By Ken Trainor
In the film Win Win, a high school wrestling coach, during a reflective moment, asks his star wrestler, a bona fide prodigy, "What's it like to be that good at something?"
Most of the people in the audience for the OPRF High School Orchestra's Senior Farewell Concert, May 15, probably wondered the same thing as Scott Daniel, one of three winners of the 2012-13 OPRF Concerto Competition, launched into Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major.
How difficult is the Tchaikovsky violin concerto?
"Pretty hard," said Daniel, in an interview the following day in the school's Little Theatre, his feet draped casually over the seat in front of him.
For those not intimately familiar with this concerto, "pretty hard" to Scott Daniel translates to "un-fricking-believable" to the rest of us.
"I've been playing it for about seven months now at recitals and a master class a few weeks ago," Daniel said. In other words, roughly since last September when he was named one of the concerto competition winners. "But it was my first time with an orchestra. That was super-fun having the whole group behind me."
Then he got technical.
"The hardness to funness ratio is pretty good," he said. "How satisfying it is to play justifies whatever technical difficulty there is." In other words, "It's really fun to play."
Fun to listen to also, judging by the roar of the standing-O that followed his performance.
Then again, Daniel has been playing the violin for almost his entire life. He started at the age of 4, so technically that's only 14 years, but still.
His parents, Alan Goldberg and Karen Daniel, wanted him to take up an instrument, so they got a book of instruments from the library. At the age of 4, mind you, he announced that he would play the first instrument in the book, which happened to be a cello.
"I couldn't figure out if the first instrument was a violin or a cello," he recalled. To a 4-year-old, they looked the same. So his mom arranged for a cello teacher. Then he said, no, no, no. Violin.
"I couldn't see myself playing anything else," he said. "There was no rhyme or reason at the time for picking the violin, but I think it was totally the right choice."
Oddly enough, neither of his parents is musically inclined, though his father has a huge classical music collection.
"I was brought up singing arias when I was 2 and making CDs for my dad of my favorite classical pieces," Daniel said. "One thing that helped my progress in music is that whereas for some people the classical repertoire is a dramatic change, for me it was the norm. It didn't seem old or stuffy to me. It was fun."
But what confirmed his love of the instrument, when his peers were quitting to pursue other interests, was when he became a fiddler.
"I started listening to the Farmers Market band on the weekends. I thought it was really cool what the fiddlers did."
He started taking lessons from Mike Casey, one of the regulars in the Saturday circle at the market. Playing bluegrass fiddle, Daniel discovered, was entirely different.
"It wasn't about technique and scales. He would say, you want to play a fill here, and this type of lick goes in this situation. You want to tick it off like this and add a tag like that. It was like learning a whole new language. It was an adventure."
For a few years he played regularly with the Farmers Market group.
"From there it just exploded," he said. A few years back, he was named the Illinois State Fair junior fiddle champion. "I definitely like to play bluegrass and jazz and rock all the time."
And classical. His first teacher, Kristina Gullion, lived three doors down the street — very convenient for a preschooler. When she moved out of state, he took lessons with Sarah Gasse in Forest Park. His current teacher is Jennifer Cappelli.
Does he consider himself "a natural"?
"I've never been sure how much of any performer is talent and how much is training," he observes. "The boundaries between the two are blurred. People have said I'm fast to pick things up, but I have to pick it up — like the many months I spent preparing for the Tchaikovsky concerto. It was facilitated by whatever penchant I already have for the instrument, but the training itself is what let me play the concerto the way I did.
"The thing about music is there's so many people doing it that you're never the biggest fish. As I got older, I'm glad I got to play next to so many talented people because that showed me there's no limit to talent. You can keep improving and improving no matter how far you go.
So where does he want to go? Well, the next step is Williams College, a small but highly regarded liberal arts school in Massachusetts, where he hopes to complete a double major in music and computer science.
"I knew I wanted to continue music," he said, "but I also knew I didn't want to go to a conservatory because I have a lot of other interests, academic and computer science-related, that I wanted to pursue. I don't see myself necessarily entering the elite classical world. I don't see myself in an orchestra as much as playing in a band or a studio musician or touring around with some bluegrass or jazz group."
That could mean joining a band or taking a more experimental route, ala Andrew Bird, who is known for his innovative looping of violin and singing.
"What attracts me to that kind of lifestyle," he noted, "is that it's something you shape yourself." But whether all that pans out, he added, music will always be part of his life, even if he makes his living in computer programming and plays on the side. He met musicians like that in the Farmers Market band. One member, Ben Stark, is a physicist at Fermi Lab, who comes to the market each Saturday just to play the fiddle.
Which brings us back to the original question. What's it like to be that good at something? You might not think so to look at and listen to him, but Scott Daniel gets nervous before he plays. Really nervous.
"I can practice and rehearse however much I want, but when I play, it's like a super-intense sensation. As I've gotten older, it really hasn't dissipated, but I've learned to acknowledge and play alongside it. People have told me that it's something everyone has. In the concerto performance, it was super-bad, but at the same time I felt, 'This music is great,' so it was fun."
But he has come to terms with standing out. "When you do something so long that you get good at it, whatever level you're at becomes the norm for you. I'm happy when I can exceed that norm and play a better-than-usual show or performance, and it's not as fun when I play at less than the norm.
"It's really cool that the ability to make music that people really value is just part of me now. I'm thankful that I started at such a young age and my parents encouraged me all along the way, so now I don't have to put all my mind power into it. That's a real gift to have something extraordinary become a natural thing. For me that's music. I have theater friends who are great actors. Like with John Clay, I have to hold myself back from saying, 'That was fantastic!' But everything he does is fantastic, so I'm sure he hears that a lot.
"It's tough to be critical of yourself when people think that everything you do is 'awesome.' I tell myself it's great to enjoy the praise and the feeling of success, but I don't want that to abate my desire to get better. There's always a desire to get better. I've had better performances than last night. I've also had worse performances than last night. What's important to me is to give something to other people, and the fact that they enjoyed it, regardless of my own criticism, is really satisfying."
His parents all along advised him to "keep it low-key."
"Whatever I do, that will speak for itself," he said. "If they think it's great, that's fantastic."