Bulldogs With a Beat: Chamblee Students Pursue the Performing Arts

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Bulldogs With a Beat: Chamblee Students Pursue the Performing Arts

Catherine Willingham, pictured right, plays the bassoon.

Catherine Willingham, pictured right, plays the bassoon.

Photo courtesy of Catherine Willingham.

Catherine Willingham, pictured right, plays the bassoon.

Photo courtesy of Catherine Willingham.

Photo courtesy of Catherine Willingham.

Catherine Willingham, pictured right, plays the bassoon.

Maya Torres, Staff writer

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As graduation rapidly approaches, seniors at Chamblee Charter High School have been left questioning what their futures hold. Many dream of attending their top choice universities. Some are ecstatic to serve their country through military service, and several are currently preparing themselves for the workforce.

Each of these post-secondary plans is mentally and physically demanding; one which requires a similar amount of dedication is preparing to attend schools for the performing arts.

In addition to the rigorous college application process through which many students struggle, students hoping to study performance in college must also undergo a long and stressful process of auditioning.

Sarah Williams, an oboist who graduated in December of 2018, recently finished this process and found it difficult and exhausting.

“I had to record prescreening tapes to send to schools in order to be invited to audition. After being invited, I had to travel to each school to audition for the professors there,” she said. “For each audition, I had about ten minutes to show the panels basically everything I could do—I played solo pieces, études, and orchestral excerpts in order to demonstrate my technical, lyrical, and fundamental abilities.”

While ten minutes seems like a short amount of time, months of effort went into each minute of the audition.

“Finding ways to show professors my hard work and progress while also showing them my potential for growth in just 10 minutes was certainly a challenge,” said Williams. “I found myself practicing around 2-3 hours each day to make sure I was as prepared as possible.”

Williams has already received acceptances to both the University of Georgia’s and Indiana University’s music schools, but also hopes to attend the Juilliard School, Oberlin Conservatory, or New England Conservatory.

“I plan to take auditions for professional orchestral jobs in the [future],” she said. “I want to study performance, because I have a lifelong goal of playing in a professional orchestra. Practicing [and] performing is my absolute favorite thing to do. Exploring myself through music and discovering the complexities of life through music is a dream in itself, and making it into a career would be the most fulfilling journey possible.”

Senior Camille Becker has similarly ambitious goals. She plans to study composition during college and eventually earn a graduate degree in conducting.

“I really love composing and arranging,” she said. “My ideal job would be a conductor-composer, maybe for film score type things.”

Becker has been working on her music auditions since June of 2018, but the sheer amount of practice required hasn’t been the most critical factor of her audition preparation.

“The thing that’s prepared me the most in high school is all the experiences that I’ve gotten to have that most people my age wouldn’t have experienced,” she said. “Not many high school seniors have conducted their own ensembles, performed their own piece in concert, and arranged for their school’s marching band. I owe a lot to the teachers that have trusted and believed in me enough to let me do these things.”

2017 graduate Catherine Willingham shares this opinion.

“In every accolade on my resume, there are at least ten people in my life that helped me achieve that, whether directly or indirectly,” she said. “Without the enduring support and love from my countless friends, colleagues, family members, and teachers, I would just be a girl with some lofty goals.”

Willingham attended the University of Georgia in 2017, but recently transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Like Becker, she wants to compose for films, and is double majoring in Classical Composition and Film Scoring.

“It took me a long time to decide on my major, because I initially did not want to take the extra credits and spend another year in school for a second major, but my compositional roots are in contemporary classical music and I want to continue to enhance those skills,” she said. “Also, I want to have the best composition skills that I can in order to be the best film composer that I can.”

Willingham is hoping to eventually reach a lifelong goal of hers: to win an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Regardless of the prestige surrounding this award, Willingham is pursuing it for different reasons.

“My motivation is from a perspective of representation,” she said. “Most every film composer talked about nowadays — Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Danny Elfman, Michael Giacchino, the list goes on and on — doesn’t check off many boxes in the diversity category, and I want to show that a gay, black woman can do what a straight, white man can, just as well.”

Lifetime achievements like this don’t come easy, however; Willingham has been working with music since the fourth grade, as have Becker and Williams. When asked about what has led to their success, each gave the same answer: practice and persistence.

“I can’t stress this enough. Know that, with just enough diligence and hard work, you are truly capable of anything,” said Williams. “The only person who can possibly stand in the way of something you want is yourself — don’t let that happen. Work for what you want, and I promise success will come out of it.”

Along with this, Willingham has other important advice to offer to aspiring performers.

“Do your research – there are so many different kinds of schools; you never know which one will be the right fit off the bat,” she said. “If you can, visit the schools you’re considering. Talk to current students and professors, and ask as many questions as you can. Sit in on classes or shadow a student for a day. You’d be amazed at how things such as location, or diversity, or your professors can change your opinion on a school.”

Despite attending one of the country’s most prestigious music institutes, Willingham warns against choosing schools based simply off of a title.

“Know that just because a school has an amazing reputation doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for you,” she said. “You don’t have to go to a New York University or a Juilliard or even a Berklee to be successful. It’s much better to go to a school that you’re happy at rather than a school with a good name. The name (and, quite frankly, the price tag) of a school do not determine its worth — the work that you put in determines its worth.”

But the most crucial piece of advice Willingham wants to give to aspiring performers is to know when to take time to care for themselves.

“You will not be able to give it your all if you are not physically, mentally, and/or emotionally well. Going off to college, especially your first year, is a huge life transition and there are a lot of unexpected challenges that come with that,” she said. “I went to Chamblee, too, so I know how it feels to put your education above everything else, even your own health. I promise you, that will not work in college and you’ll drive yourself insane trying to do so.”

But whether students find themselves at Berklee, Juilliard, or even the band room at Chamblee, they are all advised to follow their passions.

“At the end of the day, just do what makes you happy,” said Willingham. “The beauty in art is being able to express your own personal stories and emotions through a creative medium; there is more than one way to achieve that and the only right way to do it is to do it in the way that makes you happy.”