Tuning Up: The YouTube Symphony Debut

The Wall Street Journal
April 16, 2009

By Michelle Kung

With a little more than 24 hours before showtime, the 96 participants of YouTube.com’s first symphony orchestra were starting to feel a little nervous. Playing for world-renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas — known colloquially as “MTT” to his students and colleagues at the San Francisco Symphony — as part of a sponsored three-day master class was one thing. But playing impromptu solos in a hub of pushy reporters shoving microphones and video cameras in your face? Quite a different story for a bunch of amateur musicians.

How did Japanese oboist Koichi Osada get to play a concert at Carnegie Hall together with 89 other international musicians? He posted a video of himself on YouTube. Michelle Kung reports on the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

“Can I go get my music?” asked more than one sheepish musician. “I wasn’t expecting this. You’re not taping this part, are you?”

Selected through auditions posted on YouTube, and voted on by the Web site’s users, the online-turned-real-life orchestral performers, flown in from around the world, were corralled into Julliard a day before their big Carnegie Hall debut to chat with the press. The nervous musicians ranged in age from 15 to 55 and came from over 30 countries and territories, ranging from Australia to the Ukraine.

“There’s a little bit of a language barrier,” said Wade Coufal, a high school bassoon player from Texas. “I’ve primarily been hanging out with other students.”

Trombone player John Brummel, who recently earned his PhD in trombone performance and education (“I’ve got the student loans to prove it”) said that he was getting an opportunity to dust off his decade-old high school Spanish skills acting as translator for his follow ‘bone player, Jhon Wilson Gonzalez from Colombia. Skeptical of the YouTube event at first, but later convinced to try out by friends and family, Mr. Brummel, who lives in San Francisco, said he has been pleasantly surprised by the experience. “The mentoring process has been excellent — to play side by side with experts and legends? I’ve learned and actually grown as a musician.”

One performer who felt quite natural in front of the camera was Nina Perlove, a flute teacher from Cincinatti who’s been active on YouTube for over two years. “I actually have a channel dedicated to flute performing and teaching that has about 3,000 subscribers,” she said. “My subscribers were actually the ones who alerted me to the audition, and even though I wasn’t originally planning to try out myself, I made several teaching videos related to the repertoire and was encouraged by the response.”

Ms. Perlove also noted that the rehearsals had gone swimmingly so far. “We’re in excellent hands with MTT. He saw all the audition videos, so he knew what he had to work with, and almost all of us have orchestral experience of some kind, so we know what to expect from the first downbeat,” she said. “In rehearsal, MTT goes fast, and it’s ‘go go go’ right from the start, so not knowing each other’s languages doesn’t really come into play that much, because there’s no time for them!”

Aiding the 12-hours-a-day, three-day rehearsal process: the decision of many participants to rehearse with each other online — the method of choice, according to composer Tan Dun, who wrote the original piece “Internet Symphony No. 1 Eroica” specifically for the event. “Online rehearsing is much better than the normal because it saves time,” he said of the users swapping digital videos and offering tips via the Internet. “One hour of online practice is the equivalent of four hours of normal practicing.”

Professional piano soloist Yuja Wang — who did not audition online, but was asked to perform by Mr. Tilson, as were a handful of other professional musicians — was amazed by the number of people that she knew at the event. “The classical music world is already very small, and to see so many people I know involved with this project made it even smaller,” says the 22-year-old Beijing native. “As a concert pianist, I travel a lot and it’s a lonely life, so YouTube is my very loyal friend. But it’s definitely a bit strange to see so many people you know from the Internet — second-life friends from sites like Facebook and Twitter — collide with your real world.”

“Online video is a good venue for teachers like me to reach out to younger students,” says Mr. Brummel. “I’ll be honest: I’ve played all around the world, but the things that impress my students the most are, ‘You played on a video game recording’ or ‘You made YouTube symphony?’”

David France, a violinist from Bermuda, had a opposing view: “I find that a lot of classical musicians are not using YouTube. Other people may be posting their performances to the site, but they’re not personally doing it. It’s an untapped phenomenon. I think this event is really going to spark a growth in that area.”