Playing With Friends: Abby Nishiwaki ’23 reflects on 4 years with the Trenton Youth Orchestra

Written by
Danielle Ranucci '23, TAP Senior Correspondent
May 19, 2023

Abby Nishiwaki ’23 has always enjoyed playing music with friends. The New York-based Princeton senior got her start in violin when she was five, but truly came to love it as a ten-year-old, when she began performing chamber music at Greenwood Music Summer Camp.

“That just opened up this whole new world for me. I was able to not only make new friends, but also pursue my love for music with them,” she said.

Greenwood was also how she became connected with Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP). TAP program manager Lou Chen got Nishiwaki’s name from Mary Kim ’19, a former Princeton classmate with whom he had founded the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO). Kim had been Nishiwaki’s camp counselor at Greenwood.

Nishiwaki recounts, “[Lou] emailed me in my freshman year a few days before classes even started, and was like, ‘Hey! I heard your name through Mary, and she thought that you might be a good fit for TYO. Would you be interested?’”

Abby Nishiwaki

Abby Nishiwaki at Greenwood Music Camp.

Throughout high school, Nishiwaki had volunteered as a music coach at Edward Williams Elementary School. To pass on her knowledge to younger musicians had energized her. Now, she was being offered the opportunity to continue that work with Trenton students.

“Because of everything I’d done with Edward Williams throughout high school, I was really excited to be able to find an outlet to continue that in college,” she said.

Nishiwaki has worn many hats throughout her time with TYO. She was a private teacher in her freshman year, served as an intern that summer, and became a section coach her sophomore fall. In her junior year, she attended the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) National Symposium. And last month, she performed a solo with TYO.

Nishiwaki’s most memorable experience was during the COVID-19 pandemic, when TYO had to move its in-person programming to an online format. She recalls being impressed by the commitment of her students.

“A lot of the students were working multiple jobs outside of school and having to take care of their families. I was really happy to see that they came back week after week to keep playing with each other,” Nishiwaki said. “They were just so resilient and excited about playing with each other despite all the things that were happening in the world.”

She remembers days spent practicing music over Zoom—in one-on-one lessons, asynchronously, or in sectionals—without the sound on.

“We weren’t able to play all together with sound on, because that wouldn’t work. Everyone would be playing on mute. But I could still see the students playing,” Nishiwaki said. “They could easily just sit there and not want to participate, but they would still play in their own rooms. That was really inspiring to see.”

In her junior fall, she attended the YOLA National Symposium in California, which brought together music educators from around the nation to share ideas about music access, education, and pedagogy.

“It was cool to represent TAP there. Also kind of scary, because I was one of the younger people there. But I feel like there were a lot of similarities in the things that we were doing,” Nishiwaki said. “To see that access to music is being expanded all over was really heartening.”

Abby Nishiwaki soloes with TYO
Katie Cappola, Abby Nishiwaki, and Jack Shigeta solo with TYO in their spring 2023 showcase. Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski.

Last month, during the Saturday Morning Arts spring showcase, Nishiwaki and two other TYO longtime volunteers, cellist Katie Cappola ’23 and violist Jack Shigeta ’23, performed with the orchestra as soloists in the Andante Cantabile movement from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

“That was a really fun experience, to both work with the students as soloists and as coaches,” she reflected. “I feel like sometimes when soloists play with an orchestra, they kind of just come in a day before the concert. Or the week before, they have one or two dress rehearsals and that’s it. But I feel like for us, we’ve been working with the kids, and we’ve known them for years, and so it had a personal aspect which I really enjoyed.”

Nishiwaki has seen TAP grow over her years of involvement. When she first joined, the Saturday Morning Arts program consisted of just Trenton Youth Orchestra and Singers. Now, it also encompasses Trenton Youth Dancers and Theater.

“The fact that we were able to expand it into various art forms and get enough volunteers and leadership to run those programs is amazing,” she said. “Becoming a more well-rounded artist is always a good thing: getting a perspective from dancing and moving your body, and then translating that to playing the violin. There’s a lot of crossover.”

Nishiwaki has also experienced TYO’s special spirit of camaraderie and humor.

“A lot of the kids are friends with each other from high school, taking classes together in orchestra. So they bring that sense of community to TYO,” she said. “Between the very welcoming, friendly atmosphere of the orchestra, and some of the kids saying the randomest things at the randomest times, I feel like [TYO] fosters a really fun environment.”

Abby Nishiwaki and TYO
Abby performs with TYO during their spring 2021 virtual showcase. 

This sense of community has helped the Trenton students to flourish. One TYO violinist, who was part of the orchestra since Nishiwaki’s freshman year and is graduating high school next month, used to be very shy.

“She was really great at the violin, and a really quick learner, but just very reserved. I think she was a little bit afraid to make mistakes, which I totally relate to,” Nishiwaki said.

Last semester, Nishiwaki heard that this student now wants to become a music teacher.

“I think that’s such a beautiful story: She used to be so afraid to express herself through violin, but now she wants to be that mentor for other young musicians,” Nishiwaki said. “I think that just shows the value of having the opportunity to play music in a community for so long.”

Nishiwaki has also gained maturity and poise through her work with TAP.

“Because of all the leadership positions that I’ve been given through TAP, I’ve been able to gain more confidence in my ability to talk to other people in general and also to be a mentor to other people,” she said.

As she attended the YOLA conference alongside professional music teachers, Nishiwaki realized that even as a student, she could contribute unique insights.

“The conference helped me to grow in my ability to speak on the experiences that I’ve had and value them for what they are [instead of thinking] ‘I’m younger so I don’t have anything to contribute,’” she said.

Abby Nishiwaki and Jack Shigeta
Abby Nishiwaki and Jack Shigeta perform at the spring 2023 TYO recital. Photo by: Frank Wojciechowski.

Nishiwaki hopes that what she has learned through TAP will transfer to her professional life next year. After graduating with a degree from the School for Public and International Affairs, she will be working at an immigration law firm in New York City. However, pursuing music in some capacity was very important to her. That worked out perfectly: Her immigration law firm focuses on helping international artists obtain U.S. visas.

“A few months ago, I had no idea how I was going to meld those two things together,” Nishiwaki said. “I’m really excited that I’ll be able to start my career in law and also continue being involved in the music community and the arts community more broadly.”

As she looks back one last time on her experiences with TAP, she is happy that her students have the opportunity to play with friends.

“It’s really sweet to see, because I feel like I was there—oh my gosh!—more than four years ago, back in high school.” She smiles. “Witnessing other people having such joyous experiences that I was lucky enough to have, that’s really amazing to see.”