Breaking barriers: the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship program

CCM students are sharing the stage with one of the country’s best orchestras

Ask CCM graduate students, cellist Denielle Wilson, and violinist Jordan Curry, what it’s like to play with the musicians of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and you’ll get different versions of the same answer.

Wilson, from Lithonia, Georgia, describes her first rehearsal: “The sound was so refined, it was jarring. I know they’re supposed to sound that way because they’re professionals, but there are so many details that you never know until you’re right there.”

A prortrait of violinist Jordan Curry.

Jordan Curry

Curry, from West Olive, Michigan, has played in some top-notch student ensembles. Still, he says, “It’s unreal as far as the playing gap and the overall sensitivity of the orchestra. It’s inspiring and intimidating at the same time.” Curry and Wilson, along with violist Cristian Diaz, from Colombia, violinist Magdiell Antequera, from Venezuela, and violist Edna Pierce, from Cincinnati, are the most recent winners of the CSO/ CCM Diversity Fellowship, a two-year program for extremely talented, graduate-level string players from traditionally underrepresented populations in classical music, especially the string sections of orchestras. The Fellows are working on performance master’s degrees or artist diplomas at CCM and competed with 19 finalists before they were chosen as the 2019-21 Fellows.

When I started this Fellowship, I knew there would be a lot of benefits, but it’s so much more than I imagined. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m certainly going to make the most of it.

Denielle Wilson

The Fellowship provides an immersion into the professional world they all aspire to and the chance to be mentored by some of the best string players in the country. This extraordinary opportunity, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is also about removing the barriers that have previously prevented amazing musicians such as the current class of Diversity Fellows from achieving their dreams. Launched in 2015, the program has accepted four classes of Fellows and will welcome a fifth class in fall 2020.

“If we’re serious about enhancing racial and ethnic diversity in the arts, orchestras and conservatories have to work together to find seats on stage for a more diverse population of artists, and we have to do everything possible to help these artists succeed once they get on stage,” said CCM Dean Stanley Romanstein in a recent interview with Symphony Magazine.

A portrait of cellist Denielle Wilson.

Denielle Wilson

Over the next two years, each Fellow will receive tuition, living stipends, CSO compensation, a financial award, travel expenses for auditions and additional professional playing opportunities during the summer with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in New York State. For each person, that amounts to more than $90,000.

“I’m fully responsible for my education at this point, so the idea of continuing without extra work on the side means so much,” Wilson says.

Curry echoes that feeling of gratitude. “This makes it possible for me to get my goals in order,” he says.

In addition to playing with one of the country’s best orchestras, another big benefit of the Fellowship is hard to put a price on: the mentoring they will receive from seasoned pros in the CSO. CCM Professor and CSO Principal bass Owen Lee has been a mentor since the Diversity Fellowship started in 2015. “They already are performing at a high level if they get accepted into the graduate program at CCM,” he says.

A portrait of violinist Magdiell Antequera.

Magdiell Antequera

In fact, several have impressive experience already. Antequera has won or placed in solo competitions in the U.S., his native Venezuela and Italy. While earning his bachelor’s degree in Colombia, Diaz did six international tours with the Colombian Youth Philharmonic and currently is a member of the Éfferus String Quartet. Pierce was a violinist for the Cincinnati Youth Concert Orchestra and the CSYO Nouveau Chamber Players, as well as a violist in the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, throughout her high school education. Still, the musical journey for all of the Fellows has mainly taken place in student ensembles or the studio.

Through the program, the Fellows will get 100-110 playing hours (including rehearsals and performances) each year with the CSO and Pops, as well as Lollipop and educational outreach concerts. Sitting among the pros already has given Curry a few “aha” moments. “I have come to realize that the refinement you hear in professionals’ playing is just constantly and diligently building a piece of music brick by brick,” he says. “It’s not magic, just hard work and working smart. That’s comforting to know, because I can do that, too.”

One of the biggest challenges is the incredible balancing act of fulfilling all their musical and academic responsibilities. CSO Second Violin Associate Principal/mentor Yang Liu says these students are often practicing and playing three to four different repertoires a week between the CSO, the ensembles at CCM and preparing for a recital or audition. “I talk about how to practice more efficiently since their time is so limited,” Liu says.

A portrait of violist Cristian Diaz.

Cristian Diaz

How crazy can it get? Within 24 hours in late November, Wilson gave a recital, played a Young People’s concert with the CSO, was interviewed by a journalist and had a CCM orchestra rehearsal.

Perhaps the most valuable experience students receive is the preparation and advice the pros provide for taking auditions. After all, winning a spot in a professional orchestra is the end game and auditions are the gateway to that dream. Competition is always fierce, with hundreds of talented musicians going after every opening.

The two-year Fellowship includes preparation for a minimum of three real auditions each year. To keep audition skills sharp at all times, each of the Fellows will do mock auditions at Music Hall with mentors and other CSO members. Mentors also pass along practical advice on how to stay in shape and control nerves.

A portrait of violist Edna Pierce.

Edna Pierce

Once a student receives an audition date and time, mentors Lee and Liu advise students to play through the audition repertoire every day at that same time for several weeks prior to the audition.

Yang Liu also offers advice on what to eat the day of the audition: “a banana, chocolate or something with sugar,” he says. And what not to eat: “No caffeine or energy drinks, because they will increase your heart rate and your hands will start to shake.”

“When I started this Fellowship, I knew there would be a lot of benefits, but it’s so much more than I imagined,” Wilson says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m certainly going to make the most of it.”

CCM student Denielle Wilson performs with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as a CSO/CCM Diversity Fellow.

Learn more about the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship program by visiting

Story by Kathleen Doane

Featured performance images provided by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

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