For high school seniors, this past year has been anything but ordinary. But for Bryce Kayser, class of 2021 at Oak Park and River Forest High School, this year has been somewhat extraordinary. 

Bryce plays viola, and though learning remotely sent music-making into isolation, he played on, even when he felt unmotivated and struggled last spring and summer. But he pushed forward, knowing he had to work on audition music for his chosen double major for college — viola performance and music education. 

“If I didn’t have my college auditions, there was a lot less to look forward to,” Bryce said. “Playing in an orchestra, collaborating with others, chamber ensembles, that sort of thing, is one of my favorite parts of playing viola. And getting to meet new people, performing with them and being able to share a common goal and passion — I think that’s fantastic.” During the pandemic, these types of experiences have rarely existed for any music performer. 

Bryce continued to work on his music, however. He practices 2-3 hours a day, and sometimes up to five or six hours, he said. This perseverance has led to some remarkable experiences. 

In March, Bryce became the first African-American student to win the OPRF High School Concerto Competition according to records from the past 25 years or longer. 

It is his third year competing and first win. He said, “It was one of my goals for high school. I wanted to be a winner at least once, so I’m very thrilled that it came to be.” 

The competition, in existence since the 1970s, is hosted by Patrick Pearson, orchestra director, who inherited the competition 18 years ago when he began teaching at the high school. He brings in three outside judges to choose three winners annually. The winners play at the final concert of the spring semester. A virtual concert is in the works for mid-May this year and Pearson said how the Concerto Competition-winning students will be included is not yet determined. This year’s winners also include Clara Dodge and August Schwob who both play cello. 

But that’s not all Bryce has accomplished. In January, along with eight other musicians from the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) and select members of the Chicago Children’s Choir, he performed “Together” with Peter Cottontail and others in a video that aired on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Bryce Kayser, an OPRF student and viola player, stands for a photo on Friday, April 9, 2021, outside of Oak Park and River Forest High School on Scoville Avenue in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

It was one of his first experiences playing in a small ensemble and he “thought it would also be fun to play with a choir,” something he never gets to do. He also had not recorded in a studio before and liked seeing everything “that goes on behind the scenes.” And getting to know more people in the Chicago area was a great opportunity, Bryce said. He was a little scared about it airing on TV, but mostly excited, especially after they wrapped at the studio. His family stayed up late the night the show aired. “It feels great to know there are so many people supporting me,” he said.      

Since his freshman year in high school, Bryce has been in the CYSO, which is highly competitive and draws among the best student musicians in Chicago and surrounding communities. By sophomore year, he was in the Symphonic Orchestra, the CYSO’s highest level ensemble. He humbly acknowledged that, as they went back to rehearsing in person on April 11, he is the principal violist. 

“Playing with so many other musicians that care and have the same passion and desire as you, it allows for more potential to have fun getting the message of the composer across to the audience,” he said. He has found some of his closest friends among CYSO members.  

Bryce also appreciates his time playing in Symphony Orchestra at OPRF under the direction of Pearson. He credits his instructors for influencing his future career path, which is to teach music to high school students. 

“Mr. Pearson at the high school; Maestro (Allen) Tinkham, CYSO; my private instructor, Michael Hining — I’m really fortunate to have so many great instructors in my life. They have made such a profound impact on me,” Bryce said with a smile. “And I want to help other kids have the same great experience I had.” 

An adult musician who also takes lessons from the Violin and Viola Studio of Michael Hining, Oak Park, said she has watched Bryce grow into “a wonderful human being.” 

“I have also watched him dedicate himself to the viola,” said Michelle Harton, “with countless hours of practice, persevering to get the right nuance in sound and emotion, the right technique, committed to delivering some of the most beautiful sounds. He has also been my teacher; when we were working on something together, he is sensitive and patient, he has helped me with my viola technique, and willingly, unselfishly helps others.”

Pearson said of his student of the past four years, “He’s fantastic and doesn’t let his talent go to his head. He’s also a typical high school kid and well loved by his peers.”

During those hours-long practice sessions, Bryce takes breaks to “keep the right mindset” and stretches while thinking about goals for the practice session. Or he may turn to his dog Bear, a 16-pound Bichon Shih Tzu mix to pet him or take him for a walk around Oak Park, where Bryce has lived his whole life, attending Longfellow Elementary and then Percy Julian Middle School. It was as a Longfellow fourth-grader that Bryce first picked up a viola. He began taking lessons in fifth grade and got serious in sixth grade, he said. By high school, he performed in two ILMEA (Illinois Music Educators Association) All State Orchestra Festivals and three district festivals, achieved through competitive auditions.

“He’s one of the top musicians in my career,” said Pearson, a veteran orchestra teacher of 32 years.  

Bryce begins the next step of his musical journey at the University of Colorado Boulder, this fall. 

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