Parent Kenyetta Giles Haynes interviewed senior violin fellow Autymn Williams recently. Here is their conversation.
Autymn, you started with CMPI three years ago as an inaugural fellow. How has the program prepared you for the college audition and application process?
Besides paying for my private lessons, they have provided funds for me to attend different music camps. I turned 18 last month. When I joined CMPI at 15, I was just beginning to attend camps that were longer than two weeks. It was perfect timing. They also offered me the opportunity to participate in lots of masterclasses, which really helped me during the pandemic. The classes gave me a chance to play in front of people, even though on Zoom, as I was preparing my audition pieces. The constant reminders from CMPI’s staff and how they held me accountable for my work has helped me on a personal and musical level. Overall, the many opportunities CMPI gave me to perform has really helped in my audition preparation.
CMPI announced your performance on WFMT’s Introductions, a weekly Saturday morning program that features talented pre-college classical musicians in the Chicago area. This sounds exciting. How do you feel about it?
WFMT offered me a slot on the program a few years ago but I said no. I thought my piece sounded like trash and I just wasn’t ready. I’m excited, but at the same time view it as another item on my to do list. These past two weeks feel like a blur between recordings, practice, audition prep, etc. I have had something to do music related every single day. This has been my first day off in weeks. I just remembered I still have to play in my church’s orchestra this evening.
CMPI requires high school students to perform in an auditioned orchestra. What orchestra did you join?
I perform with the University of Chicago’s Symphony College Orchestra. I planned to audition and join in 2020 but the pandemic happened. I really like it and we have our first concert coming up in three days.
From what you’ve shared in this conversation – the fact that I’ve known you for 10 years and you just turned 18 – you already seem like a college student. Do you feel like a college student?
I decided to homeschool for my senior year because I knew things would be hectic. At the end of my junior year I was pretty much done with the core curriculum and would be taking electives. Declaring a music major in college requires more work. The work required to get ready for college auditions can be 10 times greater than what you need to get accepted into college for non-music majors. For starters, the application process doubles. You have to complete the common application plus the music school application – then the traveling, auditions, trial lessons. I don’t think I could’ve done all of that and still been in traditional school. Right now, my whole life is music. So yes, I do feel like I’m in college. It’s like I’m taking college classes at home.
You exude a self-confidence and determination that appears to have helped you through this arduous application and audition process. Your decision to homeschool for your senior year and the choices you’ve made seem very methodical. Do you agree?
Yes, and attending summer camps really helped me to see the bigger picture and gave me a glimpse into what college life, as a music major, would look like. I could tell that some kids loved it and some kids hated it. When you’re gone that long away from home attending a month or longer camp it does give you a perspective on the life of a music major. I was gone for five weeks this past summer attending Sewanee Music camp in Tennessee.
When you first went away to two-week music camp by yourself did you feel ready to go?
Yes, I’m definitely independent and felt ready. Sphinx was the first camp I attended on my own. I loved it. It’s great to get out of your comfort zone and be around musicians who are the same age experiencing the same level of intensity.
Can you tell me something about mock auditions?
I had my first mock audition a week ago. It definitely felt like a real audition. People were lined up in the hallway. No one talked or socialized. I’m like, “What’s going on?” Everyone looked nervous and scared. They tell you to go warm up in a room. They come and get you when it’s your turn. You walk out onto the stage and play for the panel of judges. I think it helped to get my nerves in check and to see and hear what does and doesn’t work with your performance piece.
I just turned in all of my applications and recordings and have not been on my first real audition yet. In fact, I just got a call back from Northwestern’s School of Music, which scheduled me for an audition next week. I called [my private violin teacher] Ms. Lucinda Ali Landing, because I was thrilled and scared at the same time. Normally, they schedule you for the first week of December. While I was unpacking for my CMPI recital I got the email from Northwestern.
Do you feel ready for your Northwestern and other college auditions?
I’m a perfectionist. So, I’ve never felt 100% ready. Even when I have my lessons with Ms. Lucinda I don’t always feel 100% ready. But Lucinda has been my private teacher since I was three years old. In fact, she has been my only private teacher so she knows me very well. We picked my audition pieces very early, like in my junior year of high school. She did this so that I would have many opportunities to perform the pieces. All six pieces work for all of my auditions. So, at camp, at my recitals, at masterclasses, at mock auditions I’ve only performed my college repertoire. While I never feel totally prepared, I’m also not super nervous either. I can always improve. When I get comfortable, I always find something else that I can fix. Since I’ve played these pieces for so long, I’m getting really picky about my performance.
Since you’ve been playing these pieces for so long, how do you or how will you keep them fresh for your auditions?
I take breaks. It’s hard to keep six pieces performance-ready. Not all of the auditions require the exact same pieces. For Northwestern I will perform two Bach pieces and then my solo piece. I’m laser focused on the Northwestern audition pieces. Right after my Northwestern audition I have my CMPI technical jury. Ugh, no one wants to do an audition and a technical jury on the same day, but that’s my life.
Have you started to think about life after college in terms of careers in music?
Honestly, right now getting through this process requires so much focus and my full attention. I’m definitely right here in the moment with these auditions. Right now I just want to get accepted into college.
What’s kept you motivated throughout your musical journey to stay at the top of your potential?
My motivation has changed over the years. When I was 12, my motivation to practice was to get into Sphinx, and then the next year it was to get into Sphinx again so I could see my friends. I wasn’t thinking about college. It was such a huge deal to get back there. Some of the kids were so advanced and much better musicians than me. Before that, playing music was like school. I did it because my parents wanted me to do it. I had Ms. Lucinda as a teacher and she had the music school and we hung out there. It was just something I knew I would be doing. At Sphinx and the other camps you get exposed to very talented kids. Now I’m motivated because I’m also competitive and I want to be accepted into the top tier camps and programs.
Playing my violin also calms me. I don’t know if I’m expressing some deep emotion with my music, but if something stresses me out or if I’m angry about something, I’ll just put everything down and start practicing. Practicing my violin has been such a constant thing in my life. I associate my music with both good and bad memories. I’ll start to play a basic scale like a G major that I learned years ago and a random memory will just pop into my head while I’m playing that scale. At this point practicing can be therapeutic and calming for me.
You’ve had the same teacher for 14 years. Can you talk to me about that?
I’m so happy that I’ve stayed with the same teacher. Some of my friends have had five different teachers. At this point Ms. Lucinda is like family. It’s like I’m going to my aunt’s house and my aunt is this amazing violin teacher. It’s a very personal connection. It’s going to feel extremely weird when I go off to college. Before I forget I want to add that my parents have also been a huge part of my motivation and helping me to stay focused.
Autymn, I have really enjoyed talking with you. So, to wrap up our interview, what piece of music do you dream about playing or wish you could play?
That’s easy, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, third movement, op 47. It’s an amazing concerto. It’s so hard. I really want to play it. I listen to it all the time and stand in the corner and smirk and think, wow, how am I going to get to play that. Ms. Lucinda won’t let me play it. She doesn’t believe in skipping around. I would need to build my technique up to that level. When I’m ready I will let you know.
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