Reflections on the ILMEA All-State Conference

Written by: Madison Dong

From January 29th to the 31st, I attended a music conference in Peoria with amazing musicians from all over Illinois. In the fall, students audition and certain ones are selected into district ensembles. For a day, they rehearse a few pieces and then perform. Then, in the spring, the top musicians from those districts are advanced to the all-state ensembles, which rehearse for a couple days. I was lucky enough to be one of these students. For a total of about 12 hours across 2 days, we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed.

And I loved it.

We were playing a movement from a marvelous symphony, and as we reached the climax of the piece, the celli rested for a moment and then all their bows attacked the strings at the same exact moment, and beautiful sounds poured out and filled the room. We were playing this fantastic, stunning melody composed by a Finnish man years and years ago. One hundred and fifty musicians in perfect harmony, creating beauty that felt so palpable I believed I could reach my hand into the air and grasp a strand of it. It was perfect: the music was perfect; the room; the conductor; these amazing, talented people; all of it. In the same piece, within the same ten seconds even, these performers could be playing with all the passion and strength that they could muster and then suddenly pulling back and dissipating into nothing.

And yet, there were some things about the conference I wasn’t so fond of.

The auditions terrified me. Held in a regal-looking hotel, other young musicians gathered inside one of the ballrooms to warm up. Here in one area resided the ones from Chicago who had been playing since they were five years old with the finest music education from dozens of teachers (for a hefty price of course). They knew their music like the back of their hands and played it with ease. They scared me.

Me, I was from Bloomington. I’d played for five or six years. But maybe I had a chance?

In the line for my audition, the guy in front of me completely obliterated his performance. He did everything perfectly, every note, every dynamic, at full speed, and he looked as if he were in his mid-twenties.

Well, my audition sucked. I got nervous, went too fast, and a lot of other things that were just plain bad. So I got placed into the lower orchestra. Maybe if I hadn’t, if I’d practiced a little more or if my bow hadn’t been just repaired two weeks ago I could have been in the higher one, I could have done so well, I could have, I could have I could have I could have…

Maybe next year.

At the end of our last rehearsal, the conductor sat back in his chair and asked if we had any questions. As the Q&A went on, he asked how many of us wanted to go into music, and of course, many of us raised our hands, including me. His eyes then grazed around the room before telling us this:

When there is one open spot in a professional orchestra, hundreds of talented people show up to audition. They’re all very good, but some better than others. So at the callbacks, when the judges have eliminated all but twenty, all twenty of these people can play every note of the music perfectly. They are all worthy of the job. But there’s only one seat. It winds up coming down to the taste of the judges. One gets picked, but then what of the other nineteen who could play just as well?

Don’t get me wrong. I love music to pieces.

But if there’s one thing I realized at All-State, it’s this:

The world is a cold, hard place for musicians.

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