Midway High School junior Hannah Burnett picks up her viola for comfort at the end of a hard day.
“It’s really fulfilling. I look at playing almost like a reward,” she said.
Her dedication to the instrument is earning her statewide recognition through the Texas Music Educators Association’s All-State Orchestra competition, where she was named “Best in State” on the viola for 2014.
Nearly 1,000 high school viola players signed up to audition for the 42 spots allocated to the symphonic, philharmonic and string orchestras that will perform in San Antonio in February. Competitors play in front of a panel of judges in the first round, then perform again to be ranked in the second round.
Burnett will defend her title in February at another live audition to keep her top seat in the symphonic orchestra.
But performing isn’t a problem for Burnett, who said she doesn’t get stage fright and uses recordings of herself to improve.
“Most people don’t like listening to recordings of themselves playing,” she said. “I like to watch my performances. If I listen to an old recording, I can say ‘Oh, I can do this better this time — whenever I perform it next.’ It’s really nice to be able to critique yourself.”
Burnett, 16, has been playing the viola since she was 3 years old, but mimicked “playing violin,” using tiny cheerleader pom poms, as young as age 2.
“We went to a demonstration at the Central Texas String Academy because I was thinking of taking violin lessons there, but then I heard the viola,” Burnett said.
The viola has an overall
warmer tone than the violin, because of its longer body and lower-toned strings, Burnett said.
Although she doesn’t practice as much as she would like because of homework, she enjoys learning a piece well enough to infuse it with a higher level of musicality.
“I try to get my emotions across when I’m playing,” she said.
Midway High School’s orchestra conductor Beau Benson said Burnett arrived at Midway when she was in seventh grade and quickly stood out among his young musicians.
“She has this intuitive sense of music. Her sense of phrasing and way she shapes music is particularly unique. It’s just very mature. Even when I had her in middle school orchestra, it was like having a little 30-year-old sitting there,” he said.
The viola is unique because its tone range is lower, which makes it more difficult to hear above an accompaniment instrument or orchestra, Benson said.
This can present challenges to a soloist on viola as opposed to a violin, which has a higher tone and can be heard above the other instruments, he said.
“Viola in a way is often the unsung hero of the orchestra because by the nature of its range, it’s kind of in the middle. So, they often don’t get the melody and they don’t have the bass line. But (if) what they play wasn’t there, you’d be going, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with this music, why does it sound so weird?’ ” he said.
Burnett said her favorite music to play is chamber music. She hopes to one day be on staff at a university so she can teach a master class while performing with a professional orchestra.
She already is preparing for college entrance auditions with her sights set on The Juilliard School in New York City.
“I think it would be cool to start music programs,” she said.