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Commentary: Experience Music Center’s Spotlight program

Last year, I had the unforgettable opportunity to participate in the Music Center’s Spotlight program. As a Classical Instrumental Semifinalist, I had the chance to participate in all three rounds of the competition, play in a piano masterclass for Van Cliburn medalist Sean Chen, and be inspired by the extraordinary talent of my peers. After another year, Spotlight is back to educate and inspire.

“Spotlight is much more than a competition,” says Jeri Gaile, director of Spotlight at the Music Center. “It’s really about the journey and the process to get to that point of performing at Walt Disney Concert Hall.”

Spotlight has taught me memorable things beyond the practice room. It’s taught me that the arts instills discipline, humility, and kindness in ourselves that we can apply to the other things we do in life. I’ve realized the power of stretching myself to my limits and striving to surpass my goals.

Throughout the entire process, Ms. Gaile was a huge inspiration. Before every audition, she would send each of us helpful emails about how to prepare and relax before each stage of the competition. I’ve never seen anything as special as them in all the past competitions and events I’ve done. She was our Spotlight Mom, always with us backstage before our performances.

The free Spotlight program provides a supportive environment for students to grow and pursue their artistic dreams. Open to Southern California high school students of all talent levels, Spotlight offers scholarships, training, and feedback. Students can choose to compete in a variety of categories: Acting, Ballet, Non-Classical Dance, Classical Voice, Non-Classical Voice, Classical Instrumental, and Jazz Instrumental.

Every year, the Spotlight experience kicks off in May, when applications for the next year open. In September, the Spotlight Academy hosts a day of free workshops that are open to teachers, parents, and students. Workshop topics include: how to make a great audition video, what college panels are looking for, how to kick off your acting career, how to market yourself as a dancer, and the art of choosing a monologue, among many others.

The Spotlight Academy. Courtesy of Spotlight

The competition itself is a year-long process, consisting of three rounds: a Preliminary 1 Audition, a Preliminary 2 Audition, and a Semifinal Audition. Prizes include total monetary awards of over $100,000 annually, performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall, masterclasses with world-renowned artists, and other opportunities, including scholarships to the Aspen Music Festival for Classical Instrumental and Classical Voice finalists. Students also garner skills that can be directly applied in the workforce, whether it is a career in the arts or not.

“There’s quite a large, scientific research literature supporting the idea that people who get intensive training in the arts are really changing their brains in a way that supports their success in a variety of fields,” says Robert Bilder, director of the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity at UCLA.

Applications for the Preliminary 1 Auditions are due in mid-October. These auditions are done through online videos, following repertoire requirements and guidelines delineated in each category’s rules.

After video auditions are evaluated, the judges for each category select students to advance to the Preliminary 2 Audition, which is a private, live audition before a panel of judges in December. All students are given personal feedback about their strengths and potential areas of improvement. After another selection process, 15 students in each category are chosen to be semifinalists.

Courtesy of Spotlight

All semifinalists have the opportunity to participate in a free masterclass given by a professional expert in their discipline.

The four other piano semifinalists and I had the chance to work with Sean Chen, who gave us fresh insight about each of our pieces. He discussed how to project sound on different pianos, use the pedals effectively, and create different tones, voices, and colors. This advice was immensely helpful, especially before the semifinal auditions, which occurred in February.

Previous masterclass teachers include jazz star Arturo Sandoval, Broadway icon Karen Morrow, “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer Jae Blaze, Metropolitan Opera star Cynthia Munzer, and more. Masterclasses are open to all preliminary students for observation.

2017 Piano Semifinalists of the Classical Instrumental Category. Courtesy of Elizabeth Zietz

I found that the settings of the semifinal auditions were identical to the Preliminary 2 Auditions, giving us an intimate environment to present our work. From the semifinalists, two Grand Prize Finalists and one Honorable Mention are named in each category. The 14 Grand Prize Finalists present a spectacular evening of public performances in June at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

2017 Spotlight Grand Prize Finalists at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Courtesy of Spotlight

Spotlight is a journey of self-discovery. Want to experience Spotlight? Don’t miss the Spotlight Academy this year on Sunday, Sept. 17 at the Music Center! Reserve your spot at www.musiccenter.org/spotlightacademy.

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