NISKAYUNA — By all accounts, Niskayuna High School senior Samantha Burgess is a skillful violinist, having played in audition-only youth orchestras, school groups and competitive sleepaway camps.
Most recently, from Dec. 4-7, she was part of the Conference All-State music festival, which brings the best student musicians from across New York state together for rehearsals and performances.
Still, when it was time for Burgess to apply to colleges, she was apprehensive. Even choosing which schools to submit to was an emotional struggle.
“I was like, ‘I’m not good enough; I’m not going to get in,’ ” she said.
She imagined herself auditioning in front of stone-faced judges. Then, if she did get in to a music-intensive program, she worried the day-to-day competition between musicians would get her down. She’d heard from friends and fellow musicians the strain could be considerable.
Finally, after a great deal of soul searching, Burgess came to a conclusion that surprised many around her.
“I realized I didn’t want a conservatory,” she said.
Burgess said of all her interests, music is the one that represents her best. Acquaintances at school know her as the girl who plays the violin.
“That’s who I am. It defines me,” she said.
But when it comes to her college experience and career path, she’s heading in a very different direction: biochemistry, likely as a double-major alongside music. She hopes to become a cancer researcher.
Burgess made the decision partly because of her interests, which have developed through her AP classes at Niskayuna and some additional courses at RPI. But she also considered the lifestyle factor: professional musicians, if they secure jobs at all, travel frequently, practice for hours and have little time for other interests.
A summer camp at Skidmore College last summer both inspired Burgess as a musician and gave her the lifestyle reality check she needed to make her college decisions. For almost an entire month, Burgess worked alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra. She and fellow music campers watched their performances, tried out their repertoire and worked with the musicians in the group.
“My playing skyrocketed because of that camp,” she said. “I went to every Philadelphia Orchestra show at [the Saratoga Performing Arts Center].
“I couldn’t pin down what made them so much better than other musicians,” she continued. “It finally hit me: their bows are always perfectly together.”
Realizations like these have inspired Burgess to put in the work required to elevate her playing. Similar moments occurred during her most recent excursion to Rochester for the all-state event.
“Events like that, where it’s just a weekend, the conductors always try to give you pointers,” she said. “When you string them all together, it makes you a better musician.”
In the midst of musical epiphanies, holiday concerts and other activities — she’s Model UN secretary, an opinion contributor to the student newspaper and captain of the ski team, as well as a violinist in the Empire State Youth Orchestra — Burgess is still a high school senior. And she has a lot of college applications to write. In fact, she thinks she will have written 16 to 18 personal essays by the time she’s finished.
Naturally, she’ll focus on what she knows best.
“I wrote a lot of them about musical experiences,” she said.
Burgess’ favorite essay, so far, is focused on a performance of Romeo and Juliet suites with her youth orchestra at Troy Music Hall. Just like the classic story itself, the music changed from lively to melancholy, then ended subtly.
“It ends on a really quiet C major chord,” Burgess said. “We stopped playing, and it was dead silent.”
There were more than 300 people in the audience, and Burgess said for a few seconds that felt much longer, the performers around her were anxious for a reaction. “All of a sudden everyone started clapping, and it was just amazing,” she said.
Burgess said it’s difficult finding time to work on her music among all her other responsibilities, and she knows that always will be a challenge.
“You think about how much easier your life would be without music,” she said.
But in the end, it’s hardly an option.
“You can be a full-time scientist and a part-time musician, but really not the other way around,” she said. “As long as I’m playing music, I’ll be happy.”