The School of Going Solo

alyssa tong, colton potter, sfcm, winter term

Alyssa Tong and Colton Potter perform with an orchestra during Winter Term 2022.

For the first time one professor introduced a Winter Term class that allowed for all students to perform as a soloist with an orchestra.

By Mark Taylor

Another Winter Term has come and gone at SFCM, but the lessons learned will remain. Winter Term is a time for students to immerse themselves in subjects beyond the standard curriculum, in a chance to diversify their music education experience. For students in instructor Simon James’ class, that included doing something many had never done before, performing as a soloist with an orchestra. 

It was a first-time experience for violin player Alyssa Tong. “I absolutely loved his winter term class! My experience soloing with orchestra is limited, so having the opportunity to professionally record with one is not something I take for granted,” Tong said.

Tong played a concerto with oboe player Colton Potter, and the pair chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor. For Potter, it was a unique learning experience, “It's a very different beast from playing with a single collaborative pianist, which we're all so accustomed to. It felt like I was living inside one of the recordings that I know so well from many years of listening to the piece!” Potter said.

The pair worked together ahead of time for the piece and then were recorded during class, and their hard work paid off, “It was very fun and not stressful,” Tong said. The violinist did learn a lesson when it came to cueing colleagues in a larger orchestra, “I learned a lot about what makes a clear cue. Part of the key is experience but also knowing how to make your sound clear in the way you use your bow so people can anticipate what you’ll do.”

From cuing to pressure, the pair both agree the experience of preparing and performing a concerto made them better musicians, “Preparing one is difficult, gritty work because it demands a high level of commitment and attention to detail if the soloist hopes for success. But the payoff is intensely satisfying, and I'm hungry for the next chance I get!” Potter said. 

The class was the idea of musician and faculty member Simon James. “I decided that nobody should graduate from the conservatory having not performed as a soloist with an orchestra,” James said. For the class, James formed an orchestra of 20 musicians of string and harpsichord players. Each student was allowed an allotted time to play over the duration of the course. In addition to their solo part, each student also committed to being part of the orchestra. For James the project took time and many hours of preparation, but was worth the effort, “I plan on doing it every year,” James continued, “The students played beautifully and I think I can say comfortably that it was a huge success.” 

The solo performance class was just one of about 90 Winter Term classes, which all are aimed at expanding the horizons for students, “One of the things I love most about SFCM is how the school encourages us to do things other than solely being in the practice room, which is essential for our career. Being good at your instrument is obviously important, but so is developing other skills,” Tong said.

For both students, Winter Term is one of their favorite parts of attending SFCM, ”Winter Term is one of the most special ingredients in the curriculum here at SFCM, and the irony is that it's designed to allow students to step outside that very curriculum,” Potter said. The unique experience will come in extra hand for Potter as he was recently chosen to sub in with the San Francisco Symphony this month, “In truth, each and every one of our life experiences informs our music-making. Winter Term exists in service of that principle.” 

Watch Alyssa Tong and Colton Potter perform below:

Learn more about Winter Term or applying to SFCM.