WATCH NOW: Rebelling Against All Odds: Eastern Music Festival Head Seeker Seeks to Make an Impact Through Music | Local

Asieh Mahyar is fluent in four languages. The first is Persian, also known as Farsi in its country of origin, Iran. The second, Armenian. The third, English. And the last?



Last month, Mahyar traveled to North Carolina to study music in Greensboro.

Each year, more than 200 musicians from the United States and countries around the world make the same journey – all to take part in an intensive five-week music program known as the Eastern Music Festival.

Most are high school or college students, and the majority of them are enrolled in the orchestra program, which has over a hundred students.

But not Mahyar. She’s already graduated from college, has her master’s degree, and is pursuing a doctorate.

And his program doesn’t have a hundred students. He doesn’t even have 10.

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That’s because Mahyar doesn’t make music, she directs it.

Instead of accepting students between the ages of 14 and 23 like most festival programs, the directing institute only allows those 18 and older to apply. There are nine learned conductors.

On weekdays, fellows conduct three orchestras, two of them with students and the other a faculty ensemble. On Saturdays, scholarship recipients lead repertoire classes for orchestra.

Music director Gerard Schwarz said that if there were more than nine students in the program, they simply wouldn’t have enough time to learn.

“Believe it or not, nine is a lot,” Schwarz said. “Nine is all we can manage in terms of giving people opportunities to drive. If we had more, they wouldn’t get what they would call podium time, where they stand on the podium and lead.

Mahyar describes his schedule at the leadership institute in one word: crazy.


Asieh Mahyar reads her part before conducting Monday at the Eastern Music Festival.


Mahyar is one of the program’s two female conductors.

But she doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t see myself as ‘one of the two female conductors’. I consider myself one of the nine conductors,” Mahyar said. “… fortunately, many wonderful ‘female’ conductors have already overcome many barriers.”

Instead, she sees herself as breaking down barriers as someone of Iranian descent.

When Mahyar was growing up in her hometown of Isfahan, being a woman with a career in music wasn’t even an option, let alone conduct music.

So when it came time for Mahyar to go to college, she majored in computer science and worked as a networking specialist. And she thought her career would continue that way.

The night she attended her first live orchestral concert.

“I always knew there was something missing in my life,” Mahyar said. “I didn’t really realize how much I wanted the music until I attended this concert and it was magical.”


Asieh Mahyar practices conducting in front of a mirror. When Mahyar was growing up in her hometown of Isfahan in Iran, being a woman with a career in music wasn’t even an option, let alone conduct music.


What attracted her was the way the conductor moved the orchestra in front of him, but also the connection he had with the people sitting in the audience behind him.

“The fact that you can connect all of these people through music and just using your gestures,” she said. “It was fascinating.”

After this concert, Mahyar was captivated by the world of music and knew that was her true purpose in life.

But she also knew it was the one she should fight for.

“I tend to be a rebel,” Mahyar said. “I needed to convince everyone that this is what I have to do and that I am going to succeed and you have to support me.”

Mahyar has always loved music. Her childhood was filled with singing around the house and playing a bit of traditional Iranian instruments.

But she never had any real experience with music in Isfahan – hardly anyone around her had. There wasn’t even a private music teacher in his town.

So she traveled outside of it.


Asieh Mahyar conducts at the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro on Monday. She is one of nine conducting scholars studying at the five-week festival.


Five bumpy hours on a bus from Isfahan to Tehran, the Iranian capital.

There she studied music from morning to night, then took the same bus on her overnight journey home. One day a week for two years, Mahyar made this trip to learn the basics of music.

But when she experienced her first orchestra concert, she knew that these music lessons were not enough.

After the concert, Mahyar visited the conductor, Loris Tjeknavorian, for advice on how to start a career as a conductor.

And discovered that if she really wanted to break into the world of conducting, she would have to leave her current world behind.


Asieh Mahyar conducted her final concert on Monday as part of the Eastern Music Festival where she was one of nine students at the conducting institute.


“He was like, I can see how passionate you are and it’s great that you’re doing private music,” Mahyar said. “But if you want to make music, you have to do it academically.”

And so, she did. Soon after, Tjeknavorian put her in touch with a conducting instructor in Armenia.

It was there that she received her bachelor’s degree in music for choral conducting from the Yerevan Komitas State Conservatory and became assistant conductor at the Yerevan Tchaikovsky School of Music and for various choirs.

Eventually, she was faced with the decision to return, this time to the United States.

First at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she received her Master of Arts in orchestral conducting and became co-director of the school’s University Orchestra.

And then to Michigan State University, where she’s one of the school’s two doctoral students in musical arts in the orchestral conducting program. She also works there as assistant conductor for three orchestras and an ensemble.

It was here that she embarked on a new project. One who looks at conducting not only from a traditional classical point of view, but from all cultures.

“Music is a universal language,” Mahyar said. “There are flavors and spices that are different from composers from Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, Japan. Like dishes from different countries, the material (classical music) is the same, but the spices that they add make the results different.

Mahyar’s project will be a quarterly series of classical music performed by orchestra students at Michigan State University.

The first episode will feature Iranian composers, whom Mahyar said he chose because he is closest to his roots. Subsequent installments will come from Armenia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.


Asieh Mahyar (right) talks to resident bandleader Grant Cooper at the Eastern Music Festival. Mahyar, who is pursuing a doctorate in musical arts in orchestral conducting, is one of nine orchestral conducting scholars studying at the festival this year.


When Mahyar had the opportunity to hone her conducting skills even further at the Eastern Music Festival, she traveled to Greensboro.

Schwarz, one of her conducting teachers at the festival, said she brought with her an infectious personality and a thirst for learning.

“She’s remarkable,” Schwarz said. “She’s got this kind of wonderful glow about her…and she’s good at taking in information and asking questions.” The problem with conductors is that we have to be curious about everything related to music.

Along with this curiosity as a conductor, Mahyar said at the end of the festival that she would take with her the importance of perseverance, patience and never being disappointed. But what she retains the most from this experience is to be part of a large passionate musical family.

“How everyone moved together in a musical way,” she said. “How we enjoyed making music together. That’s what we always have to keep with us – we have to keep loving making music.

On Monday, Mahyar gave her last concert for the festival where she conducted the overture to Beethoven’s Coriolanus, based on a Shakespearean tragedy of the same name.

Mahyar’s time at the festival will end on Saturday.

In the fall, she will return to Michigan State University to begin her series of multicultural conductors.

And after that, years later, his biggest dream is to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

But even if her future is leading an orchestra with just two cymbals and a triangle, she’ll be happy with it – as long as she can make an impact with the music.

“I sacrificed a lot of things,” Mahyar said. “I left my country, I left my family, my parents and many other things there. I worked hard. I worked several times harder than my peers, always.

“…I hope people, especially women in my country and other countries with limitations, will look at this and believe that they can do whatever they want. They just need to be persistent, they just need to be hardworking, they need to be passionate and keep going.

Contact Brianna Atkinson at 336-373-7312.

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