90-minute commute no match for high schooler pursuing his music dreams

High school freshman Ethan Radaza commutes from Indiana every school day to attend The Chicago Academy for the Arts.

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Ethan Radaza rests his palm against the piano sideboard and attentively listens to his jazz instructor’s feedback. Alyssa Allgood encourages the 14-year-old to add musical inflection on the word “never” as he practices on this day, even as he battles a sore throat. He immediately applies her feedback and stresses the word with his tenor voice. Nothing keeps him from practicing music —including a 90-minute commute from Dyer, Indiana, to Chicago every school day.

Ethan wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every day and prepares for the long school day ahead. The Chicago Academy for the Arts freshman is out the door by 6 a.m. and arrives at the Flossmoor Metra station at 6:45 a.m. He then catches a bus for the last leg of his commute to the tony Chicago high school.

Student Ethan Radaza, a singer at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, Friday, January 31st, 2020. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

High school freshman Ethan Radaza is photographed at the Chicago Academy for the Arts.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

He loves music and felt stifled at the middle school he attended near his home. He became concerned about treating music as an extracurricular activity, and eventually resigned himself to the fact he’d have to practice on his own if he attended the high school in his district.

“I always wanted to do music, but I always thought I would have to have another plan,” Ethan said. “There would not be as much focus on music in high school and I would just have to deal with it, and practice on my own.”

After attending two week-long summer sessions at the performing and visual arts high school, Ethan knew that he wanted to pursue his dream of studying music there full-time.

Student Ethan Radaza, a singer at the Chicago Academy of the Arts, with his jazz vocal teacher, Alyssa Allgood, Friday, January 31st, 2020. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Ethan Radaza practices a song with his jazz vocal teacher, Alyssa Allgood, at the Chicago Academy for the Arts.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

He endured the “big” audition process because arts are “as important as academics” at The Academy, he said. The teachers are invested in the students’ artistic and academic success, he said. He also performs regularly for senior citizens at Holland Home in South Holland, Illinois.

Back at his class, Allgood gently encourages Ethan to try another jazz stylistic tool on the word “never” as they again take the 1930s jazz piece “April In Paris” by Vernon Duke from the top. Ethan loves jazz music and enjoys how he can do anything to communicate the emotions in a song. “You cannot really put it in a box,” he said. One of his favorite singers is American jazz artist Stacy Kent.

“Ethan strikes me as a kid with a real authentic love of music,” said Jason Patera, The Academy’s head of school. “Ethan radiates joy when he sings.”

Patera, who joined the faculty in 1998, is impressed by the level of commitment Radaza displays by enduring a 90-minute commute.

“It was scary at first, but then I did it,” Ethan said of his daily trek to and from school. “Now it’s just a routine. Something to get here. But it’s also time to decompress and think about my day before I come here.”

His family rearranged their schedules for Ethan to practice music. His mother Pamelanie Radaza, adjusted her work hours as a physical therapist to align better with Ethan’s commuting time.

Ethan Radaza rehearses “The Marriage of Figaro” with fellow student Sarah Stevenson at The Chicago Academy for the Arts.  | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Ethan Radaza rehearses “The Marriage of Figaro” with fellow student Sarah Stevenson at The Chicago Academy for the Arts.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

It was Ethan’s mom who first noticed his passion for music. At the age of 2 he was already reading and singing along to karaoke lyrics. He performed for family members at events and recorded himself on their laptop. She enrolled him in singing lessons at age eight because “he loved music above what a regular kid” did, she said. She knew that The Academy would provide an opportunity for him to “blossom” and “develop his talent.”

Ethan said his mother is “really good” at supporting him. He appreciated her paying for lessons and understanding his passion.

“My family really likes music, so I had been raised listening to music,” Ethan said. “They always played music through everything, and something for every emotion.”

Classical voice instructor Alyssa Bennett has been working with Ethan one-on-one for a semester at The Academy and says he “hit the ground running” when they began their lessons. They currently are working on solidifying his vocal foundations and discovering his learning style.

Bennett said he is always on time for school and his lessons, excited to get started, and he doesn’t mind going the extra mile.

“Students all have stresses and worries,” Bennett said. “And if a student can find so much joy in their art, in the music, in the learning, as Ethan does, and set aside the other stuff and walk into this place with an open mind and ready to go, then they can just accomplish so much more than if we get entangled and can’t step away from our worries to find release and joy and creativity in our learning.”

Ethan will perform at The Academy’s All-School Showcase at 7 p.m. Feb. 8. Tickets are $32. More information can be found at The Chicago Academy for the Arts events website.

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