How Mahler got me a job


There are many questions about what role the arts play in education. Orchestra, choir, band, theater are usually electives at a high school. They are often the first to be cut when budgets need cutting. But being in an orchestra taught me valuable lessons that would ultimately land me a job offer.

I started playing the violin when I was 4 years old. My mom said it was to give me something to do, but I’m sure being born into an Asian family had something to do with it as well. I played in the 4th grade orchestra when I was in 1st grade, throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school. I also joined the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO). It was that time in MYSO where I experienced what playing in a full symphony was like (adding the hot air blowing part of the orchestra). Hearing music within a full symphony orchestra was amazing.

I also played in the Wisconsin State Honors orchestra my senior year of high school. It was there I learned one lesson I still follow and believe in to this day. I sat in the second violin section, right in front of the flutes. We were playing “Evening Prayer” from the opera “Hansel and Gretel” (yes, it is also an opera, not just a children’s story). At the first rehearsal, the conductor stopped us at one point and said, “Listen to the flutes here. This is where the sandmen come out and dance after the kids fall asleep.” We went back and played it, and I heard the beautiful flute part. It was at that moment where I learned that sometimes, I wasn’t the important part. I needed to play quieter and get out of the way so the important part could come out. In other words, sometimes to be a good leader, you needed to be a good follower

In the fall of 1996, I entered the University of Wisconsin as a Chemical Engineering major.  I wanted to keep playing at a high level, and auditioned for the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. We were given audition parts to learn, and that year it was excerpts from the Brahms First Symphony. I looked at the parts, practiced a bit, and went in to the audition. I struggled a bit, and in the end, did not make the orchestra. I was disappointed, but not surprised. I knew I didn’t do that well and wondered if I had the time commitment to play in the University orchestra.

My sophomore year I decided to give it another try. I went in and picked up the audition music again. This time, it was excerpts from Mahler’s first symphony. I wanted to give it a better shot this time, but practicing the excerpts was a pain. I lost focus pretty quickly because the music wasn’t very interesting. Then I had the bright idea of buying the CD and listening to it. Suddenly, the boring notes on the paper started making sense. The one note we were supposed to hold for like 20 measures was actually the backdrop for a beautiful sunrise. Birds chirped. And lines of music I had been practicing was the beautiful violin melody of the first movement; I had been practicing it way too slow for it to make sense. With a vision of what the final product was supposed to sound like, practicing became a lot more interesting and effective.

I ended up making the orchestra that year, and every year until I graduated. It’ll likely be the highest caliber orchestra I’ll ever play in.  Many of the members were future professional musicians, and after my junior year, I had the opportunity to tour Eastern Europe with the orchestra, playing in venues in Prague and Budapest.

My senior year, like many other soon to be graduates, I started interviewing for jobs. Over and over again, I answered the same interview questions. Over and over again, interviewers heard the same interview answers. In an interview for Ecolab (makers of soap and cleaning solutions) I was asked a typical interview question: “Tell me about a time when you’ve failed.” I told him about how I had auditioned for the University of Wisconsin Symphony orchestra my freshman year and failed. I told him how, the next year, I rededicated myself to practicing the audition parts, listened to the music to understand what it was supposed to sound like, and how I ended up making the orchestra every year since then. I had learned that in the real world, it took preparation and dedication to get what you wanted. The interviewer’s response was “Wow. That’s the best answer I’ve heard today.” I’m sure he was tired of hearing halfhearted stories about the time someone got a B- on a test or didn’t get elected to the student council. Needless to say, Ecolab made me an offer.

I ended up going to work for Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati, but Ecolab was a close second. I now play for the Cincinnati Community Orchestra in Cincinnati, and 15 years later, I will have the opportunity to be a part of the cukoo birds of the first movement, the creepy version of Frère Jacques in the third movement, the thunderstorm of the last movement, and of course the awesome brass ending of the Mahler First Symphony again.

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