Joy Zhao: Making Music Nationally

This past October I had the privilege of attending the National Symphony Orchestra, hosted by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), which unites musicians all across America in one major conference. It was a huge honor and memorable experience to work with amazingly talented musicians and directors for an entire week.

Getting accepted into All-National Orchestra was no simple task. In my case, it was a year long process of competing at district, regional, and state level to even be eligible to audition for Nationals the year before the conference. The requirements vary by state, but nevertheless, they still send some of the top musicians to represent their province at the national conference in either band, orchestra, jazz band, or choir.

In 2015, NAfME was hosted in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of American country music. I flew over from Newark, New Jersey to Nashville International Airport on a three-hour long flight with my cellist friend who was also accepted into Nationals. For someone who does not travel out of state often, it was daunting to navigate the airport process alone, and I easily got lost at a single wrong turn. Oddly enough, I enjoyed the flying process–checking in, finding the gate, waiting for the airplane, and boarding–everything but security checks since putting on shoes while collecting your carry-on luggage is no easy task!

As we waited in Newark Airport, we noticed other students carrying their instruments on their backs, hustling around the lobby. Once we landed in Nashville, there were even more musicians scattered throughout the airport lobbies, frantically searching for the shuttle that would take us to the Grand Ole Opry Hotel. Let me tell you–this hotel was breathtaking. Drop dead gorgeous. It was a greenhouse the size of multiple malls put together; just the size of the dining room was equivalent to a football field. As soon as we entered, the sounds of the rippling water of the grand river in the center echoed throughout the surroundings. The river had a working boat and bridges that led to the other side, where the mini boutiques and cafes were located. Palm trees and tropical plants bordered the walkways, and the ceiling was a large dome skylight that allowed the sunlight to peek through and provide natural lighting.

Each day brought a unique combination of events and people. Orientation day was an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a new schedule we would follow for the rest of the week. Every hour more people arrived from the airport and immediately began to spectate the convention center, where Drake Bell even made a guest appearance. Others socialized with new friends, and some explored the hotel and its restaurants. One night there was an acapella festival hosted by Disney and the next was a social spent playing games or going on a scavenger hunt. The last night was another concert, but this time by the U.S. Army Choir, whose members had us captivated by their flawless voices.

As for rehearsals, we had a rigorous schedule. However with all the fun we had during the conference, there was a balance between work and play. Rehearsals were in four hour chunks, which seemed really torturous at first but actually flew by. Symphony Orchestra was directed by Maestro Jung Ho Pak, a prestigious conductor who works with the San Diego Symphony and New Haven Symphony Orchestra and other elite orchestras. He selected pieces and used unique metaphors for each passage, painting the picture of the mood and style of playing we needed to portray. In some instances he compared the string’s ineffective use of the bow to “…brushing a whale with a toothbrush.” Maestro Pak also warned us about the dangers of being too focused on the difficulty of the pieces by saying, “Don’t let the tiger eat you. You eat the tiger.” As peculiar as his metaphors sound, they were actually helpful in putting our playing into perspective–how we think we sound versus how we really sounded. At the end of each rehearsal, he’d be breathless and content with the progress we had made, which motivated us to give back the constant energy that he put forth.

The orchestra performed three different pieces that portrayed unique emotions and energy. One was by Shostakovich, a classical and romantic composer; another by Tan Dun, an extremely modern and contemporary composer; and finally Corigliano, another modern composer. Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5” took us to the Soviet Union’s warring periods while Tan Dun’s “Internet Eroica” immersed the audience into the world of notifications and never ending online realm.

As the week came to an end, the concert day arrived, which also happened to be departure day as well. The Grand Ole Opry Concert hall, which hosted world famous singers in the past, was rustic but modern, filled with the nation’s favorite country singers’ posters and statues. This may have been one of the most frantic concerts I had ever performed in. Right before I went onstage, my phone lit up, showing that I had received a text from my airline that my flight was cancelled, and I was supposed to return to New Jersey the next day at 4 AM, implying that I also needed to find housing for the night. Luckily, within an hour, everything was solved, and I was able to pour my heart into the performance, showing the audience the bounty of skills and knowledge I had gained in the past week.

As we packed up our things to take onto the departing shuttle, we all hugged and said our goodbyes. Tears flowed and cheeks were wet as we departed from the new friends we made and became close with in the past few days. Promising to keep in contact, I gave my last hug and parted ways, heading to the airport for my flight.

As I sat on the lobby ground, furiously typing away on my computer, trying to catch up on missing school work, I reflected on all the memories that were still fresh in my mind. I didn’t want to lose a single one. Until next time…