I believe that in order to be successful, an artist must be passionate about her art.
What I’m less sure about is if an artist is called to a particular art. Is an artist born with a certain drive and talent for a specific field?
For Jessica Oudin, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes”. A violist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Jessica is clearly passionate about her music. She also seems to have been predestined for it.
I sat down with Jessica this summer to talk about her career and what it’s like to be a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
“The whole story, my mother tells me – is that I was 18-months-old and I saw Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street,” Jessica told me, “and I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
When Jessica was much older – three and one-half years old – she was a flower girl at her uncle’s wedding where a string quartet was playing. Jessica sat at the foot of the quartet’s violinist for the entire ceremony and reception.
The violinist, in a bit on an understatement, said, “This is unusual,” and suggested to Jessica’s mother that they look into the Suzuki violin method, which is a method of music education for very young children. “That’s how I started,” Jessica said, “At four-years-old, I became a Suzuki violinist.”
Jessica played the violin exclusively for several years, until she heard the viola. “There was something about the deeper sound of the viola that just drew me in,” she explained.
Jessica started to play both instruments in sixth grade. She lived in Houston at that time and went to the Johnston Middle School – a magnet school for performing arts as a sixth grader. She auditioned and was accepted as a violinist. However, she had written on her application that she was interested in the viola, and middle school orchestra teachers really like to have students interested in the viola.
She played both instruments until she was 16. But the demands of trying to play two instruments, in addition to her academic work and just trying to be normal teenager, were too much. She felt like she wasn’t progressing fast enough with either instrument and had to make a decision. “But it wasn’t a hard decision,” she recalled. “The viola was my calling. I felt like it enabled me to express who I am.”
Jessica said that it was about this time that she started to think about making music a career.
“You sacrifice a lot of normal activities. Your time, energy, and focus go towards practicing. It has to in order for the study of an instrument to be truly fulfilling. Already, it was such a huge part of my life.”
The summer after her sophomore year in high school, Jessica went to an intensive music camp called the Encore School for Strings, which was run by the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM). It was complete immersion in classical music for six weeks.
“I was in heaven,” Jessica said with a smile. “I came home telling my parents that I wanted to be a musician.”
Jessica’s parents were concerned, as most parents would be. Being a professional musician is not the most stable job in the world. Jessica had done very well academically in school and had been looking at Ivy League colleges. During her last two years of high school, she and her parents did a lot of soul searching. In the end, Jessica headed to a conservatory: the Cleveland Institute of Music.
“I have incredible, supportive, amazing parents who understood that this is what I wanted to do. I think they still had concerns. What parent doesn’t have concerns about their child finding their path and their calling? Yet they understood that this was it for me.”
Jessica went on to get her Master of Music degree at The Julliard School. There, she studied with a host of incredible teachers, including Heidi Castleman and and Misha Amory.
And along the way, she had the opportunity to work and perform with none other than Itzhak Perlman.
“He runs an amazing festival called the Perlman Music Program. When I was a freshman at CIM, he founded the Perlman Chamber Music Workshop. It was two weeks in his home in Shelter Island – complete immersion in chamber music. He and his wife Toby are just incredible people in every respect. They also are so nurturing to their students. I later had numerous performance opportunities thanks to my association with their program. I performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Mr. Perlman; at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in Carnegie Hall… I’ve had some amazing experiences thanks to the Perlman Music Program.”
I asked Jessica if she remembered at what point she told herself that she could be a professional musician.
“I don’t know if there was a single catalyst moment,” she replied. “I think when you go to a conservatory you’ve already chosen such a specialized path. There’s already been some recognition, even at the age of 18, that you have a very focused set of interests.”
“The Cleveland Institute of Music is known and very highly regarded for training students to take orchestra auditions,” she continued. “What’s interesting about my personal path is that when I was an undergraduate, I was not specifically focused on orchestra auditions. That’s an even more narrow career path that demands a singular level of focus.”
“Eventually, I wanted to study with Robert Vernon, the Principal Violist of The Cleveland Orchestra, who has a phenomenal track record of helping students win jobs. He was the one who gave me the skill set necessary to win an audition. I’ve had incredible teachers who have helped and shaped my musical development in different ways. I am completely indebted to each of them for different reasons, but I can say without hesitation that it was Robert Vernon who helped me get an orchestra job.”
Then Jessica told me about the audition process, which she summed up by saying, “It’s a horrible experience. There’s no nice way to sugar coat that. Your entire life comes down to how you play in five minutes.”
How’s that for pressure?
“The Atlanta audition was my tenth professional audition. I had come very close to winning several times. Auditions have multiple rounds. First, the audition is announced, and then you send in your resume. If you make it past the resume round, you’re invited to a live audition. There are at least three rounds – preliminary, semi-finals and finals – and sometimes there are additional rounds as well. Once I was the runner-up for a position where I played seven rounds in an audition because they just couldn’t decide who they wanted. It’s a grueling process.”
As if that wasn’t daunting enough, I was surprised when Jessica told me how few openings there are each year across the country. Jessica and Yiyin Li were hired by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as violists in 2010. There has not been another opening in the viola section since.
Once you land a job with an orchestra, the work is just beginning. The orchestra schedule for this year includes 46 programs, plus special shows and educational concerts. Each program has multiple pieces of music. That’s easily 150 or more pieces of music in a season.
“That’s why you practice,” Jessica said. “That’s why you always practice. I am practicing by myself three or four hours every day. It’s not only incumbent on each musician to know their own part. You also have to know how your individual part fits in with the 20 other parts that are happening around you – how you contour the line to support the melody; how you rise to prominence when you are the melody; how you can make your accompanimental eighth notes sing. You need to do everything with passion.”
The passion that Jessica and the orchestra play with comes through clearly in their performances, which makes an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert a moving experience for the audience. I asked Jessica if she still gets moved by the music she plays, or if it has just become a job.
“No,” she replied emphatically. “The day that I stop being moved by it is the day I should stop. When there comes a day when I’m not passionate about what I’m doing on stage, or what I’m creating on stage, or who I’m privileged to be playing with, that’s when I should stop. Yes, it’s a job and it’s incredibly hard work. But it’s also my passion and it’s an honor to get to do what we do. I never want to lose sight of that.”
Jessica Oudin felt called to her art as a musician when she was just 18-months-old. She continues to apply her passion for music to this day, and along with her fellow musicians in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, they share their gifts with us every week in Symphony Hall.
You can see the Sesame Street clip with Itzhak Perlman that first inspired Jessica by clicking here.
To learn more about the Atlanta Symphony, go to their web site at atlantasymphony.org.