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Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2003

IU Feature: School of Music trumpet standout prepares to enter new world of performance

EDITORS: Justin Bartels will perform a recital on Aug. 9 at 6 p.m. in the School of Music's Auer Hall. The concert is free and open to the public. Bartels is from Birmingham, Ala.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Justin Bartels absolutely hated it -- that awful, grating sound coming from the tape deck while he and his mom sped along the streets of Atlanta, usually headed to the next baseball or football practice.

He'd wait a few seconds before deciding that his 10-year-old ears had had enough of the offending music (better known as Scheherazade by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra). With a quick flick of the wrist and an angry turn of the dial, the music would stop, though never quite fast enough for Justin.

Fast forward five years. Bartels, a high school band student, sports nut and aspiring trumpet player in Birmingham, Ala., finds himself in band class practicing the very same music and, lo and behold, actually enjoying himself. Really enjoying himself.

"It's one of my favorite pieces of music now," admitted Bartels, now 24 and a senior trumpet player in the Indiana University School of Music. "You might not believe it, but it's almost like I want to go back to when I was a kid and listen to it again. All these years later, I'm still asking myself, 'Why did I turn that off?'"

Bartels has more than made up for his childhood assault on mom's tape deck. After he graduates from the IU School of Music in August, he'll head south to Miami Beach and the New World Symphony, one of the nation's leading orchestral academies. Bartels is one of just two new trumpet players chosen for the 85-member symphony, which trains the most gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership positions in orchestras and ensembles around the world.

Established in 1987 under the artistic direction of world-renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the New World Symphony is structured as an intensive three-year fellowship program, selecting its members through highly competitive national auditions. Located in the heart of Miami Beach's popular Art Deco district, the symphony regularly performs to sold-out crowds in the landmark Lincoln Theatre. This year, the symphony -- which boasts more than 400 alumni who have gone on to positions with professional orchestras and ensembles -- will perform at New York City's Carnegie Hall and throughout Europe.

The New World Symphony represents much more than Bartels ever expected when he made the decision three years ago to come to Bloomington to study music. It's also a testament to his drive and determination, traits that Bartels can't help but reveal in his quietly confident speech, unassuming body language and, perhaps most identifiably, his passionate trumpet playing.

As recently as high school, Bartels, the first person in his family to become a musician, remembers people telling him there was no way he would be able to play his trumpet professionally. They said a kid from Alabama wouldn't stand a chance competing with musical prodigies from cities like New York and Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. All the negative talk made him work that much harder.

"I just wanted it bad enough that it was something I pursued," Bartels said. "I didn't like having someone tell me I couldn't do it. I always thought it would be so cool to be a part of a professional orchestra. I couldn't throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. This was something I could do."

When he arrived at IU in 2000 -- after stints at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and the University of Cincinnati, where he met and studied with former IU School of Music Professor Marie Speziale -- Bartels dived headfirst into his musical studies. He performed regularly in IU's University Orchestra, Concert Orchestra and Philharmonic Orchestra, and soon he began auditioning for several of the nation's top professional ensembles -- nearly 20 professional auditions in the last three years. He quickly discovered how challenging the School of Music was and how brutally competitive the professional audition process would be.

Bartels credits his education at the School of Music with helping to prepare him for the New World Symphony and its intensive schedule of individual and ensemble coaching, domestic and international touring, and recording activity.

"IU was so demanding, day in and day out, not just when you had a concert to perform," Bartels said. "All of the instructors here put you through intense training because they expect you to get it right.

"Now I'll be playing the same type of music (with the New World Symphony), but it will be that more intense. We'll be rehearsing all the time."

Speziale, who left the IU School of Music in the spring after four years of teaching in Bloomington, knows firsthand how imposing the New World Orchestra can seem to a young musician.

"Justin is going to be in for quite a rigorous year," said Speziale, who now teaches at Rice University in Houston. "Everyone in the New World Orchestra is put to the test on a very regular basis. At the same time, he'll have the good fortune to work with a really great orchestra and some of the world's top musicians throughout the year."

Speziale is confident that her student is up to the challenge, and she can't resist an analogy to her favorite sport. "Justin's a little like Pete Rose," she said, "in that he's willing to get himself dirty. A lot of people just play to the right notes. Justin dares to be wrong. He'll give it a go and I appreciate that. I'd rather hear a performance that has excitement to it, and I think that's what is so present when you hear Justin play. He works so hard and he is very passionate about his playing, and sometimes he wears that emotion on his sleeve."

At some point in their careers, most performers learn the fine line between playing and, as Speziale explained, playing "with controlled abandon." It's a line that applies to both the ball field and the ballroom. Speziale said that Bartels is still learning to use his emotions to the benefit of his trumpet playing and that the New World Symphony should help him find the appropriate note. If he can channel these emotions with his drive, dedication and already impressive technique, Speziale feels that the School of Music could have another all-star to add to its alumni list. "Justin's got a commitment to the message he wants to send through his music, and he's not afraid to deliver it," she said.

When it comes to getting ready to deliver himself to the New World Symphony, Bartels already sounds like someone who has his emotions in check. And while he still might have some of that 10-year-old-in-mom's-car in him, he's no longer complaining about the ride.

"I'm just a trumpet player. No one ever forced me to do this. It's just something I wanted to do," he said.

"And, hey, I'm heading to South Beach, so how can you complain?"