NEW YORK — For a girl who’s “always known” she wanted to have a career in music, the Manhattan School of Music is a perfect fit.
About seven months ago, 16-year-old Avalon Packer moved to New York City, alone. She had visited the Big Apple several times before for month-long music camps, but it wasn’t until her camp teacher and mentor, Chris Nappi, explained to her the benefits of living there that she considered the move.
“He told me that if I was serious about music, I should consider moving to somewhere other than Alaska,” Packer said.
What Nappi had in mind, of course, was the Manhattan School of Music, where Packer had gone every summer for camp. He said she was talented enough to enter the pre-college high school program.
While Packer knew that Alaska didn’t have the same caliber of music education she would be exposed to in New York, she said she was hesitant to leave her family — and doubtful that she could really be successful.
Was Nappi for real?
“I had no idea that he was serious,” Packer said.
Looking back to her first music camp at the Manhattan School of Music, she said she remembered being “very uncomfortable.”
“It was very formal and very advanced,” she said. “I did not expect myself to do well there.”
But over time, she realized that her expectations had not taken into account her passion, her teacher’s investment and the influence of her fellow musicians — young, but talented.
“You’re only there for a month. But in the month you spend there, you learn more than you would taking one high school band class,” Packer said.
That’s not to say she could have grown into the musician she is now without her Alaska music teachers, however. Packer acknowledged her elementary, middle and high school teachers as instrumental in helping her get to where she is today.
Like many music students, Packer started off playing piano. But her development as a percussionist “happened by chance,” she said. When she was in fifth grade, her best friend decided she wanted to join band, and Packer wasn’t about to be left behind.
Her mother had just one stipulation.
“If you wanna be in a band, cool. But I’m not gonna pay for some brand new instrument and have you drop (band) in a year,” Packer said, of her mother’s direction at the time.
On the last day to sign up for the elementary school band, she scrolled down the list of instruments on the music room wall, finding little of interest that fit her mother’s criteria — until she got to the very last one: percussion.
Seven years later, that decision is paying off.
But Packer and her family didn’t make the decision about moving to New York until last August, just weeks before the start of her sophomore year of high school. While her mother was happy to let her enroll in the Manhattan School of Music, Packer wouldn’t receive a high school diploma there — something her mother said was a must.
So not only did she need to find a place to live, but she needed to find a high school that could work with her music school schedule, on very short notice.
The solution? EF Academy, an international boarding school geared toward foreign students learning English as a second language who are planning to attend college in the U.S.
Although Packer is not an international student — she speaks only English and is the only one at the school who hasn’t been out of her home country — the academy also offers a regular high school program for American students. Those students, in turn, help the foreign students learn English, which helps ensure their success at the school.
Nappi said he’s seen how Packer’s “change of venue” from Alaska to New York has benefitted her. At the international school, Packer has naturally expanded her horizons, he said, and she’s figured out how to navigate trains and subways to get to the music school, which is an achievement all its own, he said.
“But the most important thing (for her) has been being at MSM and being surrounded by people who are truly committed to a life in music,” Nappi said of the New York music school. “It can be infectious, but also a bit challenging and intimidating. And I think she’s risen to that challenge most of all.”
“A great deal of being a musician is self-motivation, a matter of gumption, and there’s not that much of that that’s teachable,” he added. “You either pick that up or you don’t. And she got that pretty quickly after showing up. Everything else falls into place behind that.”
Packer is pursuing a major in percussion and gaining experience in composing, singing and music theory. While a teaching job is not off the table in terms of her career plans, Packer’s focus for the short-term is to keep learning, whether as part of the undergraduate program at the Manhattan School or at Juilliard.
As for long-term goals, one thing is certain:
“What I’ve learned is that I’m passionate about (music) more than I want something that’s secure,” Packer said. “I’m OK with, after I finish school, waking up and not knowing what I’m doing that day. As long as I’m happy and I’m doing something music related, I don’t care if it doesn’t pay.”