By Cassidy Pekarek
The beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic marked the indefinite ending of countless facets of the United States’ arts and culture sector, including the cancellation of live music performances. One of the musicians affected by these closures was Amy Hess (ΦBK, Oberlin College), an accomplished violist.
Hess graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music in 2012, earning her Bachelor of Arts in French and her Bachelor of Music in violin. When she began pursuing her Master of Music from Northwestern University, she decided to make the switch from violin to viola performance. Hess explained, “Something about the mellower tone of the viola, being in the middle voice in an ensemble, really appealed to me.”
Currently, Hess is a member of the viola section of the Lyric Opera Orchestra of Chicago, which has been considered one of the leading opera companies in the United States since its founding in 1954. In the summer, she plays in the viola section of the Grant Park Orchestra. The orchestra, founded in 1944, presents free concerts in Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. In March of 2020, however, all of these pursuits came to a stand-still.
“If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that you never know what’s going to come up,” said Hess. “You never know what sources of opportunity will appear; it’s all about taking advantage of the opportunities presented to you, and—if you really believe in them—putting forth your effort to make those things possible.”
Hess and her husband, violinist Addison Teng, turned an unfortunate circumstance into opportunity during the Covid-19 pandemic. With his summer festival plans canceled, Teng devised a three-week, online program for his students. Hess, who found herself with a new abundance of free time as the pandemic shut down live events, helped research the necessary steps for founding a nonprofit organization.
“My husband had always dreamed about someday starting his own organization, summer festival, or educational program,” described Hess. “It just felt like there was never going to be another point where we would both have the time and energy to start something big like that.”
What began as an online festival for his students has since developed into the Fulton Music Society, a nonprofit organization that helps develop well-rounded musicians through a diverse, holistic curriculum. Hess serves on the Fulton Music Society Board as their secretary and treasurer.
In addition, Hess teaches viola in the society’s flagship program, the Fulton Summer Music Academy. The Summer Music Academy is an in-person summer camp for serious music students across a robust range of ages — many being pre-college or pre-professional musicians. Hess mentioned that some participants come into the program with the knowledge that they want to be a musician; while many other students know that they do not plan to be a musician, but instead attend because they enjoy dedicated instrumental study.
“We welcome a variety of students because we really believe in the overall benefits of music education. Qualities and skills like dedication, perseverance, attentiveness, effective communication — these are all things you can learn through practicing music and are transferable into whatever fields you choose.”
Another aspect of the Fulton Music Society is the Fulton in Residence touring program, which allows select students from the Fulton Summer Music Academy to travel abroad with faculty. Their last trip featured a week-long tour to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There, Fulton students practiced and performed with the Philharmonic Orchestra at the Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music, participated in masterclasses with local instructors, and explored the city and its historic sites with local musicians.
The Fulton Music Society also houses the Fulton Chamber Players, a professional classical music group. As the ensemble’s violist, Hess ended the 2022 year by traveling with violinists Teng and Paul Hauer on a two-week tour to Taiwan. During their trip, the trio performed at concerts and taught masterclasses in different cities.
“Music is one of those things that really connects people across what might seem like these insurmountable barriers of language,” Hess remarked, noting the inherent similarities between language and music as methods of connecting with others. “If I’m doing the best that I can do as a musician — if I have a clear sense of what I want to say through my music, and I’m really communicating that well — then . . . it’s going to really touch people. I’ll be able to have that sort of communication with the members of the audience, despite speaking different languages.”
“In the future, I’m really excited to find other ways to connect with Phi Beta Kappa members — learning about what they’re doing and seeing how we might be able to all help each other in our respective pursuits in the world,” said Hess. “Phi Beta Kappa is a community united by having a real belief in the power and the importance of education and lifelong learning about the world around you . . . It’s nice to meet other people that have that philosophy, that real openness to learning about the world.”
Cassidy Pekarek is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree with university honors and highest distinction in English & creative writing and art history. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa there in April 2022. The University of Iowa is home to the Alpha of Iowa chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Photo at top by Lucy Wang