Reflecting on Maestro Tinkham’s Words of Wisdom

Jennifer Yu Wang is a (very) recent CYSO alum, having served as Symphony Orchestra co-principal flute  during the 2017-2018 season before graduating this spring. As she reflected on the end of her time with CYSO, Jenny decided that her final post for the blog would focus on all the lessons she’s learned during her time in the program. In this essay, she reflects on the many hours of rehearsal spent under Maestro Tinkham’s baton, and the words of wisdom that he offered—about music and life—that she’ll carry with her into the world.

For this our final Orchestral Hall concert of the year, with its extremely challenging and diverse repertoire, Symphony Orchestra upped the number of extended rehearsals.

Extended rehearsals take effort. Doing any activity for hours at a time is strenuous and tiring, but even more so when it’s controlling literal sound waves and keeping track of the movements of an orchestra. To combat the fatigue and keep us alert, Maestro Tinkham tells us what I like to think of as life philosophies–little bits of wisdom that tie creating music to a greater purpose. I’m a sucker for metaphors, so I got into the habit of madly typing out his words of wisdom every time he stopped and put down his baton. (I’ve got a pretty hefty note written out on my phone).

Jenny in the flute section during Symphony Orchestra’s November 2016 performance at Orchestra Hall

At our last dress rehearsal at Orchestra Hall, Maestro Tinkham excavated an iconic line spoken especially to calm our nervous minds: “We’re human beings, not human doings.”

It’s an old favorite of mine, and a much prettier way of saying, “Don’t rush.” I’ve especially paid more attention to Maestro Tinkham’s life advice as my high school graduation draws nearer. After seven years of CYSO, that Sunday was my last Orchestra Hall performance.

“Growing old happens automatically–you have to decide to grow up.”

Though I’ve played in many different amazing halls and venues with this orchestra (tour of Central Europe, anyone?), Chicago’s Symphony Center is one of my favorites. It’s a special experience to be right in the heart of the city, playing on a stage that some of the best musicians in the world have, and looking up into the dark audience rather than down at the bright stage. Yeah, I’m going to miss it.

“An orchestra is like a microcosm of life; so many small things going on that influence you in ways you never know or realize.”

Maestro Tinkham leading Symphony Orchestra and alums Anthony and Demarre McGill in the world premiere of Michael Abels’ “Winged Creatures” during a session at the June 2018 League of American Orchestras conference


In order to get on that stage, though, you have to get through some tough rehearsals. I say “tough” because, well… imagine trying to get a room of over 100 high school-age students to focus on a single task for a couple of hours, especially one that requires quiet. During a particularly restless rehearsal: “Stay calm and don’t make any noise. Unless it’s noise you’re supposed to make.”

Playing, in itself, is not easy. Out of pages of repertoire and endless notes, multiplied by many musicians, there are so many opportunities to make mistakes. Rehearsals obviously reduce the chances, but when you’re tired, you need tough love and reminders to always perform at your best in full rehearsals, where everybody can hear you and every mistake influences the other musicians.

“To make notes, make the notes. To get it right, you have to get it right.”

“This is how people play when they think they have more chances. What if this was the last chance?”

And of course, we were always reminded of the merits and necessities of practicing.

“Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong.”

“The only thing you can control is your own preparation.”

Jenny poses with Maestro Tinkham on the last night of CYSO’s 2017 Tour of Central Europe

Maestro Tinkham taught us life lessons just as much, or more, as he conducts (of course, the two are inextricably linked). Again, my phone notepad is now just a treasure trove of generally great life advice:

“Don’t be afraid of being silly.” (About being confident as a performer and conductor)

Some of his wisdom was a little bit more “musically inclined,” and took a little more extrapolation to link to life. “Play the spaces. Music is not just notes. Listen to the rests.”

Most of it was definitely to remind us to stay on track, and to chide us when we’d lost focus. To be honest, some of the best advice came from when we messed up. 

“You can guess at things, or you can open our eyes and ears and know what’s going on.”

“You need to have eagle vision, not chicken vision” (a wide field of view, as opposed to blind pecking).

“It takes a lifetime to figure out what you need and what you don’t need.”


My favorites, I think, were the ones that reminded us why we’re playing in an orchestra, and not just practicing at home:

“Your music can’t all be about yourself. The fun of [playing in an orchestra] is listening to everything else. “

“Things you do affect people all the way on the other side of the orchestra, that you don’t even know of–like life.”

Maestro Tinkham speaks to students before a performance at Orchestra Hall


But in the end, it all came back to music. “Every line you play should be the best line you’ve ever played.”

I’d like to think that during the last concert, somewhere in the back of my mind, Maestro Tinkham’s words and teachings were influencing us all to play our best and enjoy ourselves as we played that historic program.

Even beyond, Maestro Tinkham continued to inspire. As we prepared for the LAO concert and the Cedille recording with Anthony and Demarre McGill, we still had to perform better than our best–and Maestro Tinkham would not let us forget it.

“A lot of life is about stamina. If you move forward before learning something deeply, you will never get better. Nine out of ten is a terrible dismal failure for what we’re doing here. The secret is to use 100% of your mind if you want to enjoy things. If you want to be really successful in life, don’t stop trying. You will never be too good.”

As a senior, I’ve had far too much time to reflect on the future and entering the “real world,” and how much being a musician and playing in an orchestra has helped prepare me. I’ve learned to lead, and I’ve learned to follow; when to listen, and when to play out; how to express myself in different ways; and in general, how to contribute to something greater than I am. It’s awesome to sit in the middle of the music-making creature that is an orchestra.

Jenny rehearsing with members of Symphony Orchestra before the League of American Orchestras performance with the McGills in June 2018


“I’m really trying to find that right combination of words.”

Well, Maestro Tinkham, time and time and again I think you have. I’ve learned that, like people, music can be organic–it’s not just notes on a page, it’s all about interpretation and introspection and growth. One of the things I’ve always considered unique to a youth orchestra is how much it changes, as students leave and enter and change; it’s more alive and vibrant and beautiful than anything else.

I will really miss this experience, but I know that with the tools (seeds, perhaps, to fit with the metaphor?) it’s left us, when we leave, we will still be able to bloom.



Jennifer Yu Wang was co-principal flautist for CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra. She has been playing flute for eight years, and with CYSO for five. She studied with Susan Levitin, and her solo achievements include winning the Society of American Musicians and Chicago Flute Club competitions, as well as performing on WFMT Introductions. Jenny is active in chamber music and played in CYSO’s Zephyrus Winds woodwind quintet. Jenny recently graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and will attend Harvard University in the fall.

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