Nurturing Passion–A Pathway

by Ron Oshima

Former MYSO bassist Olivia Reyes (‘17) was selected as one of two winners of a Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Fellowship, announced on May 8. The CSO Fellowship program welcomes musicians from populations that have traditionally been underrepresented in American symphony orchestras. Early September was to be the official start date, but Olivia dove in immediately, joining CSO as a substitute for Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 concert June 8-10 in Orchestra Hall.

It was love at first sound when five-year-old Olivia heard the lowest note on the bass from a visiting high school orchestra. “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” she thought. When she was old enough to play an instrument, she pleaded with her parents to let her play the bass.

Joining MYSO’s Sinfonia in the 2010-11 season, she found a paradise, meeting other musicians who were just as passionate as she was about playing classical music and playing in orchestras. She remembered thinking, “there’s all these people who love music, just like I do.” She loved the mentor coaching by Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra members, and those sectionals where she could do the nitty-gritty work on all those details.

Olivia describes herself as a visual learner when it comes to music. She likes looking at the score to see what the other instruments are doing and exactly when they come in. She said, “once I see the score, in my mind, I know what the piece is going to sound like. That’s how I like to memorize things.”

Olivia graduated in 2021 with a Bachelor of Music degree in bass performance from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, studying with Jon McCullough-Benner, principal bass of the Milwaukee Symphony.

One of her driving ambitions has always been to move up to a higher-level orchestra, and her year of preparing for the auditions for the CSO Fellowship program led to an epiphany in her practice. She had been feeling a little stuck in college, either with anxiety or tension when she was playing her bass and wondered if she could find a way to overcome that. She realized that she needed to take a step back and analyze things. “That’s when I started taking these notes,” she said. With the changes I made from my notes, I started to feel unstuck and make good music again, sounding the way I wanted to sound. When people listen, I want them to say, ‘that’s not just a bass player. That’s Olivia playing.’”

At the same time, Olivia also focused on her body health. She asked athletic coaches how they prepare and started doing stretching and yoga every day before playing to relax. In her notes, she recorded any muscle tension she felt. Her goal was to play without putting tension on her body. Her playing was getting looser, and her sound started opening up a lot.

She shared this advice for MYSO musicians about auditions. If you didn’t do well in an audition, remember that it’s not personal. It doesn’t mean that you’re a bad musician. It just means that you had a bad day, and your nerves got the best of you. She said, “in preparing for this fellowship audition, I really struggled with performance anxiety. It was hard for me. I spent months just working up this audition, playing for as many people as I could, even if I felt nervous or not ready. I would take notes each time I played, describing what went well and what didn’t, how I felt, and whether I got tense.” She kept on adjusting right up until the fellowship audition. She said, “I felt I had a really good plan in place, and fortunately, it worked out for me.”

At CSO she focuses on making a good sound. The orchestra is composed of different individual musicians, but when they come together, they’re unified. “Everyone is so sensitive and aware of what’s happening around them,” she marveled. “It’s amazing to see how connected everyone is. The orchestra flow is so solid. I want to figure out how I can match and fit my sound into the orchestra sound.And I’m talking to a few of the other new CSO musicians to see how they adjust to the orchestra.”

Olivia said, “I’ve always liked to learn new things. One reason I was so driven by auditions is because the thought of playing with these great orchestras is so exciting. I can learn new skills with my bass. I can be a better well-rounded musician and meet new people.”

Olivia’s passions have taken her this far. Who knows where else they will lead her?

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