Competitions aren’t all about winning—four teens explore their musicality
By Stephanie Powell
In the art of making music, age can easily cause one to blindly assume skill level. We beg to differ on behalf of all of the teenage classical musicians out there: Felix Mendelssohn composed his Octet in E-flat major at the age of 16 and Franz Schubert wrote “Gretchen am Spinnrade” at 17.
Teens are no less impressive today.
Here are four teens who have each made a tour de force in 2015, and left their mark on the world of music.
Germantown, Wisconsin–based violinist Hannah White, 15, recently added first place laureate in the 2015 Sphinx Competition’s junior division to her résumé—along with ten other first-place titles she holds from competitions throughout the country. White, who picked up the violin at age seven, met her instrumental match after her parents rented the instrument for her older brother. “I picked it up and didn’t want to put it down,” she says. “I would walk all around the house playing it. When I wasn’t playing the violin, I would study the music even though I [hadn’t had] any lessons and didn’t know how to read music [yet].”
White offers a few key tips to young teens pursing the instrument: “practice hard, [listen to] your parents and teacher, stay humble, enjoy life as a violinist, and enjoy lifeoutsideof being a violinist.”
Technique on the violin has always come easily to White, she says, and her next hurdle is “understanding the difference between being a good musician and becoming an artist.” The Sphinx Competition provided a warm environment to begin that journey. “It’s so much more than a competition,” White adds. “They make you feel like family!”
Practice makes perfect, teachers, parents, peers—all right everyone—says, and 17-year-old cellist Oliver Herbert, who just placed first at the San Francisco–based Klein Competition, couldn’t agree more.
“My biggest challenge, and one that I’m still battling, is being able to practice as efficiently as possible,” Herbert says. “I’m learning more and more that practice time is precious. There are many obligations outside of the instrument, so it’s become very important for me to set clear goals for each practice session, and to maintain an extreme focus and sense of patience. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of practicing only what I’m good at!” Herbert notes that performing in his hometown and at a competition that promotes such camaraderie among the finalists is an added bonus. “It’s super rare to find such a fun and mutually supportive group of people within the context of a competition,” he says.
“My most memorable moment onstage was from my performance of Bach’s C major Cello Suite. For me, Bach’s music is very inward in its expression and I felt that I could really bring the audience into my world.” Herbert will be attending the Curtis Institute of Music in the fall and is eager to work with living composers and take part in the creation of today’s music.
Competitions don’t necessarily leave 19-year-old violist Arjun Ganguly feeling more accomplished, he says. Rather, the exposure to so many performers only adds to his appreciation of the immense talent his peers possess. “This was my first major national competition, and I was in complete disbelief when I found out I had made it to the finals,” Ganguly says of the 2015 ASTA National Solo Competition, at which he placed as a laureate finalist this past March in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I have never practiced harder for anything before, and the level of performance was higher than anything I’ve been in before. The live competition was a great experience—this competition had a different feel than ones I had done before because everyone in the finals had technically already won.”
Six laureate finalists were named in each discipline—violin, viola, cello, bass, harp, and guitar. The pressure was different, he says, and the focus shifted to showcasing the music the finalists had been preparing for so long.
Ganguly traveled from St. Cloud, Minnesota, where he just started his first year of college at the University of Minnesota, to partake in the ASTA competition. Although he is not currently pursuing a music degree, he notes that continuing to make time for music is a must, and advises aspiring teens to do the same. “No matter what challenges you face, never give up on yourself or your music,” Ganguly says.
“Despite how it seems, everyone in music has struggles—I cannot think of a single person who has never lost a competition, but it is so worth the perseverance when you overcome those difficulties and start discovering your own artistry.”
For 15-year-old bassist Aleck Belcher, practicing the art of performing is an integral skill, even if you’re only performing for your dog, he says. Belcher, who placed first in the 2015 International Society of Bassists Convention in the category of ages 15–18, offers aspiring teen bass players that very advice. “Take every single performance opportunity you get,” he says, “performing is a skill that you must learn and cultivate. I can’t stress the importance of performing for anyone who will lend an ear.”
The competition offered Belcher the opportunity to meet players from around the world. “I knew my fellow competitors so well,” Belcher says of the friendships he developed. “I was extremely thankful to learn so much from them and have the opportunity to play alongside them.”
A high school junior from Carmel, Indiana, Belcher credits a majority of his success to having a “strong base (pun intended)” back at home, he says. He will continue to work toward his goal for the remainder of the year, despite the challenges that balancing practicing bass, school work, club meetings, AP tests, and extracurricular activities can bring. “I’d like to learn the bulk of the essential orchestral bass repertoire this upcoming year,” he says.