Column: In Southold, Aidan Walker does it all

Aidan Walker

Southold High School senior Aidan Walker’s résumé lists activities typical for any high achiever: varsity soccer, basketball and tennis. Senior class president. Quiz Bowl team, National Honor Society and DECA.

But now, Aidan has added another accomplishment to that list that is unique in Southold school district history.

The 17-year-old, who has played cello since fourth grade, is the first student in the school’s relatively young strings program to participate in the highly competitive New York State School Music Association’s All-State Festival. He will perform in Rochester Dec. 9 with New York State’s best 11th- and 12th-grade musicians.

“It was a huge sigh of relief,” Aidan said when asked how he felt when music teacher Audrey Grathwohl gave him the good news.

Ms. Grathwohl, who has taught music since 1982 and launched Southold’s strings program about 13 years ago, has been part of Aidan’s journey from the very beginning.

“He’s a remarkable musician — the best I’ve ever taught,” she said. “He has a lot of enthusiasm for his instrument and never says no to an opportunity. Most students get burned-out by high school, but he’s never bailed.”

To be considered for the All-State Festival, students must first earn a perfect score at the New York State School Music Association’s Solo Festival. Aidan has nailed a 100 every year since seventh grade. Last year, he was selected as an alternate for the All-State Festival.

When asked how he snagged a spot this year, Aidan essentially attributed his success to having no downtime.

That may not make sense at first, but hear Aidan out: His jam-packed schedule forces him to stay super-focused during cello practice because he doesn’t have a lot of time to dawdle.

“It’s hard to find time to practice, but when you sit down for at least an hour and you make real progress, it’s really satisfying,” he said.

Aidan said he appreciates all the opportunities Southold has given him, especially since he believes he wouldn’t be able to juggle athletics and music at a larger school. He also said his three years with the New York State Summer School of the Arts has been a great experience. Each summer, Aidan travels to Saratoga to study with members of the Philadelphia Philharmonic. This year, he was the group’s principal cellist.

Aidan doesn’t come from a family of musicians. His mother, Deanna, is office manager at the Southold Historical Society; his father, Brian, is a manager at Southold Pharmacy; and his brother, Liam, is a freshman at the University of Hartford and a former standout basketball player for the First Settlers.

Ms. Walker played some viola in high school and taught Aidan a little piano. In third grade, he became interested in classical music.

Aidan can remember the moment he knew he wanted to play cello. A few high school students had visited his elementary class and played their instruments, and the sound of the cello literally struck a chord with him.

“It’s the closest-sounding instrument to the human voice,” he said. “There’s also a big range, so you can have low, deep notes but can also go up in register. Also, playing in orchestra, the cello gets the melody few and far between, so when you finally do get it that’s a great feeling.”

Ms. Walker said Aidan’s musical gift was discovered when he was in fifth grade. But at that point, he also wanted to quit because carrying the cello around had become cumbersome.

Ms. Walker talked to Ms. Grathwohl about Aidan’s decision. The music teacher not only wanted him to reconsider, but suggested that he begin private lessons with Annette Perry of Brookhaven to nurture his talent.

Happily, Aidan didn’t quit and has been studying with Ms. Perry ever since.

“He’s a leader — he can lead an ensemble to do anything,” Ms. Grathwohl said. “He just makes everyone sound better.”

Over the years, Aidan has participated in several music festivals, including the New York State Council of Administrators of Music Education, Suffolk County Music Educators Association, Long Island String Festival Association and Hampton Music Educators Association, an organization that’s also provided him with scholarships.

He has also played twice with the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

And now for the bad news, Ms. Grathwohl: Although Aidan hasn’t settled on a career choice, music isn’t on his list of possibilities.

“I don’t plan on majoring in music, but I definitely want to continue playing in groups at college,” he said. “I love music, but not as a job.”

Ms. Grathwohl isn’t taking the news too badly, though; she’s known for a while that Aidan has been on the fence.

“He’s the one student I know could go pro,” she said. “But he also has so many other things in his favor — he’s extremely smart and I know music will always be a part of his life.

“Most musicians enjoy playing more than people who do it as a career,” she added.

Photo Caption: Aidan Walker will be Southold’s first strings student to play in NYSSMA’s All-State music festival. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

TR1226_Staff_Gustavson_C.jpgJen Nuzzo is Times Review Media Group’s associate editor. She can be reached at 631-354-8033 or [email protected].