09 March 2017
There is a star in Fluvanna’s galaxy but we might have missed it because our telescope isn’t trained on that orbit.
We give props to top athletes, high academic achievers, Eagle Scouts and heroes.
But a bassoon player? It’s about time.
Fluvanna County High School senior Connor Reilly joined a rare group when the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America chose him as one of five bassoonists to become a part of its elite family.That means together with other top student musicians, Connor will study in New York this summer for a three-week residency, as well as play a July 21 concert at Carnegie Hall followed by a performance trip through Latin America.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Of course it takes practice. But there’s more to it.
Connor’s mother Dawn Reilly is a first grade teacher at Central Elementary. Reilly comes across as the antithesis of the pushy, driven stage mother caricature. The first story she shared was one of dealing with her uber-intelligent son’s attitude.
Apparently Connor saw early on he was smarter than the average bear and began viewing others as less than. “We had to put a stop to that immediately,” she said.
To that end, Connor decided to test himself by focusing on learning something that didn’t come easily.
He taught himself piano. “Connor would watch YouTube videos on how to play piano,” his mother said. “Our computer was in the family room. Then he’d run back to his bedroom and try out what he saw on his keyboard.”
Connor used his own money to buy a violin and taught himself how to play that as well.
Trying to decide what instrument he wanted to stick with was “a long process” he said. His initial requests to play a band instrument in fourth and fifth grade were met with a parental “no.”
So when given the green light to play in sixth grade, Connor took a scholarly approach to choosing an instrument.
“My mom was going to Weight Watcher meetings in Charlottesville and she would drop us off at the James Madison Regional Library,” he said. “I wrote down on index cards information about every instrument. Then I’d go through them and slowly narrowed it down to the oboe.”
But the oboe was too expensive, so his parents told Connor to pick something else and play it for a year to make sure he was committed to band. Connor played the flute for a year and kept listening to oboe music.
“I realized I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way it sounded,” Connor said. “The bassoon is lower, richer. Has more body to it. So I switched to bassoon.”
Bassoons are expensive – starting at $20,000 and going up from there. As luck would have it, Fluvanna County Public Schools had a bassoon. Connor still plays the high school’s only bassoon.
Connor’s first music teacher, Darrell Baughan of Central Elementary, remembered Connor and said, “I’m amazed at what he’s done.”
Ilon Weeldreyer taught Connor in band during fifth and sixth grade. “He was a percussionist in the Charlottesville Symphony Orchestra and knew the bassoon principal player,” Connor said. “He made the connection.”
Elizabeth Roberts, an accomplished musician and faculty member at the University of Virginia (U.Va.), took on Connor as one of her few private students.
Driving Connor to weekly lessons at Roberts’ Crozet home was a challenge for his mom.
“It took me an hour to get there, his lesson was an hour and an hour to drive back home,” Reilly said. “The time commitment, the financial commitment – wore on me. But it was the year of the Olympics  and you’d see the kids with their gold medals and the stories they’d tell about their moms behind the scenes and I made the decision I wanted to do what I could to help him. But I kept praying for the day he’d get his driver’s license.”
As he started with Roberts, Connor also auditioned for the Rita M. Evans Orchestra, a division of Youth Orchestras of Central Virginia.
“They accepted me on the condition I continued taking private lessons,” Connor said.
That was another weekly trip into Charlottesville. By that time – in fact, from the first time he picked up the bassoon – Connor knew it was what he wanted to do for a career.
Roberts played a big part in Connor’s success.
“From the day I met Connor and first heard him play the bassoon as an eighth grader, I was aware of his innate sense that music is a language,” Roberts wrote in an email. “It’s very difficult to actually teach this concept to a young musician at the depth which Connor possesses this so naturally. Music is so much more than playing the right notes on the page at the correct volume. An artist must interpret what the composer intends, giving voice to the phrases that express the composers’ ideas in a means for listeners. Connor walked into my studio doing this innately. It has been my job to help him develop his skills and various techniques on the instrument so that he has more tools to use and therefore more variety in his expression and interpretation.”
Michael Strickler is the high school band director. Connor negotiated with Strickler each year to build extra practice time into his school day.
Strickler said there are well-publicized benefits to playing a musical instrument – such as increasing math and language scores on standardized tests – but playing in a group is just as important.
“To me, studying music, in particular being part of a school musical ensemble, is about learning how to join together as a group of individuals who through each person’s individual contribution create a product which is greater than the sum of its parts,” Strickler wrote in an email. “Each person puts into the music their character, their hard work, their energy, and their passion and the product which comes out can be transformative to the player and the listener. It can put them in a completely different place or sense of who they are in the class than they get anywhere else in school… Very few other classes have as much group work and have every student’s work on live display for the public at the end of a unit. But in music, we do that several times a year with each concert. So it teaches students that what they do daily matters, because the group is counting on them to succeed.”
Connor enjoys practicing, but he struggled with performing.
“A huge thing I had was performance anxiety,” he said. “I was so nervous I was shaking.”
He got over it through “brute force,” he said. “At some point you just have to get over yourself.”
When Connor became a junior, he realized it was time to get out there if he wanted to get into a top music school. “I started doing competitions to get myself to that level,” he said.
His first one was at Liberty University. He achieved honorable mention. The next year at the same competition he was first runner up.
Connor won a $1,000 scholarship to a camp at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He also took part in the Leitzinger Bassoon Competition in upstate New York because top prize was a Leitzinger bassoon.
He didn’t win the bassoon, but was one of eight finalists out of 20. “That really changed me. I was glad I did it,” he said.
When it came to applying to and auditioning for a college, Roberts gave Connor valuable advice. He contacted bassoon professors and asked if he could take a lesson with them.
At $100 to $150 per lesson it was an expense, but it gave him a chance to study with a new teacher. More importantly, it gave those professors a chance to work with Connor and see how he took their suggestions.
“The lesson is essential, if not more than the audition, because they see how well you learn and take instruction,” Connor said.
When Connor walked into his Juilliard audition, he’d taken lessons from three of the four judges.
Besides Juilliard, Connor has applied to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, McGill Conservatory in Montreal and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Besides time, climbing the orchestral ladder costs money.
Connor works part time at the Asian Café outside Lake Monticello. When he travels, he does it on a budget. Connor found it’s much cheaper to travel by bus. He stays in rooms booked through Airbnb.
In the process of pursing music, something else fell by the wayside.
“I’ve definitely sacrificed my academics for this,” he said. “In order to be successful and have some semblance of a normal life, I had to.”
It was hard for his mother to see. “He was always an A+ student, but to be that, you have to focus on academics,” she said.
Connor said he knew he wanted to be a successful musician. He’s still in the top quarter of his class.
Besides attending school, Connor practices three hours a day, works over 10 hours a week, and takes two classes at U.Va. – contemporary music ensemble and baroque orchestra.
Connor sent in an audition video and application to get the spot in Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America.
He’s still surprised he was accepted.
“I can’t believe I’m even being considered among these musicians – that I’m even in the same category,” Connor said. “I never thought I’d be one of those people. It’s a shock for me and I’m still trying to digest it.”
He thinks he is the only student musician to come from a rural area. All the others hail from cities.
Roberts said Connor’s achievement demonstrates his hard work and ability to maximize his strengths and overcome his weaknesses.
“Connor is an excellent student in general – he possesses the strong work ethic required to make it in music business,” Roberts said in an email. “Additionally, when the opportunity arose, he practiced the specific audition pieces required by the audition committee, and he prepared an outstanding application and audition. This was noticed by the committee.”
As he waits to hear if he’s accepted at one of his chosen schools of music, Connor looks forward to his opportunity this summer. He leaves for Purchase College State University of New York at the end of June for his Carnegie Hall residency which starts July 1. After the July 21 concert and travel through Latin America, he won’t be back until the first week in August.
Reilly watched as her son talked about his plans. “Mama hasn’t done anything. He’s done it all himself,” she said.
To find out more about the Carnegie Hall program, go to www.carnegiehall.org/nyousa.
To find out when you can hear Connor perform, contact Michael Strickler at the high school at 434-589-3666 or email