Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Playing with a symphony orchestra

When I was 15 I wanted nothing more than to be in the Utah Youth Symphony. This was such a big deal because as part of the youth symphony, members would play alongside the actual Utah Symphony at the final event. Each one of us would sit next to a professional musician—and even get to talk with them!

Not just anybody could make it on the youth symphony, though, and auditions were intense.

I practiced for three hours a day, perfecting my audition piece and even working on back-up selections in case the judges asked me to play more. It was amazing how quickly I got better and better; the notes would resinate with emotion—the accents became incredible. And I hoped beyond anything that out of the hundreds of people auditioning, I would land a place in the symphony. But when the day came to audition, people sat expectantly in chairs that lined both sides of the hallway. Cellists stood with their large instruments. Violists talked about their craft.... And everyone looked just as serious as I did. That’s when I realized that no matter how much I had practiced, I needed something special to help me stand out.

During the audition, the beautiful woman stared at me alongside a man who seemed to know my past, present and future. As I played, the woman—the conductor of the youth symphony—took notes. At the end, I really felt that while mildly impressed she seemed unmoved by my performance. Nerves had taken over instead of the music. And where I would normally let melodies drive, I had played perfectly without feeling. The woman told me I was excused, but just before I left, I set down my violin and faced her.

“Listen,” I said. “I want this with everything in me. I don’t pray much, but I even prayed for this! I’ve been practicing for three hours every day—and I’m willing to practice more. My heart and soul is in this. If you pick me for the symphony orchestra, I promise you won’t regret it. You want a group who can make a difference. You need members who play with their souls! That’s why you need me.”

The air hung with silence. I didn’t really know if she “needed” me—but I hoped she did!

I turned toward the door, but the woman’s voice stopped me.

“You’re in,” she said sternly. “You are in.”

I tried not jumping.... I tried not crying—or yelling out in excitement. Instead, I told her she wouldn’t regret it, and I know there was a twinkle in my eyes.

I’ll never forget what it felt like performing with a symphony orchestra. I played second violin, and had so much to learn. But just to be up there on that stage, playing with other musicians, hitting notes perfectly in unison, swelling and crescendoing on command. It was unreal.

I think what made the whole thing phenomenal was when I got to play with the actual Utah Symphony. The woman I sat next to was awfully kind even though I was a teenager and a burgeoning violinist. We spoke about the passion we had for music, and how the best melodies could change the world. I told her how I made it on the youth symphony, not because I was the most talented violinist who auditioned, but because I had a lot of heart.

“You know,” she said, “you can be the most talented person ever, but if you’re not willing to put in the work—and you don’t have the heart for it—it won’t matter at all. In the end, people with passion will pass you by. You’re lucky. Because I can tell you have talent AND passion. Do you have what it takes to not just be good, but to be excellent? I think you do.”

I never ever forgot her words. And as my family—my parents, siblings, and even my grandparents (who had driven over five hours just to hear the performance)—watched as we performed in front of thousands of people.

It’s strange looking back, because some of the places I have played throughout my life have been truly phenomenal. I’ve opened for a big bands like Cracker and Shanandoah. I’ve played for hundreds and even thousands of listeners in various venues where the lights shone so bright I couldn't see anyone in the crowd. I would pretend to play for God alone, at the end of all time. Where no mistakes mattered and the light cleansed my soul.

But despite the wonderful career music has brought, I’ll never forget that conductor who generously let me be part of a youth symphony. I know they were taking a gamble with me, but the difference their choice made changes my view on life. It really showed me how the generosity of others can buoy us through, and how having heart is worth far more than initial burgeoning talent that’s never fully honed.

This post is basically to say that if you have passion about something, whether it’s an innate talent and or not, just try. It won’t be easy, but if you want it, go after your dreams.

I remember points, practicing for multiple hours each day, where my fingers would bleed and I would feel like I couldn’t do it anymore. One of my violin teachers—in an effort to help me with hold my violin correctly—would tape a thumbtack to the neck of my instrument, just so I wouldn’t rest my wrist against it. And so I learned despite the pain and struggling.... Because that violin had somehow gotten into my soul.

The point is that I wanted it. If you want something, go after it – no matter how hard. It will be worth it in the end; you’ll look back on all those years of struggling and realize what a beautiful journey it was. Sometimes the journey is far more beautiful than the destination ever could be. Enjoy it. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of chasing a dream.
This is a photo where I got to jam with Ryan Kirkpatrick and his band when we opened for Cracker.

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