Annie Antonacos and Tracey Jasas-Hardel help young musicians with 240 Strings
Until recently, when I heard the words “classical music,” I would have thought words like “stodgy” and “boring.” You may be saying “Really? I love it!” But frankly, I didn’t. I grew up in the 50s with the sounds of Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. The Gregorian chants played during mass were as close as I got to classical music, and from them, I did not think it likely I would ever get into the style or develop lovely acquaintances with classical musicians.
Then I met Anastasia Antonacos (aka Annie), and Tracey Jasas-Hardel, two gifted, world-class classical musicians who live in the greater Portland area. They are totally unpretentious, down-to-earth women—the kind of women you would like to have a cup of coffee with or a glass of wine and just shoot the breeze together. They are lovely, fun, energetic, personable women. Then, at some point, you’d learn what they did for a living, and you’d find yourself saying “What? Wow!”
Annie, a pianist, and Tracey, a violinist, have performed with symphonies and orchestras for audiences around the world, in storied places such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the White House. Each of them holds the titles of musician, teacher, wife, and mom.
The two met a few years ago. Annie reached out to Tracey when she learned a new violinist had moved to town. The two hit it off. As Annie said, “we just clicked, and we started to play together once a week.” From there, the Portland Piano Trio was formed (they play with cellist with Wayne Smith), and before long they were playing in venues throughout New England.
Both Tracey and Annie grew up surrounded by music. In Annie’s case it was classical, while Tracey’s background was pop. As a young girl, Tracey’s mom and grandfather, musicians in their own right, helped her get her start. It was Mrs. Quigley though, her elementary school orchestra teacher, who started her on violin at age 10 and saw her potential. This perceptive woman encouraged Tracey to practice just a few minutes every day, advice which Tracey took to heart. Before long, at Mrs. Quigley’s recommendation, she began private lessons. Tracey’s grandparents gifted her with her first quality violin to encourage her to continue to play.
Annie initially started playing with her dad, a very good amateur pianist. He played on a grand piano, which she continues to play today. When Annie was 8, shortly after her family moved to Maine, she asked for piano lessons and began taking them twice a week from “the matriarch in Saco,” Mrs. Ruth Roberts. Mrs. Roberts had studied piano in Vienna and other parts of Europe and had dedicated her life and career to music. Annie described this teacher as being “down to business.”
As each grew up in their respective homes, the two budding musicians continued to practice and practice, not always loving the process, but finding the results rewarding. They found themselves frequently entertaining their families at home (if not always the neighbors within earshot). Little did either of them know that these living room concerts were warm-ups for their future careers in performing.
Both Annie and Tracey were in their teens when they realized that they were deeply devoted to playing music and were determined to see how far they could take it.
Tracey took her Senior Year of HS at Interlochen Arts Academy and then pursued undergrad and grad degrees at the Cleveland Institute of Music. While there she was mentored by Linda Sharon Cerone, a violin child prodigy. When Linda observed Tracey’s tendency to let her thoughts get in the way of her playing, she would look at her in amazement and say, “Just play it!” Her sage advice of paying attention to how the music felt and playing it was just the advice Tracey needed.
Annie completed her undergraduate studies at USM where she was a student of Laura Kargul, a notable world class pianist and Director of Keyboard Studies. Laura was instrumental in helping her learn how to perform in what’s typically been an “old boys” field. Annie went on to get her master’s and doctorate at Indiana University where she studied under Leonard Hokanson, a Maine native who achieved prominence both in America and Europe.
Both agreed that they love playing music, including the travel, camaraderie, and chance to meet fascinating people. They were equally honest about the not-so-glamorous aspects of life as a musician—lonely times, hard work, and sometimes less-than-desirable conditions. Imagine having to play a piano that wasn’t fit for a beginner or having to play violin in frigid temperatures, and occasionally in front of unappreciative audiences.
And, as in all fields, it can be hard to juggle being moms and having a career. For instance, Annie had an exciting opportunity to play an hour-long Brahms piece for a group. As a first-time mother of a 9-month-old baby she repeatedly heard, “you can’t do that, you’ll never be able to practice, you have a newborn, it won’t work.” Tracey faced being told, “you can be a mom or a professional violinist, but you can’t be both.” Each of these women, in their own way, said, “I’ll show you I can.” They were determined to make it work, despite there being few female role models to look to in the world of classical music. Both of them have husbands who have honored and supported their careers. And like most working moms, they’ve become a lot more flexible with their time and schedules, often grabbing a few minutes of practice here and there.
The music kept them going. Tracey said, “I’d describe being a musician as difficult, slightly obsessive, and very physical work, that culminates in sublime beauty and an almost other worldly connection to humanity. Once we learn the notes, the fun begins.”
A few years ago, driven by their passion for music and their desire to pass on their love for music to kids, they created the organization 240 Strings. As Annette Kraus, the organization’s Executive Director said, their non-profit provides “free music education to young beginning students (kids grades 2-12) who want to learn to play classical music, and for whom such study is financially out of reach.” Even as a professional musician Tracey said, “as a parent of a child who plays cello, I was struck by how expensive it is to pay for private lessons, instruments, and supplies.”
Many public schools have eliminated music education from their curriculum, and that puts it out of reach for lots of kids who want to pursue their dreams. Now 240 Strings makes that a possibility for many children in the greater Portland area, enabling them to develop their techniques and discover how practice does make perfect. They strive to “cultivate young minds and hearts while building community along the way.” They “provide instruments, music books, everything a child needs for lessons and home practice, all at no cost,” said Annette. Funded mostly through grants and donations, they’ve taught countless kids to date.
Watching these children enhance their musical skills has been incredibly rewarding for Annie and Tracey. In particular, they’ve been able to witness what research has proven—that children who learn to play a musical instrument are more confident, have better spatial and reasoning skills, are more patient and focused, and tend to do better academically. A parent of one of their students supports this. Celia said she’s seen her son become more focused and able to express himself. And Heitor, her 14-year old son, said he’s “improving fast” and that playing is becoming more and more rewarding.
The plan for both Annie and Tracey is to continue to grow 240 Strings. Their work will involve strengthening relationships with the schools and other musical institutions in the area, which will happen once the pandemic abates. As the organization grows, they plan to hire more music teachers, allowing for more students to participate.
Both Annie and Tracey say that they will be playing it forward for as long as they can.
To learn more about the 240 Strings program, please check out www.240Strings.org. To learn more about the Portland Piano Trio, please go to https://www.portlandpianotrio.com/
The April concert (Includes Annie and Tracey) is Friday, April 9 at 8 p.m. It is a $10 ticket to view the concert online. For more information, please visit
Then 240 Strings presents Portland Piano Trio on Sunday, June 6 at 7 p.m., and a student showcase on Monday, June 7 at 7pm. FMI: www.240strings.org/events