In the following Article, cellist Susie Yang discusses her career path as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestra musician. Having attended both the Julliard School and New England Conservatory, and having served as a fellow with the New World Symphony, Susie provides great insight into the world of young orchestral musicians operating at the highest levels. Susie talks about her childhood dreams, her inspirations, and her experiences in various musical settings. For any young musician looking to join the ranks of a professional symphony orchestra, Susie’s story is a valuable resource. Since writing this article, we are happy to report that Susie has been appointed Associate Principle Cellist in the Kansas City Symphony! Congrats Susie!
When I was five years old, a cello was brought into my world. My sister had already been playing the violin for three years prior to my entrance into the world of classical music. She absolutely loved the instrument and the music! Honestly, I wasn’t overly thrilled with the new responsibility and expectations that came with a musical instrument. I was quite shy and I did not want to disappoint my parents who enthusiastically thrust a cello into my hands at this early age. Still, I remember the time I firmly decided to become a serious cellist – I won a competition and was given the opportunity to perform as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! It was an absolute dream, and I was determined to do that for the rest of my life. I watched soloists like Jacqueline DuPre and Mstislav Rostropovich master the cello repertoire on VHS frequently as a child and I dreamt that one day that would be me.
For many years during my childhood, my family attended Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concerts at the Ravinia Festival and though the orchestra sounded beautiful, I was always most entranced by the soloist that was performing with the orchestra. I remember thinking – I want to be that soloist. At the time, I never really thought about becoming one of the musicians in the actual orchestra. There are certainly kids who strive to be one of those orchestral musicians, but I was simply not one of them. In fact, many of my friends who are auditioning for symphony jobs now would say that they always imagined becoming a soloist or teaching at a major conservatory. Becoming an orchestral musician was not on their agenda and it was not part of my plan either. I was determined to become a major soloist.
High school passed by with a flurry of competitions and solo concerts, but my dreams of becoming a soloist were not yet fulfilled. I was determined to get accepted to The Juilliard School. I knew that many great soloists studied, trained, and performed there.
I just had to go! When I received my acceptance letter, I was ecstatic and took off for New York with high hopes of being the next Yo-Yo Ma. I had some orchestral experiences in middle school and high school, playing in some youth orchestras in my area. However, it wasn’t until college that I got to work with some amazing conductors and delve into the many great works written for an orchestra. I loved performing in that setting and making music with my friends as part of a large group. Still, I continued auditioning for competitions and working on becoming a better cello soloist. The four years passed with great solo, orchestral and chamber music experiences, but I began to think that becoming a soloist was something reserved for only a select few. Accordingly, I began to contemplate other options for my career in music. I auditioned to get my masters degree and I was determined to figure out what exactly I wanted to accomplish with my life.
New England Conservatory, where I studied for my master’s degree, was an excellent fit for me as it presented many opportunities in chamber music, which had become my favorite musical activity. I quickly formed a serious quartet there and decided to pursue a career path in chamber music. The Quartet experience went very well for one year. We presented many concerts and won several competitions. However, the quartet began to experience conflicts due to our various personalities and preferences. There were uncertainties about our future, so we decided to break up after at the end of the year. During my second year at NEC, I enrolled in an orchestral repertoire class taught by a former member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it was in that class that I learned a great deal about orchestral life. In addition, I learned that the income from an orchestral position is often stable and the schedule is quite manageable. The scenario seemed ideal! I auditioned for my first orchestra while I was still in school and although I did not do as well as I hoped, it was a great experience. By this time, the end of my graduate degree was quickly coming to an end and I realized that I had to do something after school was over! On a whim, I auditioned for the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy in Miami Beach, under the direction of Music Director Michael Tilson-Thomas. I took a bus from Boston to NYC to take the audition, played well, and I was invited to become a fellow on the spot! It was very exciting and encouraging, so I decided to accept. I had no idea what my experience in the New World Symphony would be like, but I was curious to see what the orchestra and academy offered.
New World Symphony is a place that lies between academic training and a professional job. It is a three year fellowship program where about 100 fellows live for free in Miami Beach, receive a weekly stipend, work under many different conductors from around the world, and receive free lessons/master classes with great orchestral musicians from many prestigious symphony orchestras. It is a place designed to train young, talented musicians in the art of orchestral performance. In addition to helping the fellows hone their orchestral chops, the New World experience helps instill the importance of becoming ambassadors of classical music.
The required schedule of the New World Symphony seemed to reflect the typical hours of a professional orchestra, with rehearsals throughout the week and concerts on the weekend. I was able to experience a great deal of the orchestral repertoire alongside other NWS fellows and at the same time I learned a lot about taking auditions and performing as part of a section. In addition, Miami Beach was an ideal place to live and work, challenging me to balance a rigorous work ethic with a beautiful and inviting environment. In the two and a half years I was there, the orchestra took a tour to New York City, where we played Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 under Michael Tilson-Thomas in Carnegie Hall. Another highlight was our month long tour of Paris, Granada, and Caen.
In addition to orchestral repertoire, I also had the opportunity to perform a lot of chamber music there with my friends and colleagues. I was also fortunate to win the concerto competition hosted by NWS and was able to play as a soloist with the symphony. Finally, I was a part of the mentoring program where I had the opportunity to teach young children about music. It was a great experience because I was able to sneak a peek into all the career options as a classical cellist and learn about the importance of inspiring people to come to concerts and play classical music. It wasn’t always easy!
Taking auditions is a whole other skill - one that requires great time and preparation. However, the experience as a whole was eye-opening and extremely helpful in my future endeavors. In December 2008, I was invited to play as a contracted member of the Kansas City Symphony, a professional orchestra. The opportunity arose because I had played for a KCS member a year before this happened, and he had recommended me. Without a doubt, New World Symphony had prepared me to play in a professional symphony orchestra. I was sad to leave New World, but I knew that I had learned a great deal during my time there, and the experiences from Miami would always be with me wherever I go.
I held a six-month contract with the Kansas City Symphony, and it was a thrill to perform great music with a professional orchestra (not to mention the regular salary). Through meetings and connections to the people playing in professional orchestras today, I experienced the difficulties orchestras are having economically, and what I learned at New World about being ambassadors has become even more important to me now. After my six months in Kansas City, I moved to San Diego. I am now subbing with the San Diego Symphony, auditioning for orchestras, creating a chamber group with my sister, and presenting concerts that will inspire other young musicians and audiences. I know now that I don’t just have one goal in mind for my career, but that I want to incorporate all aspects of what I learned to become a great overall musician. I am looking forward to my next audition and the chance to make a difference wherever I am.