Curious City listener Rochelle Zappia loved music as a child. Her father played clarinet professionally and her mother taught her how to position her fingers over the piano keys.
“Throughout my childhood and adolescence I was always figuring out how to play songs I liked on the piano,” Rochelle said.
But Rochelle has cerebral palsy so she says she didn’t have the fine motor coordination needed to take formal music lessons or play in a youth orchestra. And she’s always wondered what that experience of being in a youth orchestra would be like.
Chicago is home to one of the country’s most prestigious youth orchestra programs, the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, or CYSO.
“Our mission, which is the inspiration and cultivation of personal excellence through music … that really underlies everything we do,” said Allen Tinkham, music director for the CYSO.
This season 800 students will be a part of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra’s programs, which include symphony orchestras, string orchestras, steelpan, jazz band, chamber music and music composition programs. They’ll come from across the state of Illinois but also from Indiana, Michigan and even as far as Iowa.
“Some of these students will go off to major in music and some will … end up in major orchestras of the world or [as] artistic leaders in other ways,” Tinkham said.
And some might end up playing for the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For CSO horn player Oto Carrillo and viola player Diane Mues, that’s exactly what happened. Carrillo, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, began playing the French horn at age nine. He didn’t make it the first time he tried out as a junior in high school but he was accepted as a senior. Mues also got her first viola when she was nine years old. She joined the CYSO as a sophomore.
Curious City sat down with both musicians to hear what it was like to be in the youth orchestra and how it helped shape their music careers.
The interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.
What was your first experience picking up your instrument?
Diane Mues: The rental company had just delivered the instruments to the school where I was in the fourth grade. It was a warm day and I remember bringing the viola home and putting it together, putting the little sponge under the rubber band on the back of the instrument that helps protect the shoulder and make it easier for us to hold it. And my grandmother was looking after us that night … my parents were gone. And we were just playing out in the screened porch. I was figuring out tunes to play and I figured out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and soon after that Ode to Joy. They were all very basic things. I just did sort of a hunt and peck thing with my fingers.
Oto Carrillo: My parents picked out the instrument for me [the French horn] and told me how to take care of it. I remember walking back from Sunday school with my brothers and rounding the turn to our block. We could hear the loud classical music coming from the middle of the street as my dad would have the stereo blasting. He has always revered Brahms and my mother [was] the same for Mahler. She had a cassette tape of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 [playing] in her car [while] I would drive to my busboy job in high school so I really got acquainted with it.
How did you get involved with the youth orchestra? What was the audition process like?
Mues: I was a sophomore in high school, then about 15 years old. And I had had opportunities to excel earlier, to [work with] a more advanced teacher, say when I was maybe in seventh or eighth grade. But something in me just didn’t want to be pushed. I didn’t see myself as an accelerating person. I don’t know why. Maybe I was just — it’s a natural viola personality, [to be] out of the limelight?
[But then] my teacher encouraged me to audition. So I did. I showed up for one of the auditions. It was in a large room, everybody waiting on the 10th floor in the fine arts building in the rehearsal room and the conductor, Mr. Powers, took students one by one to play something prepared and then to sight-read a little bit.
Carrillo: My teacher at the time got me some information about it. That’s why junior year in high school is when I first auditioned. I didn’t make it. You have to be really, really an excellent player, a very talented player. So there’s that barrier of just understanding how the level can be. And I wasn’t at the level. I remember the first time I auditioned the orchestral excerpts that were required of me, I didn’t know them that well, so there was no mystery why I didn’t get in.
What memories stand out for you from the youth orchestra?
Mues: I do recall my emotions at the first rehearsal. And it was Wow, the sound because I think the very first thing that we played was Berlioz, a Benvenuto Cellini overture, and it was a full orchestra complete with bassoons, oboes, all the brass, all the percussion, things that you don’t normally see in every high school orchestra. And everyone just took right off, like they knew what they were doing. These were really accomplished young people. And I was impressed.
I mostly sensed camaraderie in the youth orchestra. They were kids from all different high schools. Some of them had been to Interlochen [Center for the Arts]. And so they were used to working with kids from all over the world, all over the country. To me, it was just a much bigger world. And a lot of these kids because they were so serious in music, just seemed like a whole different species of human being to me, and I was in awe.
Carrillo: I remember my first rehearsal, I just was blown away by the talent of everybody. I mean, the fellow players were top notch. So I learned all sorts of things. You just can’t help getting swept by talent that’s around you and wanting to get to that position. … [Y]ou see some of your weaknesses, and you see what they’re doing, and you can see that they have strengths [in places where you have] weaknesses. So you’re trying to strengthen up all those things in your playing.
How did you decide to pursue a professional orchestra career?
Mues: I didn’t know what I was going to do in music, I didn’t realize I was going to be an orchestra player. I just thought the natural thing was to be a teacher. Because those were all my role models. That’s all I’d ever seen were music teachers. I didn’t know that adults sit on stage and practice, much the way we had in all of those student orchestra rehearsals.
Carrillo: I didn’t really know I wanted to go into music until probably my senior year and I think the Chicago Youth Symphony had a lot to do with that. Just being in such a great group with great music and great instrumentalists. I think that’s what really started kicking me into this decision that I made. So I applied to music schools and I also applied to schools that were good at liberal arts because I thought I was good enough to at least pursue it for a little bit, but I didn’t know if I was going to make it as a professional.
How did your youth orchestra experience prepare you for your current career?
Mues: Any experiences I had after youth orchestra were built upon all of the youth orchestra experiences. I think that with youth orchestra what I got was a very firm foundation of learning how an orchestra goes together: some good ensemble practices, how to listen, how to watch the conductor, and just the awesomeness of how an orchestra sounds when it’s all playing together. That was the thing that mostly grabbed me. And the atmosphere of the fine arts building. There’s something about that fine arts building. It just brought me back in time and made the music feel very real to me. And that feeling was what really propelled me, I think, through my interest in music.
Carrillo: You realize that this is something I would love to be able to do — to have fun doing what I love to do, because what better way is there to make a living? So that really inspired me to keep going after it and get better and better and better.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in pursuing an orchestra career?
Mues: If the wish is there, by all means pursue it. You don’t have to become a lifelong musician. Just enjoy the experience, enjoy the friendships, enjoy the work — whatever it is you get out of it.
Carrillo: Go after it as much as you can, as hard as you can. If you really pursue something, it’ll help you out on anything [even if you don’t achieve your goal], because you have to put yourself out there.
Jason Marck is a senior audio producer for Curious City. Follow him @JasonMarck