Pencil or Bow: Featuring Stuyvesant’s First Violinist

Senior Sean Takada, a member of the pre-college program at Juilliard, performed a solo at the Winter Concert to commemorate Bernstein’s 100th birthday.

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Senior Sean Takada sat still on stage, ready to perform composer Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade” as a soloist at the Winter Concert on Monday, December 17, to commemorate Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. Leonard Bernstein, in Takada’s words, is “one of America’s most celebrated composers,” known for his pieces “Mass” and “Candide.” Takada was the obvious choice for the solo at the Winter Concert, as he is one of the best violin players in Stuyvesant’s symphonic orchestra. But Takada did not reach this high level overnight; it took years of hard work and practice for him to achieve near-mastery of the violin.

Takada started playing the violin when he was four and a half years old. Unlike with other Stuyvesant instrumentalists, Takada’s parents did not push for him to play the violin. Instead, Takada had to convince his mother to allow him to play because she worried that playing violin would take up too much time and effort. Takada recalled, “We went to Japan over the summer, and [the] son [of a friend of ours] played the violin for us, and I really liked the sound and said, ‘Mom, can I start learning the violin?’ She said, ‘No, are you sure you want to do it? It’s a lot of effort.’” Takada was sure. At the beginning of his career, Takada only played the violin recreationally. But as he realized that he had both a natural talent and a love for the instrument, he began to devote more time to playing the violin.

Committing to the violin came at a cost; Takada was forced to give up other extracurriculars to continue playing the violin at a high level. The first time Takada was faced with such a decision was when he was 10 years old and had to decide between staying on his travel soccer team and attending the San Francisco Conservatory, a prestigious music school. At that time, Takada lived in Silicon Valley, California, so commuting to San Francisco—about 30 minutes by car—was not an inconvenience. Takada chose to attend the Conservatory because he “realized that [he] probably had more talent for violin than for soccer,” he said.

Takada stayed at the San Francisco Conservatory for a few years and moved to New York at the beginning of eighth grade upon acceptance into the Juilliard Pre-College Program. Takada was encouraged to apply by his teacher, who was offered a job at the Juilliard School. “I want to keep teaching you,” his teacher told him. “So do you want to come to New York with me?”

Application to the Juilliard Pre-College program is very rigorous and requires multiple rounds of auditioning. “First, you send in a videotape the judges view,” Takada explained. “The judges narrow it to about 100 people from about 600 people. Those people go to Juilliard for a live audition in front of a panel, and from there, depending on how many people graduate that year, usually maybe about 10 slots [are accepted], sometimes fewer, for each instrument.” For Takada, the private performance was the most stressful part. He recalled, “Before my audition at Julliard, my legs were literally shaking. I was like, ‘Mom, I can’t walk into the room,’ I was so nervous. But once I started playing, I calmed down.”

After a long, arduous process, Takada was selected for the Juilliard Pre-college Program and moved to New York City with his mom. His dad stayed in Silicon Valley and visits once a year.

Now, Takada attends the Juilliard Pre-College Program every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. His day consists of chamber music, orchestra, music theory, and private lessons with his teacher. In addition to devoting his Saturdays to practice, Takada also tries to practice more than an hour every day after school, but due to Stuyvesant’s heavy workload, Takada “sometimes doesn’t have as much time as [he] would like to practice,” he said. This practice is in addition to a school period that is allocated to orchestra practice under the supervision of music teacher Joseph Tamosaitis.

As a freshman, Takada remembered “putting a lot of more effort into violin rather than school, and that took a toll on [his] grades,” he said. This is in part because Takada came to Stuyvesant “by chance,” he said. He wasn’t aware of Stuyvesant’s reputation of being very academically intense and had only heard that it was a good school. However, Takada did begin to put more effort into his schoolwork as he realized how academically rigorous Stuyvesant was. This improved his grades but in turn took a toll on violin practice. Though playing violin was important to Takada, he realized that he was more likely to have an academic future and not become a professional violinist.

Takada hopes to continue playing the violin as a part of an orchestra in college but is not planning on playing violin professionally. Instead, Takada is interested in history or international relations. He explained, “If I just wanted to do violin [professionally], I definitely wouldn’t have come to Stuy, because otherwise, I could have practiced so much more. So for now, I guess I’m going on the academic road.”

But the violin is still a large part of Takada’s identity. When asked “What is one unique thing about you,” Takada kept the answer simple: “Violin,” he said.

This one instrument requires so much time and commitment for players of all levels. Even though the violin is reputed as one of the most difficult and nerve-racking instruments to learn, play, and perform, it is also one of the most gratifying: “I do get nervous before I go out to play,” Takada said. “But once I am in front of people, I calm down, and once I start playing, I get into my groove […] After a successful performance, it’s really great because after months of putting work into pieces, [...] you feel really proud of yourself.”