Alumnus James Zabawa-Martinez Begins New World Symphony Fellowship

The New World Symphony (right) and Alumnus James Zabawa-Martinez (left)

Alumnus James Zabawa-Martinez was recently selected as a Fellow of the New World Symphony (NWS), an internationally recognized graduate musician training organization based in Miami, Florida. Currently, he is spending a year with the organization as a Fellow, focusing on orchestral training and musician entrepreneurial studies. 

Alumnus James Zabawa-Martinez playing in the violin section of the NWS.

"James has been a wonderful addition to New World Symphony," said JT Kane, New World Symphony's Vice President for Musician Advancement and Dean of Orchestra. "He has been an enthusiastic Fellow and is a fantastic violinist. We’re so fortunate James is a member of the NWS family and we can’t wait to see how he grows to lead the future of our art form. The University of Minnesota School of Music should be proud to have produced such a talented alum."

Zabawa-Martinez is one of 87 Fellows who passed the rigorous fellowship audition process, which included multiple auditions and interviews with New World Symphony alumni from influential groups like the Met Opera. The Fellows come from many different musical backgrounds across the country and reside together in an apartment complex on Miami Beach, just a 20-minute walk to the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center. “We’re all learning new skills and it’s a crazy experience. I am home practicing a lot. It’s a ton of music, and it’s how you choose what time you use.” 

The musicians in New World Symphony learn full programs once a week and are in full rehearsal up to twice a day. That is one of the more challenging aspects of the position for Zabawa-Martinez. “We do full programs once a week which is a lot of work and a lot of notes and at the level everyone around me is playing, if you’re just a little off people can tell who it is. I am also learning a lot of the repertoire for the first time as I am a new orchestral musician.” 

Zabawa-Martinez left his hometown of Austin, Texas at the age of 16 to begin studying with Professor Sally O’Reilly at the University of Minnesota as a high school student, continuing on as an undergraduate music major. He then completed his master's degree at the University of Texas-Austin and returned to the University of Minnesota and Sally O'Reilly's studio for his doctorate. As a doctoral student, he was appointed concertmaster of the University Symphony Orchestra as well as the Buffalo Community Orchestra and guest concertmaster for Mississippi Valley Orchestra. 

Alumnus James Zabawa-Martinez with his instructor, Sally O'Reilly

“Sally O’Reilly was the first person to really introduce me to what life is like playing music,” he noted. “She never lies to her students, and it's in our best interest. One of my favorite memories was in high school or early in my undergrad. I was playing something I hadn’t practiced, and she stopped and told me so. I told her, ‘I swear I practiced.’ She said, ‘It’s one thing to lie to me, but to lie to yourself—it breaks my heart.' She asked me to pack up my violin, and ended the lesson. That stung, but it was one of the big moments that got me on fire about practicing.”

Zabawa-Martinez referenced other influential instructors during his time at the School of Music, including professors Mark Russell Smith and Kelley Harness. “Mark Russell Smith was a huge influence, particularly in my DMA when I took orchestral playing more seriously. I really idolized his teachings and respect everything he does for the orchestra.”

Kelley Harness provided a different contrast for Zabawa-Martinez as an academic instructor. “Listening to her talk is like music, honestly. Her lectures are so thoughtful and her cadences make me want to close my eyes and sway back and forth—they’re just incredible to listen to.” Harness inspired Zabawa-Martinez to adopt a service-oriented mindset about music. “She made me feel like music is a big responsibility and something to take seriously.” 

Zabawa-Martinez also shared advice for aspiring professional musicians: “It isn’t about getting the stamp of approval from your teacher at your lesson each week. As I started to get older, the practice I was doing had to go above and beyond if I wanted to join this profession. If anything, I wanted to be over-prepared for the lessons. The point was to become the best that I can be, and not for anyone around me.” 

Zabawa-Martinez recently recorded Eugene Ysaÿe’s Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Op. 27, to be released this Fall. After his fellowship with New World Symphony, Zabawa-Martinez hopes to return to Minneapolis and earn a position with the Minnesota Orchestra. “It’s my favorite orchestra of all time. They have such a unique voice and such a signature sound. Emotionally they really have highs and lows, they stick together and play together, and when they have something to go for they really go for it!”

Learn more about James Zabawa-Martinez and New World Symphony.

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