Photos by Elizabeth Anderson
Sophomore Julia Stevermer moves her left hand up and down the bridge of the cello, gliding the bow over the strings with her right hand. As she intently practices Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien,” she almost forgets that she’s playing an air-cello – and that she’s in the middle of English class.
But for Stevermer it doesn’t matter if she’s in fifth hour without her instrument — all she wants to do is practice for her upcoming audition.
Preparing for this audition made Stevermer reminisce her tryout for the Kansas City Symphony, when she felt a spiritual connection to her dad, who passed away when Julia was three.
“He had this pendant of this cello, and I had no idea, but he always loved music and he wanted me to study music,” Stevermer said. “I felt like I was almost communicating to my dad through music. I had the Brahms excerpt going on and I felt like my dad could hear me play, and it made me feel so comforted, and loved, and taken care of, and provided for. I just remember feeling so confident as I walked out of that audition room.”
That day Stevermer earned her spot in the symphony orchestra, the top group of the Kansas City Youth Orchestra, as well as playing in the highest orchestra at East, the chamber orchestra. It was now time for her to audition for her seat. Musicians in her group at the youth symphony are placed into seats from first to fifteenth, first being the best.
“There’s a huge difference between being first cellist and fifteenth cellist, which is like last chair,” Stevermer said. “And the cellists that I’m with, it’s the top freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the area . . . so I kind of [have] to compete against the best.”
In the week prior to the audition, Stevermer practiced for 22 hours, but she didn’t mind dedicating that much time to something so important to her. All that mattered was working on her songs until she got them to the best they could be, whether that took 15 minutes or four hours, though she always made sure to do her homework first.
According to Stevermer, on the day of the audition the Shawnee Mission South cafeteria warm-up room was a mosh pit of musicians frantically practicing.
“It’s very overwhelming at first because you’re hearing all of your competition all at once,” Stevermer said. “And if you’re hearing somebody play something faster than you, or better than you, or more in tune than you, it’s so intimidating.”
Even after all of the work she put in, Stevermer was sure she was going to get last chair, and even knew what she would say to people if they asked – she’d tell them she’d had a hard time learning the material.
“[Julia] is a perfectionist,” said Julia’s mother Helen Stevermer. “She is also relentless, self-effacing, and she’s very hard on herself. [She] probably doesn’t realize just how hard she tries because she’s always thinking that her practice is not quite good enough.”
Julia scanned down the list of names on the Sunday afternoon in the East band room when chairs were revealed, expecting to see hers at the bottom. But it wasn’t—she got sixth, the highest place out of the three other symphony musicians who go to the same private teacher.
Stevermer’s private teacher, Ho Ahn, has been a key part in making Stevermer the disciplined cellist she is today. When she met Ahn the summer before her sixth grade year, the first words that came out of the intimidating Kansas City Symphony cellist’s mouth were, “Next victim?”
Ahn boasts that by the time a student leaves his studio, he will have made them cry at least once. It’s his “claim to fame.” Though this may seem harsh to others, Stevermer immediately grew to enjoy his teaching style, and says that he is only strict to make his students the best they can be. She hasn’t let him see her cry—yet.
“I always feel like I’m improving with him,” Stevermer said. “Even if I’m sitting in my room at 11 p.m. practicing, I still feel like I’m working hard, and that I’m growing as a student and as a cellist.”
Stevermer has built a strong bond with Ahn, even calling him a father figure. Ahn is in the process of converting Julia to be a Baltimore fan, much to Julia’s mom’s dismay.
With all of the time she dedicates to cello, Stevermer has had to give up some of her other activities like volleyball, rodeo and polocrosse. She used to go to Colorado often to take lessons for barrel racing, a rodeo event, and would have liked to try out for the East volleyball team, but her cello schedule simply doesn’t allow it.
“I just love to play,” Stevermer said. “I couldn’t imagine my life without cello because I love the music, honestly. And I love being able to improve and see my improvement, and I want to get better.”
Stevermer is currently involved in a master class with a professor from Drake University, known for their strong music program. She doesn’t know where she wants to go, or what her next step is—what she does know is that it doesn’t matter where she goes, as long as she’s playing her cello. But for now, she’s content playing her invisible cello in the back of the English room fifth hour.