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Putting myself out there: visiting teachers!

As the saying goes, “it’s not the school, it’s the teacher.” I heard this saying from any musician I talked to about the daunting process of choosing the colleges on my application list. And I understood why this was reinforced and repeated: regardless of the school I would attend, the most meaningful time I would have would be with my private violin professor. Rather than focus just on gaining admittance to the schools of my dreams, I had to decide exactly what I sought to gain from college study, and look for teachers who could help me achieve my goals. This brought a new, daunting, and humbling load of work. I had to peruse lists of the most esteemed and respected violinists in the world and decide who seemed to have an intriguing, specific perspective I felt could bring out the best in my playing. Imagine! I was hoping for a chance to study with the masters, but first I had to choose them! It felt a bit backwards. I read biographies, listened to lectures and read about masterclasses given by professors on many faculties, eventually compiling a short list. Then it was time for the first leap of faith!

It was time to put myself out there, and contact each of these teachers. Through carefully crafted emails, I asked the professors if they could generously offer a chance for me to have a lesson with them―before my application was evaluated by their school. I needed to see for myself how we would interact. To my delight, I received quick responses, and was offered four lessons. I was honored. Now I just had to prepare an itinerary for a busy week in Boston and New York City and practice the pieces I’d play so I could make a good first impression! After all, not only did I want to learn about each professor, I also wanted to show myself to be a student worthy of their instruction.

Before long, I was boarding a plane with my mom and younger brother for Boston, where I’d have the first three of four lessons on three back-to-back days. Soon after arriving, I rediscovered the challenges of practicing in hotels: while playing courteously and quietly to avoid disturbing other guests, I realized I wasn’t able to practice achieving the brilliant, ringing sound integral to the music I’d perform in the lessons. So frustrating! I did my best to work on every other aspect of my playing instead, and set my alarm for an early wake-up and more practicing in the morning.

My first lesson in Boston was with Ayano Ninomiya, my future professor of violin at the New England Conservatory. Though I was nervous and didn’t feel like I demonstrated my greatest abilities, Prof. Ninomiya quickly helped me achieve more beauty of tone and ease of playing. As the lesson progressed, I began to have ‘ah ha!’ moments as she helped me solve questions I had about the stylistic concerns of the Bach music I was playing. At one moment, she remarked that I had played a particular passage of the Mendelssohn concerto differently than the myriad interpretations she’d heard. Though I was open to changing my approach, she said she was glad to hear my refreshing take on the passage, and didn’t want me to change a thing! I knew that was something special. It’s one of my biggest priorities to find something to say in the music that can make my performance unique.

So my first lesson, almost an audition in itself, had been a success! I had learned a lot and improved my playing, and even gained insight into my teacher’s perspective. This set the tone well for the whole week, and I continued to have inspiring lessons in Boston and New York. At the end of the trip, I felt my confidence boosted by the positive learning experiences I’d had, and when I returned to practicing for my actual auditions, I felt such a strong commitment to bringing out depth and meaning in everything I played.

Before long, it was time to put these lessons to use in the very first stage of the audition process! And it was certainly a unique experience… more next week!

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