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Archive for Sunday, March 11, 2007

Honor bound

Young musicians land spots in prestigious recital

March 11, 2007

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It's 4 p.m. on a Monday, and Stephanie Jian is where she usually is during the late afternoons: on a piano bench.

She's been working out the notes of Franz Liszt's "Waldesrauschen" for about five months now, and it's getting down to crunch time. In five days, she'll play the work for the Lawrence Arts Center Honor Recital auditions.

She's got most of the notes down. It's the memorization that's giving her trouble.

"Sometimes, I play myself in circles," she says.

The Lawrence High School junior always practices at least an hour a day, but she figures she'll be practicing even more than normal this week. The Honor Recital is one of the most prestigious audition processes for Lawrence musicians in junior high and high school, and only 10 to 12 of the 50 or so auditioners are selected for the recital.

Jian has been on the list the past two years. But she remembers what it was like her first year of auditioning, when she didn't get in.

"It definitely was disappointing," she says.

She doesn't want that to happen again.

***

It's the next day, Tuesday, and Masa Ohtake is squeezing in some practice time at the Free State High School band room before a concert.

A marimba player is to his right, and a timpani player is working out a part behind him. But he's focused on Ferdinand David's "Trombone Concerto in E-Flat Major," a work he's been practicing since last summer.

He's been in state ensembles and other honor groups in the Kansas City area. But there's something special about the Arts Center Honor Recital.

"It's more personal because of my friends who have done it before," the junior says. "They're great musicians."

Like Jian, Ohtake has performed in the recital the past two years. The idea of not making it this year has added some pressure.

"I can't say I don't get nervous," he says, "because I do get nervous."

***

Lawrence pianist Rita Sloan started the Honor Recital in 1988 as a way to showcase some of the young musicians in Lawrence.

"They're the serious talents," says Janis Hutchison, one of this year's organizers. "Their talent level really demands showing it off. This is not like your typical piano recital."

The students must play a piece no longer than 10 minutes in length. The competition is open to junior high and high school students who live in Lawrence or who study with Lawrence teachers.

This year, 43 students have signed up, down slightly from previous years.

'Cream of the crop'

Hear music by Stephanie Jian, and hear her talk about the audition process. Enlarge video

"I see a steady level of obvious quality among the young people's dedication," Hutchison says. "This is a busy audition season for the talented kids. There are two or three auditions going on every weekend."

***

Jian started playing the piano when she was 5.

"It's the one thing I've stuck with consistently," she says. "I've dabbled in a lot of things like art or soccer. But the one thing I stuck with was piano."

She practices daily on the Yamaha piano in her living room. Her parents bought it for her four years ago.

Jian studies with Jack Winerock, a piano professor at Kansas University. She likes playing Chopin the best.

Though she loves the piano, she sees it more as a lifelong hobby. She wants to make a living as a doctor.

Jian balances the piano with her other school activities: choir, Model United Nations, Young Democrats, Key Club, debate and keeping a 4.0 GPA.

"I've learned you have to make time for practicing," she says. "Usually, when people are really busy, practicing is the first thing to go."

There won't be any question about practicing this week. There's an important audition coming up.

'Cream of the crop'

Hear music by Masa Ohtake, and hear him talk about the audition process. Enlarge video

***

Ohtake was born in Japan, but he started his musical career as a piano player when his family moved to the United States so his father could attend the University of Illinois.

When Ohtake moved back to Japan and saw the shiny brass of a trombone, he knew he had to play that instead.

"It has a slide," he says. "I mean, that's always cool."

He moved back to the United States five years ago so his mother could attend KU. He has especially liked getting to know jazz here.

Now, Ohtake wants to make a career out of music. He's planning to major in both music performance and education after high school.

Sure, playing the trombone takes an investment of time. But that doesn't keep it from being fun.

"Whenever I practice, I just practice because I want to play well," he says. "The day I think practicing is work, I think I'll quit the horn."

***

Audition day finally has arrived.

It's 8:40 a.m. on a Saturday, and Jian is the first auditioner to arrive at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

She wanted to be early. She has a History Day competition in Kansas City to get to.

Jian warmed up some at home. But it's wicked cold out, and her fingers are stiff again.

She finds a practice piano and runs through parts of her piece. Her music book is closed, though she occasionally flips it open to jog her memory.

Jian doesn't talk much to anyone. That's her pre-audition ritual.

When 9 a.m. - audition time - rolls around, she walks onto the arts center stage and asks to play a few scales to get a feel for the piano.

"Do you want us to judge the scales?" a judge asks, trying to break the ice.

"Sure," Jian replies with a nervous smile.

She plays through her concert etude, then walks off the stage.

In the hallway, she's asked how she felt about it.

"It went well," she says quickly.

Then, she's off to History Day, and a day of wondering about how the judges thought it went.

***

Ohtake's audition is slated for 11:26 a.m. - about 20 minutes from now - and he's warming up his lips on a cold trombone mouthpiece.

His accompanist, Vanessa Thomas, knocks on the door, and they run through a few trouble sections. Ohtake is trying to remember his correct entrances.

He sprays his trombone slide to keep it lubricated.

"I'm really nervous," he says. "I've got in the last two years. The pressure's on."

The audition goes smoothly, and Ohtake walks out of the auditorium to put up his trombone. Like Jian, he has a busy afternoon planned - he's participating in the KU Jazz Festival.

He knows from past years that the afternoon will be agonizing.

"I'll try not to drive myself crazy," he says.

***

The list is posted by 6:30 p.m.

Ohtake learns the results by driving back to the arts center and seeing it himself.

"It was a relief," he says of seeing his name among the 11 selected for this year's recital. "I felt a bunch of things at once. I was really scared. The whole afternoon was an emotional roller coaster. I thought I did fine, but maybe not."

Jian drove with her parents to the arts center that evening. She walked up to the posted list by herself and felt relief when she saw her name on it.

"I was pretty nervous the whole entire day," she says. "It was pretty stressful."

The auditions represent months of hard work among the 11 selected for the show. Hutchison, the member of the organizing committee, says the audience gets to reap the benefits.

"The general audience would just be amazed that, at no charge, they can hear such great talent," Hutchison says. "They're the cream of the crop."

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