I am back home for summer vacation at last reacclimatizing myself to southern traditions. I’ve absorbed myself in New York City culture like jaywalking, learning the train systems, and stalking Jessye Norman (mezzo-soprano) outside of Carnegie Hall. It has been a joy to experience such an intoxicating, thrilling, overwhelming and inspiring city as Manhattan. After my two-hour flight back home to Greensboro, I’ve understood this break was needed.
My first year at Manhattan School of Music was an amazing yet exhausting experience dealing with academic classes, orchestra rehearsals, chamber rehearsals and weekly prep for violin lessons with Patinka Kopec who is Pinchas Zukerman’s assistant – weekly scales, etudes, and concertos are rewarding when played well. I’ve also been screening for orchestra seatings. For orchestra seating auditions, musicians tend to fight for the principal positions or, as some call it, first chair. As you may know, violinists tend to fight for the concertmaster position –also known as first chair.
Getting into a music school is somewhat different from getting into a freshman year at a regular college, although you have to have the grades and transcripts, etc. too. You apply for the school by sending in a CD for prescreening. IF you pass the CD prescreening then you are granted a live audition and IF you pass the live audition, you’re in. Nevertheless, once you’re there — on the first day of school — you have to go through screening for orchestra placement. In other words, you compete with all the other violin students who came to determine your chair position within your instrument section. At first I was a little surprised at this since they’ve heard each person’s playing several times, but I’ve come to the conclusion that people change in their art day by day, week by week. You have to re-audition every year. The re-auditioning is called a Jury, which means playing in front of several faculty members who act as judges and make a joint decision, like in a contest. The first days of school are auditions for orchestra placement to see where you will be seated in the orchestra. Repeated auditioning is needed to be fair to musicians who work the hardest and improve the quickest. Not going to complain, I’ve enjoyed every bit of my experience and this up-hill battle that makes me stronger. During the year, I was placed in various chairs for concerts; once I was in third chair — not bad for a freshman, I thought.
I should clear the air about my stalking of Jessye Norman. I’m not really a stalker; I’ve just been a fan of Jessye Norman, the great opera singer, since I was a little boy listening to her on the radio and now YouTube. After a John Cage concert at Carnegie Hall on 57th and 7th Avenue, some friends and I decided to hang around the block after the concert ended and what do you know, Ms Norman and her body guard exited from the side door of the hall. We got autographs and spoke with her for a bit. She said “I own a violin, maybe you can teach me one day” and I responded,”Only if you give me voice lessons” and she agreed. The most important thing she told us was to always be ready for the unexpected because you never know when a moment will arrive for you to shine.
When I auditioned for Manhattan School of Music, I had no idea what I had got myself into. I hadn’t experienced a competitive environment to an extreme like this. MSM is somewhat similar to Juilliard and is almost as old — Juilliard was founded in 1905 and MSM in 1917. MSM was originally on the east side of New York City, but, when Lincoln Center was built in the 1960s, Juilliard moved down to that part of town and Manhattan School of Music bought the old Juilliard campus. That’s where it is today — on Claremont Avenue, just across from Columbia University and just a few blocks from Union Theological Seminary.
Kids come to MSM from 40 countries and there’s an acceptance rate of 38% for the overall Conservatory, so I am very grateful to be a part of it. Getting in wasn’t the final destination, but maintaining consistency in my growth as a musician is the focus that I take even more seriously today. Mom has prayed a lot, I know. And my experiences at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts studying under Professor Kevin Lawrence are paying off. I am very grateful for the donation you made for my tuition for my first year. Everything has helped me realize what I got myself into and I am ready for the challenge to make everyone who has helped me in any way proud of me. In the fall, I will soak up even more information, practice even more hours, and study even harder to prove my ambition.