How I Became a Violist in the Houston Symphony

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Encore talks to Houston Symphony Orchestra violist Jarita Ng about the viola, cultural transitioning, and how she got her orchestra job.

How old were you started playing viola?

My parents started teaching me violin when I was five. When I was seventeen, I volunteered to play viola in a chamber group for my violin class recital. I went on to play both instruments for a year, and completely went to the dark(er) side when I moved from Hong Kong to the USA to study at the University of Michigan.

Was it a massive cultural shock when you moved to the USA from Hong Kong at the age of 18?

Having to speak English all day was pretty tiring in the beginning. My friends were extremely nice, and were patient with me when I had to find some words, and made fun of my little bit of British accent here and there (Hong Kong was a British colony, so we learned British English).

Ann Arbor, Michigan is a diverse and lively small city with 40,000 students. Moving to Ann Arbor from Hong Kong, where there are more skyscrapers than in New York City, I felt like I was moving to the country! Only parts of the streets were lit at night. And the fact that there was room around me when I walked and I did not have to twist my body to avoid contact with other pedestrians? Incredible!

How many professional orchestra auditions have you taken?

I have taken maybe around eight or nine. Auditions are expensive! Plane tickets, hotel accommodation, shuttles, meals, etc.

What was your worst audition experience?

There no one worst audition experience per se. Unfortunately I take audition results very personally (one shouldn't); hence each time where I did not perform well (and did not win the audition), I felt terrible for days. It took me some time to get used to the situation and the pressure. It really helps to know what one needs physically and mentally for an audition - should I treat it as any other day and warm up as usual, or do I play better if I prepare as if I have an important event coming up.

Who was your most inspiring teacher?

It is difficult to pick just one! My mother, who is a violin teacher, taught me everyday when I was young. My high school violin teacher in Hong Kong, Hong-Ying Ho, gave me a strong basis of technique and relaxation methods. My college teacher, Yizhak Schotten, helped me transition to viola. Last but not least, James Dunham and Joan DerHovsepian who inspired me so much with their musicality and their approach to solve problems.

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You studied biology in undergrad as well - how was it doing two degrees at the same time in completely different fields? How did you handle the workload?

Pursuing two degrees is fun! It is like playing a game of puzzle - to fit the different things one needs to do in a constricted frame. Everyday in the morning I would look at the schedule for the day, look for upcoming deadlines/performances/recordings, and make a list of priorities. Then just go through each of them. If I lose focus while doing one, move onto the next, and go back to the original one later!

But I think the most important thing is I really loved what I did - going to classes, doing homework, and playing music with friends. By the way, solving a reaction in organic chemistry and writing 18th century counterpoint are both like sudoku. The fun is in finding the solution. (Sorry I am nerding out.)

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Describe the process of preparing for the Houston Symphony audition. How many years/hours prep did it take? Talk about the trial process

Preparation works differently for everyone. I happen to do the best when I am not focusing all my energy on the audition. My theory is, the more you put your life on it, the higher the risk and the more the stress is. Two days before the audition, in addition to going to school, I was playing the final performance of Richard Wagner's Walküre with Houston Grand Opera. I worked out twice a day in training for Tough Mudder (a 10-12 mile mud run with obstacles, or 16-19km for the rest of the world).

The excerpts were standard, therefore I picked them back up about a month before the audition. Playing for people helps! I played for someone everyday, starting about two weeks prior to the audition.

Houston Symphony arranged the trial to start the morning after the final round. Of course it was nerve-racking to prepare for anything with that short of a notice, leave alone a trial for a job! Fortunately, it was a piece I loved and knew extremely well - Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. So, back to the last question, it helps a lot when you like what you do! (But the panel wanted to hear me play a couple excerpts again, after a double rehearsal during the week. Eeks!)

What is your favourite part about being in a symphony orchestra?

Playing music while making a living!!! Houston Symphony has great EVERYTHING - board, staff, music director, musicians. They are looking to build a new hall. I am spoiled!

What is your favourite orchestral piece to play?

Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. It is well-written and is a showcase for each instrument and the orchestra; stylistically represents Bartok; has a white range of characters. Too many reasons why this is an awesome piece! There are quite a few juicy viola section soli, namely in the third and fourth movements. In terms of viola solo, Ginastera's Variciones Concertantes is my favorite!

What is your favourite chamber piece to play?

Even harder to choose than an orchestral piece. I like the string quartets of Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Shostakovich, and Bartok. A couple years ago though, someone introduced me to Leo Ornstein's Piano Quintet. It is a big and exciting piece with some heavy Jewish influences!

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Read and exercise, e.g. play tennis, play frisbee, run, weight-lift. There is this series of Chinese martial arts novels written by a Hong Kong author that I am addicted to and can't put the books down (think Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - running on walls, fighting on trees, etc).


During the 2015-16 season, the Houston Symphony will celebrate its 102nd season with Music Director Andrés Orozco- Estrada, and continues its second century as one of America’s leading orchestras with a full complement of concert, community, education, touring and recording activities.


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