Practice, Practice, Practice. Playing at Carnegie Hall

by Joseph Sheeley

In high school I got a very unique opportunity. I was playing bass in the Phoenix Symphony Guild Youth Orchestra, a region-wide orchestra with members in 9-12th grade, and we were invited to play in Carnegie Hall in New York City. This is the story of the preparations and that trip.

The PSG Youth Orchestra was sponsored by the Phoenix Symphony. To be a member, you needed to audition and do well. Most of the members would also make the regional and all-state orchestras. It would practice weekly, then play performances around Phoenix. Some of the ones I most remember were an outdoor concert at a local wild west themed park, Rawhide, and the Musical Memories concerts, where we would play four concerts, one after another, in the Civic auditorium downtown for groups of school kids bussed in from all over the Phoenix area.

We even got to have the resident conductor for the Phoenix Symphony, Anthony Sedaris, as our conductor. He was fairly young at the time but just had the feel of “big city,” like Chicago or New York, about him. He was passionate and expected your best, but he was also funny and personable. We were very lucky to have him.

After he had been there a couple of years, he told us he had a big announcement: We had been chosen among a select group of youth orchestras to play at Carnegie Hall. He had applied for us and we had been chosen. We were going to be making the trip the next year.

Of course, once word got out, people from all over who had not been in youth orchestra suddenly wanted to join. Auditions the next year were tough and some people who had been in the orchestra the previous years didn’t make it. There was even a couple of teens who drove 100 miles from Payson, AZ down to Phoenix every week for rehearsals to join. I actually did fairly well, getting placed in second seat for the basses. The person who got first chair was a dark-haired girl I had never met before. The guy who had usually occupied that seat was in third seat. Apparently I’d had a good audition!

The next year we started working on music for the concert. One of the pieces I remember was Hoe Down from Rodeo by Aaron Copeland, which was a fun piece with a lot of musical gimmicks. Another was a piece that we had to rent. We couldn’t make copies of the rental piece and were warned that if anyone damaged, wrote on and couldn’t erase, or lost any of the music it would cost $20 per copy. We were worried. One night the librarian for the orchestra, who kept all of the sheet music, accidently drove off and left a box of extra parts on top of her car. Luckily someone from the orchestra saw this and got the box after it had fallen off. That could have been a disaster!

As we got close to the trip, a local news station came to film us during practice. Apparently they were going to report on us while we were in New York as well. During one of their newscasts they repeated an old joke our conductor had told us:

A young man was walking lost through New York carrying a violin. He asked a man he saw on the street, “Excuse me, sir, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The old man turned to him and said with a smile, ” Practice, practice, practice.”

We did a concert at the high school where we would practice that copied the program we were doing in New York City for our parents the week before we left. It went well.

New York Here We Come

We flew from Arizona to New York. We crammed instruments into every space in the plane. We were renting bases in New York because it was too much trouble to get hard cases and take them on the plane, so all we had was our music with us on the plane. I remember flying over the city and just seeing lights go forever. We flew into Newark, NJ.

It was a mad crush of people at the baggage claim. I put down the small bag I was using to carry my music on the plane while I looked for my bag. Later at the hotel I would realize that I never picked it up and had left my music at the airport. I called the airport to see if they had it somewhere, but no luck. Good thing I didn’t have the rental music in there.

This was 1988 when things were scary in NYC, and Newark made New York look tame. We boarded a bus from the airport in the darkness and silently rode into the city. When we got to our hotel, the New York Penta, not to be confused with the Plaza, we went up to our rooms, four to a room. The place was across the street from Madison Square Garden and wasn’t bad.

The first meal we had was across the street at a Sbarro. I had never heard of the restaurant chain at that point. I enjoyed a slice of pizza in this exotic place. It attached to the subway, as I learned when a man opened a door and walked out from the trains. Meals after that went downhill. We walked past Sbarro the next morning and went about a block away and upstairs into the deli. No one really liked the food, but then we found out that we had contracted with the deli to get most of our meals there. So, several times we had to walk past Sbarro,looking back longingly, and go to the deli. I think we got to eat at Sbarro one last time before we left.

The next evening we went to Carnegie Hall and watched a concert being performed by another high school group. They were pretty good. During the intermission I asked an usher if I should just give up my musical career, having done it all since I was going to play at Carnegie Hall. She said that I needed to come back solo.

Afterwards we started the walk back to our hotel, passing through Times Square on the way. Walking back it was me, two girls, and one of the moms who was chaperoning us. Along the street there was a mentally ill guy who grabbed a man in front of us who was wearing a huge, puffy jacket. The guy in the jacket just turned around and stared at his assailant who turned and continued on his way. The chaperone cowered behind me while all of this was happening for protection. It was strange for me as a 15 year-old to be seen as a protector for an adult who was normally the one looking out for us. Suddenly I’d gone from a high school kid to a guardian on the streets of New York. In a separate incident, a guy through a brick through the window of a car as we passed, then stared at us as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?” There was also a group of girls from another group who said they had been mugged outside of our hotel. I never felt in danger, but maybe I should have.

At Carnegie Hall

The second or third day we had a practice at Carnegie Hall. I remember going into the building and into what I remember as a basement with a big concrete floor below the stage. There we found our rental bases and tried them out. We then went up to the stage and had about an hour to rehearse.

Looking out is was really beautiful. There was a main floor, then a balcony that wrapped most of the way around with big pillars that ran from floor to ceiling. There were boxes that went right over the left and right sides of the stage. Everything was white and gold, very ornate. Our conductor commented that the acoustics were so good, someone could be whispering on stage and a person way out at the back of the auditorium could hear. The hall had the big ring-back after sudden stops in the music where the echo would come back to you a split second after you finished that great halls do. It was neat to get to play rehearsal there since you can’t hear the ring back once the audience is there to dampen the sounds.

Between getting the instruments and the rehearsal, we had a few minutes so a few of us went outside. I saw an older gentleman walking by, so I decided to walk up to him and ask, “Excuse me sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” He was about ready to walk by and ignore me as I imagine most New Yorkers do, but then the absurdity of the question sank in and he couldn’t help but answer. “It’s right here!,” he said with a thick Brooklyn drawl.

The Concert

The concert was the next night. That morning, we had a rehearsal at the hotel that the news crew attended and filmed. Back at home in Phoenix, our families were able to see our progress on the news each night. That afternoon, we took a charter bus over to Carnegie hall in our black tuxedos with our instruments.

I remember a few years later, sitting at a doughnut shop in Tucson at about 2 AM, talking to a teacher from a master class in a bass symposium. He talked about how with music, it is all fleeting. You can play a great concert, but a day later, people would already be starting to forget. By a week later, they would probably just remember that it was good. After a year, it will have been forgotten.

Unfortunately that night was something like that. I remember it went really well. When we played Hoe Down, there was a lady in one of the boxes that laughed when we hit a funny portion and there was a break in the music. Also, while we were playing the rental piece, a couple of friends of mine who played cello dropped the music and it tore when they tried to pick it up. I also remember at the end we got a standing ovation that seemed to go on forever. The news reporter mentioned this as she did her report outside of the hall after the concert. It was magical.

That night we went on a cruise around the Statue of Liberty and had dancing and food. I met a girl from one of the other groups and we danced and hung out most of the night, but then just said goodbye at the end of the night. I probably got to bed around 1 or 2 AM.

After flying back to Phoenix, we all got a copy of a video with our concert from right before we left. It also contained the news broadcasts from the trip. We also each got a picture of the orchestra during the concert in Carnegie Hall, showing a person standing during the standing ovation. I had each member of the orchestra sign the back. To this day I still have the picture hanging in my bedroom.

The Phoenix Symphony Guild Youth Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Spring of 1987

My sister saw the picture on the wall a few months later and asked about it. She was surprised when my parents told her it was me in Carnegie Hall since she didn’t know anything about the trip. Apparently we didn’t talk much as a family….

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