All it takes to have a shot at the National Symphony Orchestra's Summer Music Institute (SMI) is talent and a few thousand hours of practice.
You'll also need an audition tape and a rsum ("played the flute for six years, as well as the piccolo and tenor saxophone; both classical and jazz; Reno Philharmonic Orchestra; principal for two years; Nevada All-State Orchestra").
Like many summer music institutes that attract the best young musicians from around the United States, the NSO's program is highly competitive. Regional arts groups screen hundreds of applications and send the best five audition tapes to a panel at the NSO, which makes the final call.
For the winners - some of whom travel hours at home to participate in a local youth orchestra - the reason to attend is simple: the intensity and variety of the musical experience.
Reno flutist Mark Growdon says he goes to summer institutes every year. Last year, it was Stratford, England; the year before, Interlochen and other big-name stops for the nation's top young musicians. But getting to play with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington is as good as it gets, he says.
"You get to work with NSO teachers, which is really neat. And it's exposure to what the real world is like," he says.
For three weeks in June and July, the real world for 70 young musicians is getting to lessons and rehearsals on time, learning new technique (the "Tune it or Die" seminar is required for woodwinds and brass), and eating lots of pizza. They perform five public concerts, take two private lessons per week, are coached by NSO members, and attend classes. If there's a break, some dash for a museum - but only if it looks as if they'll be back in time for rehearsal.
"If you want to be a professional musician, you just can't ever be late," says Virginia violist Laura Woolen. "I often get here 30 minutes early. But if the downbeat is 7 o'clock and you miss the downbeat, you miss [playing] the A."
Building relationships with other musicians is also an important part of the program, teachers say.
"Our students are the better players from their hometowns; here they are matched with people at their own level,'" says David Howard, a cellist with the NSO and a coach. "Meeting other musicians at their age is very important."
Unlike some institutes, the SMI doesn't focus on intense competition. No one gets to challenge a rival who is having a bad fingering day for the principal chair. The kids say they like that.
"Fighting is stressful. It's a friendly environment here," says Stephen Key, an oboist from Fairfax, Va.
"Other places allow you to challenge during camp. But I don't like competition to take over a learning experience," adds Carol Wysocki, director of the NSO's education program.
But the absence of dogfights hasn't blunted the intensity of rehearsals.
Howard is coaching a chamber group working on Mendelssohn's Quartet in D Major, Opus 44a. The eighth notes aren't matching up. The kids know something is wrong, but they're not sure what. "I heard at least three tempos out there, maybe four. It's more important that you keep the rhythm going than that you get all the notes," he says.
"Cellos respond slower than violins. So play a little earlier than you think you need to," he calls out to one cellist.
"A trill is like a doily on a piece of furniture. It's not part of the furniture. You make a lot of it and you're late," he adds, sotto voce.
The coaching intensifies. "Viola, more volume! This looks like nothing, but it's a very important line. Lay into this note: This note is more important than that note."
And so on. The troublesome passage finally falls in line. "Beautiful! Great!" the coach exults.
They are among the top young musicians in the country, yet they know a career in music is a long shot.
"If they work hard, hopefully they can make a living at it," says NSO violinist Hyun-Woo Kim. "You have to have enough talent and the will to practice - at least three hours a day."
For flutist Mark Growdon, the issue is making sure that music is always a part of his life. "It's possible to make a living as a musician, but I'm not sure I want to try. But I'm planning on a double major in music and physics. If I make a lot of money in high technology, I might be able to be a teacher on the side. And I would hope to get a group together to just play music."
*E-mail: chaddockg @csps.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society