Meet Monica Caldwell, a sophomore at Shiloh High School. The 15-year-old violist is in her third year as a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Talent Development Program and her second season with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. Monica attributes her success as a musician to what she has gained through these student musician training programs.

When did you start playing the viola?

When I was in sixth grade, I joined my school orchestra and I had no idea what a viola was — or that it even existed! I actually had my mind set on playing the bass, but after trying it I decided I wanted to play the cello instead. I thought I had finally made up my mind, but as soon as the orchestra teacher played a few notes on the viola, I was intrigued and quickly changed my decision. It was love at first sight!

What made you decide to become involved with the Orchestra’s student musician training programs?

In my seventh grade year, I was improving on my instrument much faster than my peers. I would spend hours practicing and the extra time I dedicated to my viola became evident very quickly through the improved quality of my playing. At that point, my music teacher recommended me for the Talent Development Program (TDP). I was really excited about the opportunity, but I had no idea how significantly it would impact my life and what kind of musician I was yet to become.

So, how has it impacted you?

My whole perception of playing the viola is completely different than when I began in my small sixth-grade orchestra. After being accepted into the TDP program, I began studying privately with Atlanta Symphony violist Lachlan McBane. He has encouraged me to always be very thoughtful about what I’m playing. Nothing about playing an instrument is careless, and everything in music has meaning. I started incorporating that concept into my music, and my playing has never been the same since.

I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful mentor, harpist Angelic Hairston, who graduated from the Talent Development Program last spring. As an older member of the program, Angelica was one of the first students to reach out to me, and I was incredibly inspired by how much she had already accomplished at such a young age. I hope to accomplish just as much as she did in her five years in TDP! She’s now studying music in Canada, but I still make time to keep in touch with her. Even though she’s far away, she still encourages me to take my music to the next level.

Do you hope to mentor younger students?

Yes! I aspire to be a performer, but I also hope to inspire someone the way I was first inspired to play the viola and pursue a career in music.

One of the “perks” of being a member of the TDP is the opportunity to study at prestigious summer music festivals. What have your experiences been like?

During the past two summers, I have attended Interlochen Arts Academy and Credo Chamber Music Camp at Oberlin Conservatory. My quick musical progress simply would not have been possible without these summer programs. I had the opportunity to study with two of the best viola teachers in the world — David Holland and Peter Slowik — and they truly shaped my technique and helped me develop my mature sound. Sometimes I would get a little homesick, but I knew that being away from home, and away from so many distractions, was the best way for me to focus on my musical development.

And you’re also a member of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra?

Yep! Last year was my first season with the Youth Orchestra. It was a great experience and really pushed me musically and mentally because the music was so challenging! I remember sightreading through a piece of music at the first rehearsal and not being able to play any of it, and I realized that I had a lot of work to do to keep up with such an amazing group of students!

What do you like most about the Youth Orchestra?

Viola sectionals are always the highlight of rehearsal for me. It’s always interesting having a room full of 14 violists!  Our coach is Cathy Lynn, an Atlanta Symphony violist, and she always gives us “hot viola tips.” Her guidance helps us work through the hardest sections of the repertoire so we can be at our very best when we perform on the Atlanta Symphony Hall stage!

Additionally, I truly appreciate being able to play in a full orchestra on a regular basis — it’s an opportunity that I don’t have with my school music program. I also benefit from being around my Youth Orchestra colleagues because we share a love of music and a similar motivation and drive.

If your life could turn out just the way you wanted, what would you be doing in 10 or 15 years?

I would love to have graduated from a prestigious music school and be a professional musician with a nationally-recognized orchestra. I haven’t really thought about the specifics because I still have three years to figure everything out! But this is what I do know: My life without music would be a life without passion, and I can’t ever imagine not having music, or the viola, in my life. I’m incredibly grateful to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for making my career as a violist possible!