2019 VEA Winners Tell All: Competition Prep, Trip to France, and World Premieres

How did you learn about the VEA Competition? 

Rico Jones: I learned about the competition while researching scholarships and competitions on the internet.

Ning Zhang: One of my friends in my studio at Juilliard, Yoonah Kim, was one of the winners of the VEA competition. She was my first encounter with the competition. 

Sean Miller: I first learned of the VEA Competition in 2017 from my undergraduate saxophone professor Kurt Claussen. He encouraged me to play my best and see what happens.

What made you decide to prepare for the audition?

Rico Jones: I’ve always enjoyed preparing auditions and competing in competitions. Regardless of the outcome I find it to be a constructive process. You can intensely focus on improving aspects of your playing while working towards a foreseeable goal. 

I think it’s important to find ways to expand your resume and demonstrate your ability as a musician. 

I’ve come to realize you have nothing to lose when applying for opportunities. You either gain nothing or gain something. You’ll never lose anything from reaching toward a goal.

Ning Zhang: After studying at a professional conservatory for 4 years, I’ve played many pieces, however, I suddenly realized that many of these pieces were forgotten immediately after I learnt them. I was therefore looking for ways that could reinforce my memory and further develop my understanding of the core repertoire. The VEA Competition is certainly a great mean to this end. 

Sean Miller: Having already auditioned in 2017, 2018 was my last opportunity to audition before I was too old to compete. I also found it rewarding to revisit repertoire that I haven’t performed in a while.

How did you prepare for the audition? What did you play? How did you approach the recording process? 

Rico Jones: I started my preparation for the VEA competition by mapping out my free time between then and the deadline. I strategically chose a date to record about a week or two in advance so I would have plenty of time to listen back to the recordings, choose the best takes, upload the videos, and fill out the application.

I performed and recorded “I Hear A Rhapsody”, “Central Park West”, and “Voyage”. I created simple arrangements for each song, discussed the arrangements with my rhythm section and recorded one or two takes for each song. 

Ning Zhang: The three pieces I played in my recording were my old friends. Besides the two required pieces, Widor Introduction and Rondo, and Prelude for solo clarinet by Penderecki, I choose to play the Italian Fantasia by E. Bozza. 

One of the biggest challenges I faced in my preparation is that after playing these pieces for so many times, everything becomes so autopilot that many details which makes the music meaningful and touching are lost in relentless repetitions. In order to get out of the meaningless loop, I played for audiences with very different backgrounds in different venues, and asked for their comments afterwards. Many of them aren’t clarinetists, or even musicians, but what they mentioned and their engagement into my music were truly inspiring and moving. 

Sean Miller: A lot of my preparation stemmed from very slow muscle memory work and reinterpretation of phrasing. I played the 2nd and 3rd Movements of the Paul Creston Sonata, the 1st and 2nd Movements of the Jeanine Rueff Sonata, and Prelude, Cadence et Finale by Desenclos. I decided to record the less technically demanding works first to build up confidence before moving on to the more challenging repertoire, which worked well for me.

What was it like playing at the Music for All Conference and premiering a new work? 

Rico Jones: It was an experience that was hard to believe. Only three years prior I was a student in the Jazz Band of America. It felt almost too soon to be a guest artist with JBOA at the time. I felt very honored to have the opportunity. Todd Bashore composed an amazing piece to feature me with the big band. It was a challenging but really enjoyable piece to play. It was a joy to answer questions and chat with that years JBOA members and reflect on my experiences in that band years prior. I made the best of the opportunity I had and had a blast performing. 

Ning Zhang: The experience at Indianapolis was truly unforgettable. I felt extremely privileged to be able to premiere a work that is written for me and work with the composer in person. The piece we played was written by Mr. Kenji Bunch, and the piece is about his life in NY. As a New Yorker for four years, my connection to the city makes the music even more personal to me. Being able to share a personal story of the city I lived in for four years through the language of music were nothing but a honor for me.

Sean Miller: I had an amazing experience working with Mark Engebretson in bringing his piece to life. It’s always humbling to have the opportunity to play a piece first, especially at a conference as renowned as Music for All.

Rico Jones, Indianapolis, IN

As a grand prize winner, you won a trip to France. How was the trip? Any specific memories come to mind? 

Rico Jones: The trip was amazing! I truly had a wonderful and memorable experience with my fellow VEA winners and David Gould! The sight seeing, the food, and the people I was able to meet along the way made it one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. The highlight for me we performing a Joe Henderson tribute concert at Sunset Sunrise jazz club with a group of young musicians whom I had never met before. The music was superb and the experience created musical connections that I’m sure will last for years.

Ning Zhang: It was absolutely amazing! Among all the wonderful things happened there, the visit to the Buffet factory was one the most memorable experiences. It was my first time seeing how an instrument is given birth. Witnessing the process really enhanced my understanding of my instrument and my appreciation to its very existence. Also, this visit also shows that It requires the collaboration among hundreds of people to have the instrument be put in the market. Success is indeed a team work regardless of fields. 

Sean Miller: In a word, awe-inspiring. The top of the Eiffel Tower, the cuisine, and Parisian night life during Nuit Blanche are memories I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

What advice would you have for someone looking to audition for the VEA Competition? 

Rico Jones: My advice is to organize your preparation in a calendar. Choose your repertoire and start listening to as many different recordings of the pieces as you can. 

Choose your accompaniment/rhythm section players now. Don’t be afraid to call professional musicians or some of the best musicians you know. You want the recordings to be the best quality possible and you want musicians that can properly support you. It’s worth the little investment it might take to hire some good players for a short session. Once you’ve set up your band, set aside a date to record at least a week in advance. 

Be sure to follow the requirements for each song as they are set on the website. Make sure tempos, number of choruses, time duration etc. all fit what is requested. Remember to have fun! We do what we do because we love music!

Ning Zhang: Active mock auditions/recordings are your best friends! Listen and comment on your playing with full engagement, you will find your own way to explain the beauty of your music! Best of luck!

Sean Miller: When choosing your own repertoire, be sure to pick something that plays to your strengths. Don’t feel pressured to pick something more “advanced” because somebody else is playing it. When recording, play with confidence and energy. Your preparation has gotten you this far, so don’t be afraid to show off!

VEA winners, Composers, and H2 Quartet at Music for All Conference, Indianapolis, IN

Follow the 2019 VEA Winners: 

Rico Jones: Website | Instagram

Ning Zhang

Sean Miller: Website | Instagram

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