It was February. Austin Yee’s fellow students in the Verona High School class of 2016 had long since finished their college applications. Several of them had already gotten acceptance letters, and a few had already decided what school they would be attending.
But for Yee, the hardest part of the application process was just beginning. Yee, who started playing piano at six and added the trumpet in fourth grade and later guitar, was applying to some of the top music schools in the United States. “Everybody was hearing back from colleges and I was like, ‘I still have to audition’,” he recalls.
And that meant a lot of travel. Yee’s auditions would take him into New York City (regional tryouts for the Berklee College of Music and Ithaca College’s School of Music), down to Miami for the Frost School of Music, up to Boston for the New England Conservatory, and finally way up north to the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Applying for a trumpet spot in a music education major, he had to master eight new pieces on top of his commitments for the VHS Concert Band and its Jazz & Beyond ensemble. (You can hear one of his pieces in the video below.)
Music is big in the Verona public schools. From the first squeaks in fourth grade to the state accolades for our high school musicians, it can sometimes seem as if every student here is playing or singing–or both. When H.B. Whitehorne rewards its musicians with the annual Music in the Parks competition trip, the middle school is all but a ghost town.
Many Verona students continue to perform in college: Three students from the class of 2015 did so, branching out to performance, education and sound engineering majors. And more than a few have gone on to professional and academic music careers, like the large contingent who returned to the VHS stage in February 2015 to jam with music teacher Max Morden. But while many of Verona’s music ensembles are created without auditions, high-stress performances for judges are a big part of the college application experience.
“On audition day, I had to perform with rhythm sections I had never met before,” says the soft-spoken Yee. “I’m going to remember the audition process.”
Erik Lynch, the head of the instrumental music program at VHS, feels Yee was more than qualified for the competition. “Austin is the complete musician,” Lynch says. “He has ear training skills, theoretical skills and an amazing ability to improvise. He has a strong concept of music. He has an awareness of the art form beyond just playing the notes.”
“He is a real improviser,” Lynch stresses. “He doesn’t do it from a written solo like most high school kids. Many play the same solo every time. Austin has the ear and the jazz theory to really improvise every time.”
Nerves aside, Yee must have done well in his auditions. He was accepted at Berklee, Frost, NEC and Eastman, as well Rutgers University and Montclair State University. He took the Miami school and MSU out of final consideration, and then began to examine his other choices. And as he did, he found himself gravitating to Rochester. He had done a summer music camp at Eastman between his junior and senior year at VHS. “Boston was appealing,” he says referring to NEC. “But in Rochester, I knew the trumpet people and a lot of the other people there.” He’ll be settling in at Eastman in August.
Before he leaves, Yee has some words of wisdom for Verona’s younger musicians. “Start looking at schools early,” he says, “and look at what you actually want to study. Do you want to play or compose? Then think about the ciy. Music is all about the connections and the people you meet. If you meet the right people you will go somewhere.”
Since 2010, MyVeronaNJ.com has profiled the college and career paths of many VHS graduates. You can read them all by clicking on the “What’s Next” tag.