When David Fickes played Carnegie Hall this summer, he brought his trusty violin and the flashiest pair of sneakers he could find.
The shoes, loudly emblazoned with the American Flag, were part of his uniform in the National Youth Orchestra, the country’s top ensemble for teen musicians. The 19-year-old is the first Vermonter ever accepted to the prestigious program.
“It was the best summer of my life,” says the University of Vermont student, who spent June training with classical superstars and performing across America, proudly dressed in orchestra’s playful stage attire, which pairs a traditional black jacket and white shirt with bright red pants and the stars-and-stripes sneakers.
For Fickes, who has taken a musical road less travelled, the NYO recognition came as an unexpected validation. He picked up the violin later than most elite musicians -- at the age of eight -- and has largely focused on academics at UVM, taking a double major in computer science and English literature, with a minor in music. Until recently, the UVM Symphony performer still battled bouts of stage fright before concerts.
“I never really thought of myself as a high-level musician,” says Fickes, who credits a first-year course with UVM Classics Professor Mark Usher for inspiring him to chase his dreams. “He taught me that approaching your goal in an unconventional way can actually be a positive thing,” he says. “It was an important life lesson for me.”
He was in the Fleming Museum, where he works part-time, when he learned his online NYO audition, a combination of video performances and essays, was chosen from thousands of applications. “I was so excited that I could barely contain myself. It was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Fickes loved the camaraderie he found in the orchestra after years of solo drives to New Hampshire for his weekly music lessons. “Everyone was extremely friendly and supportive,” he says. “We were all eager to make the most of the experience. It was really exciting to get to play with so many talented musicians our age.”
To prepare for their six-city tour, the 120-member orchestra rehearsed at Purchase College, SUNY. A rotating cast of star mentors, including virtuoso violinist Gil Shaham and conductor David Robertson, shared experiences and tips with the 16- to 19-year-olds, arranged by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. “It was unbelievable working with so many superstars,” Fickes says.
The orchestra’s six-city tour kicked off at Carnegie Hall, and included performances in L.A., San Francisco and Chicago. “The concerts gave me chills,” says Fickes, who met Yo Yo Ma on the road. “The venues and musicianship were astounding. So many legends have played Carnegie Hall -- the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Leonard Bernstein -- it’s unbelievable that I’ve performed on the same stage.”
Walking offstage, Fickes thought of his parents back in Peacham, Vt. -- both of them hobby musicians -- and former music teachers. “So many people have helped to get me here, especially my parents,” he says. “My first violin, the lessons, all the driving -- I owe them big time.”
In his spare time, Fickes wrote several blogs for NYO, tackling hot topics in classical music, including concert etiquette and technology. “Classical music is best live, but concert etiquette can be a barrier for new audiences,” he says, pointing to the practice of not clapping between musical movements. “I want to help demystify those unwritten rules and make concerts more accessible.”
Despite classical music’s old-fashioned reputation, Fickes says new technologies have become essential tools for musicians. “I find great classical music on streaming services like Spotify and use YouTube all the time to see how to play tricky passages.” He uses IMSLP, an online library of public domain music and loves the decision by major symphonies to stream their performances online to reach new audiences.
Unsurprisingly for an orchestra of Millennials, the ensemble has developed a thriving online community, which has produced an impressive amount of selfies and ad hoc jam sessions. “A Facebook post would be followed with an online spreadsheet of music -- and a few hours later you’d be rehearsing,” he says. “It was amazing how fast and easy is was.”
What does the next generation of classical musicians talk about? Fickes says the ‘future of classical music’ was a popular subject. “We discussed adding visuals to performances, reality TV programs, ways to reduce ticket prices -- so many important ideas. There’s a lot of work to do, but I’m so excited about the future of this music.”
Back at UVM for his second year, Fickes confirms that he will definitely be wearing his stars-and-stripes shoes around campus.
“My playing and confidence improved so much,” he says. “This summer helped me realize that I love playing music at this level, and that I absolutely need to pursue my dreams of having a professional musical career.”
“Now that I have these flashy shoes, I’m very excited to see where they can take me.”