Finding a Musical Voice with Trenton Youth Orchestra

Written by
Cammie Lee '22, TAP Student Correspondent
Oct. 12, 2022

Originally published by U.S. 1 Newspaper.


Editor's noteThe Trenton Youth Orchestra comprises Trenton Central High School musicians who rehearse weekly, guided by students from Princeton University. The profile below tells trethe story of one of the orchestra’s student musicians.


Ashanti Ross has the kind of stage presence that arrests you with its unassuming regality. She betrays no fear, no tension, no anxiety — as a soloist in the Trenton Arts at Princeton showcase last spring, she takes the stage without any hesitation.

With the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO), she performs an arrangement of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” — a complex and virtuosic tango piece requiring tasteful, daring improvisation. When she begins to play, tossing out trills and flourishes with silky ease, the power and beauty of her sound still the room.

Ashanti then hooks up her violin to her phone and a speaker for an improvised piece, performed in tandem with the Trenton Youth Dancers. In contrast to the heady sumptuousness of “Oblivion,” this improvisation — an original composition by Ashanti — is light and birdlike, nimbly mirroring the airy movements of the dancers.

Ashanti’s versatile playing speaks to the diverse range of musicians and genres that inspire her, from the classical virtuosos Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, and Hilary Hahn, to the hip-hop artists Lil Peep and XXXTenaction, to the all-boy British choir Libera. In my conversation with her, Ashanti spoke with a resolute commitment to honing her craft and discovering her voice as a musician.

Prior to writing this article, I had a limited working knowledge of Ashanti in my role as a violin coach for TYO. One of only a handful of TYO musicians who did not also attend Trenton Central High School, the Trenton-born but Ewing-raised young musician hovered enigmatically about the outskirts of the orchestra, yet was a permanent fixture at concerts and rehearsals. (I later learned that Ashanti had been one of the first musicians to join TYO, a year after its founding in 2016.) As the concertmaster, she led the orchestra boldly, and as a frequent soloist, she dazzled with her technical skill and artistry. I knew that she was a talented musician, but I had no idea how deeply and richly she lived a life of music — and more importantly, how fervently she had fought for the music in her life.

Ashanti is the first in her family to pursue a career as an artist. When she was six years old, her teacher mother and father began taking her and her siblings to music classes held in the basement of their church (Blessed Sacrament in Trenton). It was here that Ashanti had her first encounter with the violin. “I’ve always had a love for music…[but] especially when I heard the violin, the sound of it, I fell in love with it,” she said. When offered the opportunity to pick an instrument to learn, she recalls that she immediately latched onto the violin, despite attempts from teachers and adults to deter her from choosing such a challenging instrument.

This stubborn persistence — a kind of irrepressible, insatiable passion for music — would drive Ashanti’s growth during her early years with the instrument. At first, only receiving the occasional group lesson, much of her learning occurred in the practice room through her own personal experimentation. To learn Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Ashanti studied video recordings of professional soloists and strove to imitate their playing. Later on, after she had switched to private lessons, she also taught herself how to play Pablo de Sarasate’s showpiece “Zigeunerweisen.”

To seriously pursue music, Ashanti retreated to a sanctuary of discipline and solitude. “Really realizing what you want to do with yourself in your life, you have to cut out a lot of things,” she said. “You can’t always do what everyone is doing. We all have the choice to do what’s exactly the best for us, so that we can get the most out of life.”

Ashanti Ross solos with TYO

Ross, who was born in Trenton but raised in Ewing, says that for her, "music has always been the mainstay of life." Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski.

For Ashanti, music has always been the mainstay of life — the sole source of comfort amidst a turbulent adolescence. Music was such a necessity in her day-to-day routine that lulls in practicing were abnormalities — indications of an imbalance in her life. “If music isn’t my main line of focus, then I’m doing something wrong,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll give myself time to just feel what I’m feeling, even if it means going a day or two without practicing. But when it becomes a constant thing, and it’s now been two weeks since I’ve practiced, then there’s something more going on.”

During a particularly difficult period while Ashanti was struggling with depression, music provided her with an escape route — a way to check herself and snap out of whatever funk she was in. “Something that I don’t think we talk about enough is the fact that yes, you do have to stay consistent with what you want, but you also have to stay consistent when you get knocked off,” she said.

Indeed, it is consistency that seems to be the prime indicator of Ashanti’s love for the violin. We often take artistic passion for granted, but few actually have the tenacity to soldier through the pursuit of art in the face of continued hardship. Artistic talent is a combination of both innate skill — an aesthetic sensibility — and the strength to remain devoted to one’s craft. Ashanti’s musical journey suggests that with persistence, and with generosity from others, it is possible to transform a passion from a hobby into a livelihood.

More recently, Ashanti has found a network of support through new mentors and audiences, both in Trenton, where she continues to perform informal gigs and concerts, as well as at Princeton University, where she routinely solos with TYO. She is a fan favorite among all audiences, having received standing ovations in both locations. Online, where she regularly posts original arrangements and compositions to YouTube and social media, Ashanti has received overwhelming praise.

Last April, Ashanti faced her most daunting gig to-date — a performance of “Oblivion” with TYO in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium, opening for the superstar sibling duo, cellist Sheku and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason. The performance was important for Ashanti not only because of the grand venue, but also because the Kanneh-Mason siblings are an immense inspiration for her. Though I heard later that she had been nervous, she played with the same stage-commanding confidence as she had during the spring showcase, and the audience — a mixture of both university members and Princeton locals— loved her. In one of the front rows, only a few feet away from the stage, I noticed one couple in particular who were enthralled by her performance. As Ashanti played, they leaned against each other lovingly, and when she bowed, they were her most enthusiastic supporters.

Ashanti Ross solos with TYO

No matter the stakes of a performance, author Cammie Lee calls Ross "a fan favorite among all audiences" for her passion and skill. Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski.

Last February, Ashanti auditioned for the Berklee College of Music, located in Boston, Massachusetts. She played “Zigeunerweisen,” which she had been working on with Dr. Anna Lim, a member of the university’s music performance faculty and the longtime faculty fellow for TYO. In May, Ashanti was accepted into Berklee, and in August, after several months of nail-biting anticipation, she was awarded a full scholarship. She will begin studying violin performance next January as a freshman at Berklee.

Unlike other music conservatories, Berklee focuses primarily on contemporary music. The college offers 14 majors across performance, composition, production, sound engineering, and even music therapy. Students accepted at Berklee may come from a classical music background but also often have an interest in experimenting with hybrid genres and forms of music-making.

At Berklee, Ashanti will continue to explore her own voice and hone her technique as a musician working across both classical and contemporary genres. For her, there is not necessarily one genre of music or style of playing that is superior. What is most important, she says, is that she has the bandwidth to freely emote in her playing — and sometimes that means transgressing traditional boundaries between genres or instruments.

Equally important, Ashanti asserts, is that music has allowed her to bond with a vast community of individuals, from fellow performers to audience members. “The way I connect with people through my playing feels amazing. That’s something I want to keep doing. I connect with people of all different lifestyles, lifeforms, and everything through my music,” she said.

Yet the most important relationship Ashanti has nurtured through music is with herself. “I am alone, right now, in a vulnerable place where I’m transforming into a new person, but it’s all for the better,” she said. “I think you just have to constantly remind yourself that it is a good thing to be different.”


For more on the TYO, visit their website at trentonarts.princeton.edu/saturday-morning-arts/trenton-youth-orchestra.

Cammie Lee is a culture writer, curator, and tea sommelier currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Princeton University in 2022, where she studied English and art history, among other things.