By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Eight Niskayuna High School music students have been offered the chance to elevate their already impressive vocal and instrumental skills at multiday conferences this year.
Six have been accepted to the New York State School Music Association all-state conference, one is an alternate at the state level, and another has been invited to the National Association for Music Education National In-Service Conference.
“It’s the record number since I’ve been here,” said Matt Cremisio, Niskayuna’s director of music education.
At their conferences, the students will have the chance to bond with other young musicians through hard work, relaxation between sessions, and final performances that will likely be some of their best ever. But when they get there, they’ll already have something in common: the nerve-wrackingly competitive selection process, which takes place in the spring of each year.
The NYSSMA Solo Festival is a competition that pushes vocalists and musicians to discover what their best really sounds like.
It begins with the selection of a pre-approved solo from the NYSSMA manual, followed by months of practice, usually with a hired accompanist. On the day of the festival (a fancy way of saying mass audition), students wait for an audience with a judge.
“You’re wondering, who’s your judge? You’re wondering, is he a nice guy? Is he not a nice guy?” said John Chadwick Rockwell III, a senior and trumpet player.
“If you keep telling yourself not to be nervous, it usually doesn’t work,” he said.
Each year, the festivals are hosted by rotating high schools. Last year, Niskayuna hosted one, so students knew what to expect — but that isn’t always the case. Instead of carefully calibrated practice rooms, they can find themselves in echoey classrooms, or even stranger places.
“I played in a kitchen,” clarinetist Alessandra Shellard said, recalling an earlier festival. She thought, “This is the kitchen room that could bring me to all-state, or not.”
Nearly every soloist has a story of the wave of anxiety that hits just before meeting a judge.
“You’re like, I have this much time and I have to make an impression,” senior violinist Samantha Burgess said.
For those who really want to be invited to the All-State Conference, every little mistake can be a crushing blow.
“To be selected, it has to be 100, basically a perfect solo,” Shellard said.
But it can’t just be technically perfect; it also has to be well-performed.
“For vocalists it has a lot to do with facial expression,” said senior Teddy Arcidiacono, a singer.
Will Whisenhunt, a senior tenor vocalist, said it’s impossible to charm the judges without an element of performance.
“If you just stand there it’s awkward for everyone,” he said.
Dynamics, tempo and a certain je ne sais quoi all compound the technical accuracy of each note.
After the solo, the audition continues. Musicians must perform scales, then play a short piece of music on sight, without the help of the accompanist.
“It’s all in the heat of the moment,” Rockwell said.
Junior Mackenzie Litz, an upright bassist, said her strategy is to keep cool throughout the audition and try to stay in the moment.
“Don’t judge yourself,” she said.
After the brief audition, which is usually just 10 or 15 minutes long, all that’s left for the musical perfectionists to do is wait.
“I always psych myself out,” said Brittany Feuerstein, who plays flute and piccolo. “I think, I got a 95 on that solo. I did terribly.”
Feuerstein was selected as an alternate this year, but has attended the conference in the past.
Burgess said it can be tough not to size up the competition.
“There’s literally an army of violinists,” she said.
A score is delivered within an hour or so, but invitations to All-State and All-National conferences take much longer.
For these eight students at Niskayuna High School, the final results delivered a wave of relief, and sometimes surprise.
“I wasn’t really expecting to go to All-State,” junior violinist Min Gon Kin said.
Burgess said she felt triumphant when she found out she had been selected.
“It’s a gratification of all the hard work you’ve put in, not just on that one solo, but forever and ever and ever.”
Most of the students will attend the NYSSMA All-State conference in Rochester from Dec. 4-7, except Whisenhunt, who was invited to the National In-Service Conference from October 26-29 in Nashville, TN. His work there will culminate in a performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
That work, of course, is guided by some of their favorite teachers, who were almost as excited as the students.
“It’s like a thank you to them,” Feuerstein said.
And so it is.
“I’m just very proud to have been able to watch these students develop,” Cremisio said.