There is a rich history of CYSO alumni going on to play with some of the world’s greatest orchestras (in addition to achieving in all sorts of fields!). A prime example is 2004 alum Abraham Feder, who is currently Assistant Principal Cello of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Prior to joing DSO in 2018, Abe was a member of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, principal cellist of the Sarasota Orchestra, and cellist with the Sarasota String Quartet. Social media team member and Concert Orchestra violinist Laney Kang recently chatted with Abe to discuss his CYSO experience and his career.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Could you introduce yourself and your musical background?
AF: My name is Abraham Feder, you can call me Abe. I was in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra and Symphony Orchestra for a combined nine years. I joined Concert Orchestra in fourth grade and started studying with Richard Hirschl, who is in the CSO, in seventh grade. I was accepted into Symphony Orchestra in eighth grade. After high school, I went to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and got a job in Sarasota right after I graduated. I was Principal Cellist in the Sarasota Orchestra from 2008-2014 and then I went back to school to get my Master’s degree at Rice University where I studied with Desmond Hoebig, the former principal of the Cleveland Orchestra. Then, I got a job in the Dallas Symphony in 2016 and then my job in Detroit in 2018!
How did you start playing the cello?
AF: This is a great story! My older brother played the cello and was also in CYSO and I wanted to be just like him. My parents had a 12 string guitar and I picked it up when I was about two and a half and tried to play it like a cello, so my parents started me on lessons shortly thereafter.
[When we joined CYSO], I think my brothers and I were actually the ones who “broke the age barriers” in Concert and Symphony Orchestras. Both used to be high school ensembles; then, I joined Concert Orchestra in fourth grade and my older brother joined Symphony Orchestra in eighth grade. There either hadn’t been any or had been very few people that young in those ensembles by that point.
Do you have any favorite CYSO memories?
AF: Besides being poked in the back so much when I was in Concert Orchestra because I was in front of some kids who were older than me! There were a lot of great memories. I don’t know if Symphony Orchestra still does that as their fall retreat? Before the orchestra started, there was a retreat where we got to play a bunch and get to know each other.
In seventh grade, I was able to play with CYSO as part of the National Youth Orchestra Festival. There were five youth orchestras that came together at Interlochen and we all got divided into five different orchestras and played different repertoire. That was a really great experience.
Probably one of the most lasting things we did during my time in CYSO was that the senior class of 2004 helped to put together a professional-style recording of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. I think that was something that was really special to all of us because it solidified the quality of the orchestra at that time. Even to this day when I listen to excerpts of that recording, I am shocked at how good that orchestra sounds.
How have your CYSO experiences helped you become the musician you are today?
AF: It’s a little bit cliche but there’s too many experiences and memories to really pinpoint one specifically. One of the things that I’ve learned is that all of our experiences help us become the people we are, and it’s the people that we are that help inform the kind of musician we are going to be.
I was always trying to be the front stand when I was in CYSO, and that was something that was important to me and my teacher [Richard Hirschl], so he would always push me to do that. We had an amazing cello section in CYSO. As professionals, I think any orchestra would be jealous of all we played in a section. The things we’ve all gone on to do are pretty amazing, whether it be our professional orchestra experiences or just our professional experiences in music. To be seated up front within that section was always an honor and that informed a lot of my drive to do that throughout the rest of my career and looking to be in a leadership position. Now that I’m Assistant Principal, quite often I get to be in the front seat and it’s a tall responsibility. My experiences at CYSO, Curtis, Sarasota, and so on help me to do the things I do today.
I see that you’re a very accomplished orchestral musician, soloist, and chamber musician. Out of these three disciplines, do you have a favorite?
AF: Accomplished? Wow. When you’re stuck in a practice room a lot of the time, feeling like you’ve accomplished something is kind of a strange because it always feels like there is something else to work on. I’ve had a lot of wonderful opportunities and played some amazing concerts and I feel grateful for all of those. I still don’t know if I’d call myself accomplished, but my first love has always been chamber music. Pursuing an orchestral career was more of a pragmatic decision than anything else, not that I don’t love what I do in the orchestra. In chamber music, you have a much more direct impact on the kind of music making and decisions made onstage and offstage. Some of my longest friendships and most memorable experiences were with chamber music. At one point at Curtis, I was in seven different groups at the same time and we were rehearsing on top of the school schedule. My teachers were not happy because of how little I was practicing, but at the time I wanted to take advantage of the opportunities there.
You can really make a career in music in many different ways, between gigging, teaching, chamber music, orchestra, recording special projects, and now with Instagram and TikTok, there’s a really huge opportunity and huge market for creativity as a way to make a living. Being able to do what you love and make a living through it is a really special thing. For me, I wanted to have a family. One of the best ways to do that with a really stable environment was with an orchestra. At the same time though, especially since I’m now a title chair player, I get asked to do more chamber music than I used to do as a section player. I’ve been able to solo with Detroit now and with a couple other orchestras, so I get to do a little bit of everything.
So do you recommend all student musicians to get themselves involved with both orchestral music and chamber music?
AF: Of course. In the environment like CYSO, if you’re gonna pursue music at school or even if you’re not gonna pursue music at school, there are opportunities for non-major orchestras. I know a couple CYSO alums who are in professional orchestras—there’s also a doctors’ orchestra and a lawyers’ orchestra—so there’s opportunities all over the place.
One of the best things about CYSO was that at the high school I went to, I was one of the few people who actually knew what I was doing with my life. Not that I knew that I wanted to go directly into music, but I had a very singular focus outside of school that was music. Not that I was lonely, by any means, I had friends at school but my best friends and the friends that understood what I was trying to accomplish were at CYSO. I think the more that you can connect with the people who love what you love and want to pursue the things that you want to pursue, especially in the formative years of high school and college, is an important aspect of our development as people and musicians.
What does a typical day look like as a professional musician?
AF: It depends on where you are in your life cycle. My wife and I just had our second baby and he’s a month old today. Practicing right now is few and far between. I have a concert this week and I am prepared for that concert but I am used to being 3-5 weeks ahead of the repertoire. Having a child and not sleeping very well the last four nights, in addition to chasing a toddler around, that really changes things.
The orchestral schedule for professional orchestras is usually four rehearsals a week and usually three or four concerts of that same repertoire. Sometimes there are specials like kids’ concerts and stuff that you do throughout the week. The expectation is that you are practicing, maintaining, training, and keeping up with your facilities outside of where you’re at. When I got to Detroit, I was surprised at how prepared everybody was for rehearsals. To be able to play through a relatively unknown piece of music from time to time out of the gate without having to stop and put things together is a really special thing for a professional orchestra to be able to do, and Detroit does that often. We know that everybody is showing up prepared.
What are the best ways to prepare for an audition?
AF: The first part is consistency. That’s not just consistency in your playing, it’s also the consistency in your practicing. I know that in high school, there are some weeks where you have very little homework and then three weeks later you have five papers and three tests in one week. Developing the consistency of being able to practice well is very important because you don’t always have the time when you want to put in a couple hours a day. One day you might have 30 minutes, another day you might have 15; for those 15 or 30 minutes, are you gonna be doing your scales and etudes to make sure your facilities stay in check or are you trying to race through all the pieces you’re playing, possibly not play it that well, and develop bad habits from time to time as you’re scrambling to put things together? Consistency is really important from that end.
Then what’s the best way to gauge how consistent you are and know that you’ll be consistent enough to execute the music?
AF: That’s a good question. I think your point exactly, executing the music, is the most important thing. When we’re talking about executing a specific shift, you’d hear that easily if you can hear whether it’s in tune or not. In terms of whether you could execute the music the way that you want 99.9% of the time, that’s where the consistency comes in. For example, I want the phrasing to sound this way, I want to use this much bow, I want to have this type of vibrato, or this color of sound. I think the most important thing to remember about what we do is that ultimately what we’re trying to do is play a piece of music—whether it’s an orchestral audition or a college audition, where you’ll probably be playing smaller snippets than you’d play at a recital, or even at a seating audition—you’re trying to demonstrate that you have an idea of how the music goes and having the listener think, “Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to sound, I like that.”
So if you can do all of those things and have your technique meet that musical idea, I think you’ll be in a better position to execute more consistently than if you’re just focused on if you got the shift in tune or not. It’s really easy to spiral down the wormhole of, “Okay, I’m gonna play this shift over and over again until it’s in tune,” but then when you’re in the moment, and let’s say, you’re playing a piece where that’s a really exciting moment, you can overshoot the shift, because maybe you didn’t practice it enough times in the context of what is happening musically; you were just busy making sure it was in tune.
When you were in college, what did your practice routine look like, and also how long should the ideal practice session be?
AF: I think a practice session should be as long as you can get. You know, if I had told myself this when I was in CYSO, I would’ve said, “That’s ridiculous, I’m going to practice for this amount of time.” But what I think it comes down to, is how long you can practice effectively. Ultimately, if you’re really tired and making a lot of sloppy mistakes, it’s good to know where your limits are. So my recommendation and one of the routines that I got into when I was in college is to do 50-70 minute practice sessions with a ten minute break. During that break I would either go have a snack, go get a cup of coffee, or just sort of walk around a little bit. Then I would go right back to practicing after ten minutes were up. I feel like that routine really helped me to stay focused for longer periods of time, rather than just sitting in a practice room for four hours non-stop.
So how do you know to take a break? Iss it just exactly when those minutes are up, or when you feel tired, when you’re at your capacity?
AF: I think it’s a capacity thing, or when you get tired. But I think tiredness physically is different from a tiredness mentally, and I think the two of them combined means you won’t get good work done. I’m not necessarily advocating for, “Okay I’m only going to practice 60 minutes, because somebody said that’s the most effective way to practice.” I’m advocating that if you’re going to practice for three hours, have it be in two 90 minute chunks, or three 60 minute chunks. It’s managing that time in a way that is effective for you.
One of the things that also helped me was starting a practice journal. I kept detailed notes about what I practiced, what I needed to do again, and kind of organized myself, because when you’re preparing for auditions, there’s a lot of repertoire on top of your commitments to CYSO or school. And you can make sure you have your practice session laid out ahead of time, so you don’t even have to think about it. You can just sit down and say, “What am I practicing today?”
Do you have any advice on how to deal with performance anxiety?
AF: Yes and no. The simplest explanation is that performance anxiety is just adrenaline that your body produces in a stressful situation— our natural flight-or-fight response. And because everyone has it, there’s not really good advice like, “Oh, you can handle it this way” because it’s not the same for everybody.
But I do have some thoughts as to how you can manage it. One of the best ways is to put yourself in more stressful situations more often. As you’re preparing for your seating audition, you could ask a friend: “Hey, log onto Zoom real quick, I wanna play this stuff for you, because you make me nervous when I play for you, and I need to figure out how my body reacts when I’m playing this excerpt and I’m a little nervous.” There’s all sorts of other things you can do, too. I know people who do yoga, people who drink calming tea, there’s always beta-blockers, you can do cardio exercise. I think exercise is one of the best ways to deal with the adrenaline because you’re already getting rid of some of the energy that you might have later in the day. Ultimately, you need to work through that stuff on your own, to figure out how you deal with it best.
How did you know that becoming a professional cellist was the right path for you?
AF: I’m not sure that I ever thought cello was the right path for me when I was in high school; it just seemed to be the only thing that I was good at. I applied to a variety of schools, some of which were connected to bigger universities, where if I got there, I could get into the school maybe through music, or maybe even just get a good scholarship, to do some non-major work like filling in the cello section, or what have you. And then I ended up getting into all of the schools I applied to, including Curtis, Eastman, and Juilliard, and that gave me an idea of, “Oh, maybe this is something that I should explore,” and it turned out I loved it.
One thing that I will say about pursuing music in school is that it is one of those professions that I do think you need to pursue first if you think you want to do it. If you’re giving pursing music a shot, do it now and you can always figure out something else later on.
Do you have any advice for CYSO students who are considering a career in music?
AF: Well I think we’ve talked a lot about what I think is most important in terms of building consistency and developing a system of practicing that works for you. I would say that if you’re going to go into a career of music, you want to go to a school where you don’t have to take a lot of student loans, if you can do that. Maintaining an instrument, or instruments, depending on what instrument you play—if you need five trumpets, three clarinets, or one cello and a few bows—it’s really expensive. And make sure you have the right group of friends and the right teachers supporting you because it’s really important to have people that understand what we do as musicians.
Do you have any advice for any CYSO students who are not going into music but want to keep music a part of their lives?
AF: I think no matter where you go to college, there’s probably a professional orchestra where you are, and a lot of orchestras offer student tickets that are relatively inexpensive. There’s also school orchestras, non-major orchestras that you can play in. You can also take lessons from music majors at the school you’re going to if you’re not pursuing music.
But I think one of the most important things is to not lose sight of the discipline and the dedication that it takes to play music, and to allow that to translate into the profession that you go into. What we do takes discipline and lots of effort and if you can put that same discipline and effort into the profession you’re looking to go into, there’s not a lot that can prevent you from being successful. So that would be my advice: if you’re not going to go into music, keep loving music, and support your orchestras.
ABOUT LANEY KANG
Laney Kang is a violinist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra and a member of the CYSO Social Media Team. This is Laney’s seventh season participating in CYSO. She is a junior at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois. Aside from music, Laney trains and competes in dance.