By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Mackenzie Litz is not a worrier. She charges head-first into the activities she loves, often looking back and laughing at the unmitigated enthusiasm of her younger self.
For instance, there was the year she played her upright bass at a competitive summer camp without realizing she was out of her element. She had to videotape an audition, and after watching it more recently, Litz realized what a novice she had been at the time.
“They really needed bassists,” she said with a laugh, explaining how she got selected for the program at all.
Since she began playing orchestral music as a fifth-grader, music has been a huge focus for Litz. She started with the cello before finding a comfortable groove with the string bass.
She’s gotten a lot better at it since that early audition tape, too. A couple of weeks ago, she played in the 70-piece string ensemble at the New York State School Music Association All-State Conference. She’s also the first chair bassist in the Empire State Youth Orchestra.
So, last year, when Litz started to realize she was going deaf in her right ear, you might think she’d panic.
After noticing a long, slow decline in her hearing abilities on her right side, a trip to the doctor revealed Litz had a tumor growing on her auditory nerve in her right ear. It wasn’t cancer; the tumor was, thankfully, benign. But it had irreparably damaged her hearing, and it had to be removed.
“It didn’t scare me as much as you would think,” Litz said.
She had already become accustomed to adjusting her behavior to her reduced hearing. Her best friends knew they should stand on her left to talk to her. Playing the bass was mostly unchanged; she holds the instrument on her left side, anyway.
At the last minute, she allowed herself a brief moment of panic.
“Right before surgery, I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to cut open my head,’ ” Litz said.
Everything went smoothly with the surgery, which she traveled to New York City to undergo.
She had been warned there was a chance she could suffer partial paralysis in her face, because the nerve that controls the facial muscles is dangerously close to the auditory nerve, where the tumor was. But after a few weeks of recovery, Litz was back to normal — and back to never worrying.
It’s an attitude that allows her to improve constantly as a musician, especially while tackling tough pieces that challenge her skills.
“Every time I finish a piece on my bass, I’m like, whoa. I can’t believe I did that,” said Litz, whose favorite pieces to play are Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony and Dvorak’s ninth.
Her up-for-any-challenge demeanor does her good in other areas, too, like Science Olympiad, an academically rigorous team competition. This year, she’s partnered with her sister, ninth-grader Skylar Litz, for one particularly exciting event.
Together, the sisters have to create a Rube Goldberg machine, an intentionally complex machine designed to do a simple task. Theirs will pick up golf balls and drop them into a bucket.
“So far it’s working, which I was surprised about,” she said.
In between mastering the upright bass and inventing scientific contraptions, she enjoys volunteering at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society. “It’s a lot of cleaning, but it’s worth it,” she said.
She’s always loved animals, and has been a vegetarian since she declared herself one early in her elementary school years.
In between class, music, science, and helping local animals, Litz admits there is one thing she worries about:
“I always feel guilty when I have free time,” she said.