Each year, Strings Magazine awards a $3,000 scholarship (plus $1,000 to spend at SHAR) to a deserving young musician. The Edith Eisler Scholarship is a much-needed and generous award, one named in memory of a dedicated musician and contributor to Strings Magazine. When I heard that this year's winner, Hayley Murks, was from Gulfport, Mississippi, I was excited to connect with a fellow Mississippian. I'm so grateful, however, that Hayley and I ended up talking about more than her home state; Hayley generously shared her story, what drives her to make music, and her passion for a Gulfport outreach program, the Magnolia Chamber Orchestra.
Joe Chapman: Tell me how you first started playing the viola. What drew you to the instrument? What has kept you going?
Hayley Murks: Well, I always wanted to play the double bass, but I am only 5'1'' and I have the hand size of a five-year-old! I fell in love with the sound of the viola when I was in the fourth grade. I was a part of my public school's strings program from that point on.
I had a really great strings teacher in middle school who was a very caring individual. At the time I was still participating in competition dance, and found it difficult to keep up in the class. He truly inspired me to stay passionate about viola and music.
My father's love for music has always given me a sense of direction too. He had a record room in our house. There must have been thousands of records in it! He was very supportive of me becoming a musician and thought that it was the coolest job on earth. He would always quietly listen to me practice outside my bedroom door in high school.
He became very ill my senior year of high school and passed away a few weeks before my first college jury. My memories of him give me the strength to continue on this journey.
JC: That's such a moving and beautiful answer, Hayley. It's strange how the givens of our lives—your height, for instance!—direct our choices. And then there are the circumstances, like your father's death, that inspire us to continue. I guess I have two follow-up questions here. What do you love about the sound of the viola? And which records in your father's record room did you find yourself listening to?
HM: Having my double bass fantasy shattered in elementary school, I found comfort in the C string on my viola. I suppose I am naturally drawn to deep tones.
The music of Bob Dylan fascinated my father to the point that he named his daughter Dylan—before my mother ruined it all by naming me Hayley. True story. And the music of the Beatles was like our family soundtrack.
JC: Oh, Hayley is a good name! Although Dylan would have been pretty cool, too. (I can't say the same for Bob!) Tell our readers a little about Gulfport, Mississippi. What’s the town like? How long have you lived there?
HM: Gulfport is on the coast of Mississippi. It’s a beautiful beach town, although Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill have certainly done their part to set us back. But we are coming back strong!
I have been born and raised on the coast, and as I’m planning my move to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend Longy School of Music, I realize just what a special place Gulfport is to me.
I’m one of the founding members of the coast's Magnolia Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble specializing in early music performance under the fearless direction of Tomas Fajardo. Our concerts are a gift to our community; they’re free for all to attend, and through our performances we strive to impact the quality of life and the cultural diversity of the Mississippi coast.
I feel privileged to be a part of Magnolia Chamber Orchestra and to have an opportunity to enrich the experience of the younger audiences on the Mississippi coast. I truly believe in the mission of the group: to inspire the youth, provoking the creativity in them and igniting a genuine interest for the arts through community outreach.
JC: My younger brothers and parents lived in Jackson, Mississippi when Katrina hit. Folks from the gulf and from Louisiana stayed in Jackson for a bit while their homes and businesses were repaired. So, you were you in Gulfport for Katrina? And during the oil spill? How have those disasters impacted you, your family, and your town?
HM: I was fourteen when Hurricane Katrina hit, living about six blocks from the beach with my dad. We stayed through the storm, even though a tree crashed into our house, and our neighborhood flooded.
I was so young, I'm afraid that I almost thought that the storm was fun. I have a sick appreciation for bad weather!
My father did a rescue swim for our elderly neighbor and her cat. I don't think he shared my love for storms. He became pretty sick from swimming in the flood waters. Dysentery was rampant in Gulfport at the time.
I recall that two years after the storm we were still volunteering to do beach clean-up in parts of the coast. The fishing and tourism industry suffered greatly from the oil spill. I feel like people on the coast are mentally very strong and the towns are blooming again.
JC: I don't think the seriousness of the storm really impacted my younger brothers at the time, either. (They were also around your age.) Their school hosted an influx of storm refugees, and I remember we saw the Sugar Bowl in a barely functional New Orleans soon after Katrina. That's amazing, though, that your father rescued a neighbor and the neighbor's cat: an act of heroism!
I want to get back to your previous answer, though, and hear a little more about the Magnolia Chamber Orchestra—that sounds like an amazing group! Do you hope to inspire others to play string instruments, or just to get people excited about art in general? And are you good friends with most of your fellow orchestra members? Are most of your friends also string players?
HM: I definitely hope to inspire others, of all ages, to play any instrument and to get involved in the understanding of all arts.
We just held an event in collaboration with the Ohr-O'keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi. Magnolia Chamber Orchestra had a rehearsal in one of the creative spaces provided by the museum, with a view of the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone under the age of eighteen was invited to paint to our music and to learn a little about the compositions we were preparing to perform at the concert later that evening—selections by Purcell and Telemann. All of us had such a blast playing for the kids and taking pictures with them and their little creations after the rehearsal!
Magnolia Chamber Orchestra is an ensemble created by friendship and love of music.I am friends with all of the members and I continue to make more as we expand our circle throughnew collaborations. I just had half of the orchestra stay at our modest living space for our annual Magnolia Chamber Orchestra SummerFest 2013, a creation of our artistic director, Mr. Fajardo. The rest of the group stayed in his studio apartment. As you can tell, we go to great lengths to create music together and to perform for our community!
JC: Wow! That's awesome. I have one last question for you, one I feel I have to ask. The Edith Eisler Scholarship includes $1,000 to use on purchases from SHAR. Do you know what you’re going to buy?
HM: Mr. Chapman, this is the hardest question of them all! Maybe I will start with getting some new strings for my viola. Honestly, I have no idea. I have never won a shopping spree before! I feel like I'm going to have a panic attack. Anyways, I am so excited and grateful!