Scholarships help voice student Ashcroft further career



Sydney Maltese | Staff Writer

There is a video of Sarah Ashcroft when she was 2 years old belting out “The Little Mermaid” from the confines of her stroller.

Now 22, the Chautauqua School of Music student working toward her master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music realizes singing was meant for her all along.

“In kindergarten, I was singing and my friend Anna said, ‘You’re going to be an opera singer.’ And I said, ‘Nu-uh. No, I’m not,’” Ashcroft recalled.

Though she denied it then, a little bit of singing led to more and more. She joined Kids Healing Kids as a third-grader in 2004 and sang in their videos for children with cancer.

“We got to go places,” Ashcroft said. “I think I was in fourth grade when I went to the White House and I got to sing for President Clinton.”

The group sang “When You Believe” from the film “Prince of Egypt” not only for the president, but for the composer of the piece, Steven Schwartz.

In middle school, she lost her musical path for a moment when she thought her choir teacher disliked her.

“I thought he hated me, because he made me an alto,” Ashcroft said. “Then I found out that he made sure one of the aides was by me encouraging me the whole time, because he said, ‘She’s got something.’ He made me an alto, because I could carry the part, and I could actually sing harmony.”

Ashcroft remembers teachers taking more notice of her singing ability as she progressed through junior high and high school. She auditioned and was accepted in select ensembles, participated in musical theater and competed with great success.

After her freshman year of high school, Ashcroft toured Europe with the Blue Lake International Choir and started training formally with a voice teacher. Once in college, Ashcroft realized she was also proficient at teaching music, and she studied both vocal performance and vocal music education at Hope College in her hometown of Holland, Mich.

“It was a lot of one thing leading to another — people hearing me, talking to me. It’s all about connections, that’s what I’ve learned,” Ashcroft said.

Last fall, Ashcroft decided to complete her student-teaching requirement in Philadelphia because of her desire to work in an inner-city setting and her interest in building connections with the Curtis Institute of Music.

“In the fall, I would get to meet my students right away, so that their first day of school would be my first day of school with them,” she said.

In Philadelphia, Ashcroft got a few coaching sessions at Curtis, just as she had hoped. One of the coaches recommended to her the Chautauqua School of Music, which she had heard of previously, but never applied to. She decided to audition for Chautauqua in Chicago that winter.

With job interviews, graduate school auditions and auditions for Chautauqua, Ashcroft had an anxious winter. But she received the job she had been interviewing for: a position as an elementary music teacher, which she held from January to June. And after much waiting, she learned of her acceptance into the Chautauqua School of Music. Just as important, she was told of the scholarships that would allow her to  attend the voice program. More than 200 scholarships are given to students of the visual and performing arts each summer.

“I am learning so much,” said Ashcroft, reflecting on her Chautauqua experience. “(Voice Chair) Marlena (Malas) said to have a goal. When I got here, I made four goals. Now I’m starting to reflect. My goals are this: I wanted a great French set, I wanted five phenomenal arias — something new — a fantastic warm-up routine, and I wanted to figure out what to do with my jaw, because I have really bad TMJ (tempormandibular joint disorder).”

Ashcroft, a soprano, studies with Maria Fortuna Dean. By the midpoint of the season, she had met her four goals. She feels that her time at Chautauqua was well-spent, an experience made possible by the generosity of the community through scholarships.

“I’ve also been learning how to be expressive in my singing. I’m learning how to breathe — very basic, but I didn’t know how to breathe before I came here,” she said. “I’ve been learning that I don’t have to sing loud and heavy all the time — I can lighten it up with energy.”

Ashcroft hopes to keep in touch not only with the professional connections she made at Chautauqua, but with her friends and peers.

“I’m really sad to leave. I feel like this is my family now,” she said.

Through the Chautauqua Connections program,  a community volunteer organization that links Chautauqua families with School of Music, dance and art students, Ashcroft was paired with Hale and Judy Oliver, who invited her and their other Connections students to dinner each Sunday. The students all bring a piece to play or sing.

As it turns out, the Olivers also provided scholarship support for Ashcroft to study at Chautauqua this summer. The Chautauqua Foundation reaches out to scholarship donors in the spring, inviting them to contact the scholarship recipient and connect during the season.

Ashcroft has had the chance to perform almost every week she has been on the grounds. She sang in the Fourth of July recital, an ensemble concert, a memorial service, the “Sing Out” and the duets concert.

As for plans after Eastman, Ashcroft hopes to apply for Curtis again. She might return to teaching someday, perhaps at the collegiate level.

“I’m not really sure of the next step after that. There are a lot of doors that can open up, and I think it’s all about making connections,” Ashcroft said. “I think I definitely want to come back here next summer, if I can, because this opportunity has really opened my eyes. It has ensured that I want to sing.”