For Leerone Hakami and Shay Slusky, as for nearly all New York City’s professional musicians, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was an immediate threat to their livelihoods.
The couple, who met while training at the Juilliard School of Music, saw their normally busy performance schedules dry up as COVID forced people to stay indoors. Slusky, a pianist, and Hakami, a violinist, looked around for solutions.
They both taught regular lessons to a handful of students, but these, too, were halted by the quarantine requirements. However, they soon realized that many New Yorkers trapped indoors were still interested in learning to play instruments. “People realized they [were] stuck at home during the pandemic and reached out to us to have an online class,” says Slusky. They began to offer lessons to both adults and children via Zoom.
“We saw that people really enjoyed the virtual lessons,” says Hakami. Buoyed by the success, they created a company called West Amadeus Music Studio. Through West Amadeus, they now offer both virtual and in-person lessons. While they continue to teach lessons themselves, they have also been able to grow the business and hire additional teachers.
“We realized how much the lessons made students really happy and made us happy,” Hakami continues. Hoping to get back to performing, the two came up with a solution to that as well, looking to their childhood experiences for motivation.
“We both started playing our instruments because when we were really young, people came and played concerts and we were just really inspired,” says Hakami. “We thought we could...try to bring that to the schools virtually.”
Together, Slusky and Hakami began to reach out to NYC schools and offer free, virtual concerts. “We reached out to over 200 schools over the city. We called them up, like, do you want these concerts?”
They cold-called schools, unsure what their reaction would be. “In the beginning I was nervous that they wouldn’t have time to book something like this. Many schools don’t want to bring in a stranger because of COVID,” says Slusky. However, they were met with an overwhelmingly positive response.
“Many of them were very surprised to have us,” says Slusky. “They took it very well.” The two began to play virtual concerts for schoolchildren of various ages. As COVID restrictions loosened, they began playing in-person at schools as well. They never charge the schools for their performances, doing everything on a volunteer basis.
Of course, the project was not always smooth sailing. “Some schools didn’t have a piano,” says Hakami, so the couple lugged their own 88-key keyboard and stand to the performances. However, they found the project rewarding as they saw the joy it brought to audiences.
Hakami describes a particularly enjoyable experience playing in-person at a special-education school: “We did some songs from ‘Frozen,’ and they let them each take a microphone and sing. It was so cool, because they were singing their hearts out. I really enjoyed that one.”
While the couple focuses on exposing children to classical music, they also include some popular and children’s music. Hakami laughs as she describes some of the requests they receive: “Do you know ‘Baby Shark?’’’
After summer break, Hakami and Slusky plan to continue the free concerts in the new school year.
Those interested in booking them may reach out to email@example.com.
We both started playing our instruments because when we were really young, people came and played concerts and we were just really inspired. We thought we could ... try to bring that to the schools virtually.” Violinist Leerone Hakami