Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Hundreds of hopefuls crowd Strathmore auditions

Judges will select 430 young musicians from the ‘cacophonous' din

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Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Nathan Hsieh, 14, of Potomac, warms up his violin before auditioning for the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra on Saturday.

A battalion of young musicians charged the Music Center at Strathmore last week to prove that before there is sweet music, there must be noise. Lots and lots of noise.

Auditions were held by the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra to test the pluck of over 900 local fourth- through twelfth-graders, all jockeying for a mere 430 spots in the MCYO's six ensembles.

The auditions were a six-day marathon of music and mayhem, with each of the kids doing a 10-minute audition in front of one of about 10 judges.

Audition day began in the small warm-up room, where as many as two dozen musical minors tuned and fiddled with their violins and trumpets, flutes and cellos and other orchestral staples to loosen up.

Some of the children were not even as tall as their instrument cases; all had a look of calm in the midst of a storm.

"It can be kind of cacophonous," admitted MYCO Associate Executive Director Christine Cox about the warm up room ruckus.

The din was helpful to Caroline McCue, a 13-year-old trumpeter who has participated in MCYO for two years. All members of the orchestra must re-audition each season, and for McCue, to practice in a cauldron of noise is to get her lips warmed up in peace.

"I like it better when a lot of people are playing at once," McCue explained. "You don't have everyone listening, so you can kind of focus."

The audition week itself takes a lot of orchestration. Runners, usually young volunteers that have been in the previous year's orchestra, receive calls on walkie talkies when a conductor is ready for the next audition. The runners fetch the musicians from the warm-up room, take them to the audition room where a manager is waiting, and run back for the next call.

Meanwhile, managers assist the conductors, providing them with any supplies, like instrument tuners, that they need through the day.

"Chaotic," was the description that came to mind for volunteer Alicia Bhore, 17, a four-year veteran of MCYO. "There's lots of people that tend to have to be in two places at once, and that's not really possible."

In the audition, the kids are one-on-one with the conductor, where they play one solo of their choice, scales and arpeggios. No parents are allowed in the room to prevent distraction, Cox said.

"[The kids] really are mature for being young, and I think that comes with the discipline of learning an instrument," said parent volunteer Holley Wallace.

One trumpeter, Gabe Slesinger, admitted he was prone to nervousness, but came out from the audition smiling—perhaps because he went in with a strategy.

 "I aced it. It was really good, that was probably my best audition ever," Gabe said. "I was just pretending I was practicing in front of my dog."

He also ate a banana before the audition because he had heard that the potassium would act as a beta blocker, used clinically to mediate heart conditions and anxiety disorders.

"It actually helped," Gabe said, "but it might have been all in my head."

David Levin, the MCYO Philharmonic Orchestra conductor, said listening to so many auditions during the week can be intense because they want to make the right decision.

"It's a week of hearing a lot of very talented kids play, and they're under a lot of pressure," Levin said. "Many of them go on to do music professionally, and many of them don't but they could. The talent is quite phenomenal."

The MCYO is a non-profit group founded in 1946. There are three full orchestras, two string orchestras, and a harp ensemble. Three performances are given a year. And this year, MCYO received a $40,000 grant from the Trawick Foundation to allow for more ensemble group performances.

Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra has three performance dates this school year, Dec. 14, March 15 and May 20. For ticket information call the Music Center at Strathmore at 301-581-5100 or visit