November 24, 2014
By Kelsey Hodges, Jersey Village HS
Nov. 24, 2014—Wiping the sweat from his brow, the cellist positions his bow, awaiting the sound technician’s cue. With one opportunity to record his etude, Thomas Nguyen’s chance at All-State hung in the air. Making it through All-Region eliminations against 500 students, this remains his last step. Nguyen placed ninth out of 150 qualifiers, cinching one of 16 spots in the Texas Music Educators Association’s (TMEA) All-State Symphony Orchestra for the second time in his high school career.
For All-Region, Nguyen and the other contestants received their music in May of last year. As a requirement, the musicians learned to play a four to five page college level etude by October. At the All-Region competition, between 50-70 students auditioned before judges, who selected only 16 cellists from the region. The selected musicians auditioned again for All-State, and had to learn another five-page etude within a three-week span. Next, competitors from all 30 regions in Texas recorded eight different excerpts for the judges to listen to.
“We get to record on CDs, and the thing with that is you can only do one cut through. There is no re-recording, there’s no doing it until it’s perfect. You meet up at a school with a recording engineer and you just play it through once,” Nguyen said.
With only three weeks to learn his piece, Nguyen spent hours a day perfecting it. Seven years of playing the cello prepared him for the competition, along with private tutors and dedication. Unlike All-Region, where they play in front of judges, Nguyen only had one chance to perform on a recording, increasing the difficulty of placing.
“I had an epiphany. What people don’t realize is when you’re looking at the excerpts, it’s not just playing through the music, it’s more than that. You immerse yourself in the music; you have to learn it by heart,” Nguyen said.
By the time of the competition, Nguyen no longer needed the sheet music to play his music; he had memorized all eight pieces. His passion for playing the cello fueled his drive to succeed in All-State. To Nguyen, the cello means more than an instrument, it has transformed into his lifestyle.
“The interesting thing about the cello is that violins have this really high range and bases have a really low range, but the range of the cello is unique because it mimics the human voice. All the notes you’re playing on a cello, you can sing it,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen chose to play the cello because of its diverse range of notes, and his decision paid off by taking him to state. Starting in the sixth grade in the Cook Middle School orchestra, he learned quickly and skipped the intermediate class and went straight into the advanced one. While in high school, his skills developed even further and as a senior have brought him further than he originally imagined. As a sophomore, Nguyen also made All-State, placing 10th.
“I was with my parents when I found out I made All-State, so I got really excited. The directors sent the results out and it’s a list, so you have to look through that list, so it’s heartbreaking trying to look down and see if your name’s there. The whole experience is nerve-wrecking in some way because you don’t know what placement you got,” Nguyen said.
All the years of practice and the last few months of memorizing music in preparation finally paid off when Nguyen discovered his name on the list. From All-Region to All-state, he competed against about 500 other cellists and came out on top. As the only person at this school to place, his achievement impressed numerous people.
“What happens now basically is in February they will take us to San Antonio on an all-expense paid trip for four days. They pay for our food, and they pay for our hotel. Once we get there, I get to meet with the Arkansas symphony conductor, and meet up with all these other people who made all-state who are all wonderful and passionate about their music,” Nguyen said.
The prestige around making it to state revolves around the concert put on by the All-State Symphony. Other kinds of musicians also go through the same process, making the symphony full of the best players in the state. The whole experience prepares students pursuing a career in music for the professional world.
“You spend three days recording, which cumulates into a really big concert where we perform at the Gonzales Conference Center. The attendance there is like 20,000 people, and our concert is attended by a few thousand people. Everything just goes up to that experience, that big moment of being able to work with other people throughout All-State,” Nguyen said.
Looking forward to February, Nguyen has started preparing for his last time to play in the TMEA All-State Symphony before he graduates. Furthermore, his orchestra teacher, Lauren Chauvin, has taught Nguyen for three years and is immensely proud of him.
”Getting ninth chair in All-State Orchestra is a huge accomplishment. There were hundreds of talented young cellists who auditioned, but only 42 were chosen. Out of those 42, only 16 made it into the top Orchestra, called ‘Symphony,’ in which they are performing the highest level music with a professional conductor,” Chauvin said.
Watching Nguyen grow musically and technically as cellist and leader from ninth to 12th grade, Chauvin feels he earned his spot in state. As his teacher, she served as a mentor for Nguyen and instructed him through the process, along with his private cello teacher.
“Thomas is very intelligent and an extremely talented young man. He’s especially driven and has always been very dedicated to music and to the cello. He has ‘grit,’ meaning he sticks to something without quitting. He’s one of the hardest working teenagers I’ve ever known,” Chauvin said.
Proud of Nguyen, Chauvin has spread the word of his accomplishment throughout the school and community. In addition to Chauvin, Phuong Thai, Nguyen’s mother, is also impressed with his achievement. Since his youth, Thai has supported her son through his entire musical journey.
“I supported Thomas with all his needs. When his cello was not good enough, we looked for a better cello. When he did well and needed a new instructor, we looked for one. I encouraged him to do his very best, and I didn't mind taking him to the many rehearsals he has for school, Virtuosi of Houston, Northwood Catholic Church community symphony….I took him to any concert that he liked to hear in Houston Symphony. I allowed him and supported him without condition. I wanted him to enjoy his classical music,” Thai said.
Thai encouraged Nguyen to increase his musical skills and did not feel surprised when he made All-State. Since his youth, Thai knew her son had a musical gift, starting with the piano, all the way through his high school career. Confident in Nguyen in his last All-State competition, Thai believed he would do well in this one as well.
“I was sure he would make it this time, because I've heard him, and I know he plays very well. He has passed auditions for a youth orchestra, Virtuosi of Houston, and his audition for cello has gone up, so his sound has continued to mature throughout the year. It was a moment to always remember for all us, to be able to celebrate his achievements,” Thai said.
Aware of her son’s talent, Thai assisted him by taking him to rehearsals and auditions for music programs out of school so he could explore possibilities. She also influenced his decision to audition for All-Region and All-State this year.
“Thomas is a very ambitious and hardworking son. He always has an open ear and listens to my suggestions. For instance, he was very close to playing a different instrument before I suggested cello. He was very close to not trying out this year for all-state. Normally he had two months to learn his excerpts, but he had to learn them in less than three weeks. But knowing him, I had confidence in him, and I told him so, and he took my advice and my encouragement,” Thai said.
Influenced by his mother, Nguyen followed her advice and it paid off in the end. After he graduates, Nguyen plans to play for a symphony in college as well. Impressing his parents, teachers, fellow students, and community with his musical talent, Nguyen continues practicing for the concert in February with the hopes of ending his experience as a high-school cellist on a high note.
The complete list of CFISD’s TMEA all-state musicians will be released in January.
Jersey Village High School senior Thomas Nguyen practices with fellow All-Region Orchestra members Veronica Cespedes, violin, and Sharon Park, violin. Nguyen recently earned one of 16 spots in the TMEA All-State Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Christine Le, Jersey Village HS)