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WINONA LAKE, Ind.—Lighter pressure on the strings. More quickly with the bow. Make the strings speak.
New York Philharmonic cellist Wei Yu, 32, gives instructions to a young woman seated before him, gently waving his hands and shaking his jet-black hair for emphasis.
The student looks nervous under the gaze of a roomful of young fellow musicians, but leans close to her cello and resumes playing. Her fingers dart up and down the fingerboard as the instrument vibrates a tune that is rapid, brooding, and mournful.
“It’s like a roller coaster ride. You’ve got to show us not how difficult it can be, but how much fun it can be,” Yu tells her.
The class is part of the intense training at the MasterWorks Festival, an annual Christian performing arts festival in Winona Lake, Ind. For four weeks in June and July, dozens of professional singers, actors, dancers, and musicians (playing instruments like violas, double basses, French horns, oboes, saxophones, clarinets, and the xylophone) met on the campus of Grace College to help about 200 talented students hone their skills and prepare—mentally and spiritually—for careers in the performing arts world.
It’s a world that promises immense pressure. When a violin position on a city orchestra becomes available, for example, dozens of violinists may compete for the spot. A musician might spend months preparing for a single, five-minute audition.
To help them prepare, the festival requires students to play difficult pieces they might encounter at a typical audition. Faculty members give students one-on-one coaching in front of their peers, and students perform public stage acts and recitals.
During one, 20-year-old Kara Reed sat at a black Steinway & Sons concert grand piano so glossy the strings reflected in the underside of the lid. Wearing a white shawl on a black dress, Reed swayed and occasionally closed her eyes as she played a melancholy piece.
Reed traveled from The Woodlands, Texas, to attend this summer’s MasterWorks Festival—her third year in attendance. Music, she said, is a universal language that speaks heart-to-heart, giving Christians a unique opportunity: “We’re not just musicians, we’re musicianaries.”
That’s music to the ears of Patrick Kavanaugh, the festival’s director and co-founder of the organization that runs it, the Christian Performing Artists’ Fellowship. “We consider this a missionary training ground,” he said. The festival is gospel oriented, with students gathering for Bible studies and worship, but they practice mainstream or classical compositions, dances, and acts typically performed for secular audiences (such as Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony). The goal is for these young performers to nab top jobs, build good relationships with colleagues, and live out their faith. (Like-minded students have built relationships with one another, too: They jokingly refer to the festival as “MarriageWorks.”)
All the festival’s faculty members are Christians and come from across the United States and the world, such as one violinist who traveled from Norway. Many play in leading orchestras, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Symphony Orchestra, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. They’re able to provide spiritual and practical guidance to students because they know from personal experience the pressures of living as both a Christian and performing artist.
Actress Patricia Mauceri, who helped coach MasterWorks drama students in a production of Twelve Angry Jurors, spent over four decades playing in Broadway shows, film, and television. She said she didn’t develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ until after landing a role in the popular ABC soap opera, One Life to Live, playing a Catholic mother “who loved her family, who gave godly advice, who owned a diner and prayed for people. And after two years in that role I got gloriously saved, and my whole life and that character transformed.”
Mauceri acted on the show a total of 14 years, until 2009, when executives fired her after she refused to follow a script that had her character condoning homosexuality. Since then she’s spent more time involved in church productions, and in New York City recently co-directed The Cross and the Switchblade, a play based on the best-selling book by David Wilkerson.
The MasterWorks faculty also knows about the less drastic, but very real, battles young performers face, including pride and stage fright. John Kasica, who for more than four decades has played percussion for the St. Louis Symphony—including timpani, bells, marimba, triangle, cymbals, and snare drums—told about a time he botched a 1½ minute xylophone solo during a radio broadcast concert. He was feeling good about his talent and stood on stage with a chip on his shoulder, until, five seconds before his solo, he reached to turn the page of his music.
“The music flipped off the stand and went under the xylophone in the concert. So in the concert I dove under the xylophone.” Kasica tried to gather the pages, but they were spread out like an accordion: “I stayed under the xylophone for the whole solo. And the conductor kept pointing at me, saying, ‘Play! Play!’”
Ever since, Kasica has begun concerts with a prayer he’ll do his best but stay humble.
Beneath stage lights at a crowded Honors Recital, 22-year-old violinist Dae Hee Ahn played a sonata by Johannes Brahms that conveyed feelings of adventure, thrill, tragedy, peace, and happiness, her face displaying each emotion. The MasterWorks student apprentice began playing her instrument at age 5 and immigrated to the United States from South Korea at age 7.
Ahn said she often gets nervous, and performances can feel like Judgment Day. But she calms her spirit by remembering she’s just a steward of her talent, not the owner. Her primary audience is a God of grace: “Just like at church when we sing hymns and we sing praise to him, I’m actually doing that on the violin, on stage—just in front of people.”
Listen to Daniel James Devine discuss the MasterWorks Festival on The World and Everything in It: