber ensemble at East End Arts’ music school.

Being a musician in high school is a daunting task. Not only do you have to lug your math books and your science projects and the novel you have to read for English around with you everywhere you go, but you are also encumbered with an instrument that brands you as an orchestra member everywhere you go.

You spend your afternoons in endless hours of rehearsals and practice sessions that take time away from eating, doing your homework, or joining a sports team.

But for students who have gotten hooked on the sweet sounds of strings, playing music isn’t just another notch on their resumé. It’s a way to make their lives more rich and enjoyable.

Megan Brunner Brett Callagy
Violinist Megan Brunner and violist Brett Callagy of the East End Arts Chamber Ensemble.

East End Arts in Riverhead received a grant from the D’Addario Foundation (of the famous D’Addario instrument string company) earlier this year to create a chamber ensemble comprised of some of the East End’s most dedicated high school string players, students who have spent years honing their skills in large musical groups and are now hoping to let the sweet sound of their own instrument fill a concert hall.

The group will hold its first concert this coming Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Riverhead United Methodist Church at 204 East Main Street.

East End Arts cello teacher Jeannie Woelker put together the ensemble this fall, selecting six students to hone their skills through this tuition-free program.

The group is comprised of two cellists, three violists and one violinist, an unusual combination for a type of ensemble that is often dominated by violin players.

Violist Allyson Kohler
Violist Allyson Kohler

“It’s a very interesting combination,” said Ms. Woelker. “And it’s good for pieces like the Bach Brandenburg Concerto we’ll be playing Tuesday night.”

The group will also be performing the overture to George Cork Maul’s “Twice Upon a Time,” whose ostinato highlights the viola section.

The students, some of whom take lessons at East End Arts and some of whom only take lessons in school, were selected based on their ability to perform New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) Level Five pieces — the NYSSMA difficulty scale goes up to Level Six.

The group is comprised of violinist Megan Brunner, 17, of Baiting Hollow; violist Brett Callagy, 14, of Shoreham-Wading River; violist Allyson Koehler, 15, of Bayport; violist Christina Mirro, 14, of Oakdale; cellist Aidan Saltini, 16, of South Jamesport and cellist Fallon Spellman, 10, of Westhampton.

Brett Callagy, Allyson Koehler and Aidan Saltini at their Dec. 1 rehearsal.
Brett Callagy, Allyson Koehler and Aidan Saltini at their Dec. 1 rehearsal.

This past Tuesday, the group was intensely concentrating on its final rehearsal. Aidan had had a big rehearsal with another group the night before. Megan’s fingers were sore. Allyson had been practicing up a storm, the rosin dust beginning to collect below the bridge of her viola.

All of them said, when surveyed, that playing in a small group had made them better musicians.

“Being a part of an ensemble allows for me to better understand the instruments around me,” said Allyson. “I’ve become more aware of the other instruments around me and how their sound interacts with or contradicts or mirrors my own.”

Jeannie Woelker
Jeannie Woelker

“I feel welcome and happy,” said Brett. “It gives me more confidence in my playing and I’m glad to do it.”

“It feels like the part I’m playing really matters,” said Aidan. “Sometimes in big orchestras with so many other players it doesn’t feel that way.”

“We wanted to give the kids an opportunity to perform challenging music at a high level,” said Ms. Woelker. “If you look at some of the things they’d like to play, they want to play popular music or jazz or classical pieces like Grieg’s Holberg Suite. I hope we can somehow continue to do that in January.”


Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

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