Hour by hour, day by day, note by note, the painstakingly tedious process dragged on for months.
And the intended result was clear — perfection.
That was the precise level Edgemont High School senior Atticus Margulis-Ohnuma was aiming to achieve in order to reach his intended goal. He knew he would have to be perfect as he prepared to audition on his violin for the All-National high school orchestra.
For three intense months, Margulis-Ohnuma focused all of his musical efforts on the same two pieces of music, practicing them over and over and over again.
That effort paid off as earlier this month he found out he had been selected to join the prestigious All-National orchestra.
“When I found out I was accepted into All-National I was surprised and excited,” Atticus said. “I was actually practicing violin when I got the email, and I immediately opened it and then rushed upstairs to tell my parents. I had assumed my chance of getting in was pretty low, and when I got the email that I got in, I was ecstatic. I was just really happy that all my work for the audition had paid off.”
After years of lessons, daily rehearsals, countless hours of practice, Margulis-Ohnuma had reached the pinnacle of success for a high school musician.
To reach that level he had to first earn All-State honors last year as a junior. New York State is recognized as one of the top states in the nation in terms of the high quality musicians performing in high school. It often takes a perfect score on your audition to earn All-State honors in New York. Once you earn All-State you can apply for All-Eastern and then All-National honors as a senior.
It’s not an easy process. John Catoliato, head of the instrumental music program at Edgemont Junior/Senior High School, has been at the school for 13 years and said Margulis-Ohnuma is the first All-National student he has seen and may be the first ever for Edgemont.
Catoliato runs the jazz ensemble at EHS and he knows how talented Margulis-Ohnuma is on multiple instruments.
“Atticus has always stood out as an extraordinary musician, even among a field of other gifted performers through the years in Edgemont,” explained Catoliato. “In addition to being an All-National violinist, he is the lead alto saxophone of Edgemont’s Jazz Ensemble, and he sings in Edgemont’s award-winning Chamber Choir. Outside of school, he composes, works as a music librarian, and plays with the New York Youth Symphony.”
At Edgemont, he has been working with orchestra instructor Brittany Robinson-Chen since seventh grade.
Robinson-Chen is quick to point out it is more than just natural musical talent that helped Margulis-Ohnuma reach the All-National level. It takes a lot of hard work to develop that talent to its full potential, and Margulis-Ohnuma has put in the time.
“His level of musicianship is professional level. He plays like a seasoned professional musician,” said Robinson-Chen. “Yes, he has innate talent, but he also just works really hard at it. He is a very committed student. His musical and personal maturity have gained him the respect of his classmates. I’ve worked with him since he was a seventh grader and it has been wonderful to see him mature to his current level of playing. He has a very supportive family who are all very musically involved, but it is Atticus’s work ethic that has enabled him to find the success he enjoys. He is obviously an exemplary musician, but he is also a good person, which in my mind is even more important.”
The All-National orchestra is a program offered by the National Association for Music Educators (NAfME), which selects members for the orchestra. For the audition, Margulis-Ohnuma had to select a piece from a number of difficult high-level pieces to perform as his solo. He chose a Bach concerto.
In addition to that piece, the NAfME sends out an etude that all the students have to learn and perform. Margulis-Ohnuma said the etude arrived as a PDF file without the name of the composer on the music.
“It was the hardest audition process I’ve ever done,” admitted Margulis-Ohnuma. “The music they asked us to play was really hard, which indicates to me it’s a pretty high level group of musicians. There were some very hard spots. Playing the same thing for that long, at some point if you play something too much all at once, you lose sight of the piece. I had to get out of that rut and move on to the next level.”
While he admits there were times it was a struggle and he wondered if he would ever be able to master the pieces in time for his audition, he also remembers the day he made a big breakthrough that helped him rise to the level he needed to make All-National.
“The etude has a really strange bow stroke and I couldn’t figure it out for a long time,” Margulis-Ohnuma said. “When I finally figured that out I was really excited.”
Of course, to reach this level it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of lessons and hours of practice to keep improving.
Margulis-Ohnuma started taking lessons when he was 3 years old after an incident in New York City convinced his parents he should play the violin. He doesn’t remember it, but family legend has it that they were walking in the New York City subway and someone was playing the violin. Then 2-year-old Atticus was mesmerized and didn’t want to leave, so they signed him up for violin lessons.
He started taking lessons near their home in Cold Spring, New York. Then when the family moved to Edgemont, he began taking lessons at Hoff-Barthelson. He credits Hoff-Barthelson for teaching him the mechanics and basics to play the violin.
However, he was not a 3-year-old child prodigy. He had to work really hard, which was not his main priority as a young kid growing up.
That would change the summer before entering seventh grade when he went to music camp for the first time.
“I got really serious going into seventh grade,” he said. “I went away to Greenwood Music Camp in Massachusetts and that changed my whole relationship with music, what it meant to me. I met all these people who were super passionate about music and it really opened my eyes. I went home after that and started practicing a lot more. Music camp is mostly chamber music, small ensembles, so we’re playing together with a sense of community making something together and it was special [being] surrounded by people who lived and breathed music. I saw how much was out there, how much I could improve, how much music there was in the world that I could learn to play. Going there really changed my whole musical experience.”
It was also at music camp that he met his current teacher for private lessons. Rebecca Fischer is a professor at Mannes School of Music conservatory in Manhattan, and she was his instructor at the Greenwood Music Camp.
Since his first summer at music camp, Margulis-Ohnuma said, he has practices about two hours a day in addition to rehearsals throughout the week at school in Edgemont and with his other orchestras.
Two years ago he auditioned for and earned a place with the New York Youth Symphony orchestra that rehearses and performs in New York City at Carnegie Hall. This week, he was in Manhattan for two days recording music with the youth orchestra.
Between his private lessons with Fischer and his orchestral work with the youth orchestra, he is spending a lot of time in the city with other serious musicians, which helps him keep improving as a violin player, he said.
In a normal year, as a member of the All-National orchestra Margulis-Ohnuma would be getting ready for a trip to Orlando, Florida, to perform with the orchestra. However, that performance has been canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, now that he has achieved All-National honors and can move on to his next challenge, Margulis-Ohnuma is focused on his college decision and where he will continue to play music next fall.
He’s not sure what college he will end up at, but he hopes to be at a liberal arts college with a good music program that offers composition.
“I would like to be a musician, for me the goal is to be a composer and write music for movies,” he said. “Playing in an orchestra is definitely a possibility. Maybe I’ll go to college and be inspired by a great teacher to play in an orchestra ...”
His sister Miranda is an Edgemont graduate who set a good example for her little brother to follow as a musician. A sophomore in college, Miranda earned All-State and All-Eastern honors on the oboe while at Edgemont. To help avoid any sibling rivalries, their parents wisely set it up so that Atticus played violin and saxophone while Miranda played the cello and oboe.
“We started playing at the same time, she’s two years older than me and there came a time she was more serious about it than me and she got really good. Then I’ve been catching up the last few years,” Atticus said.
The two siblings have reached a high level of play on their respective instruments and they support each other in their musical endeavors. Throughout it all, that is one constant in his life that he is grateful for — the support of his family.
“I’m lucky, my family has been very supportive and I’ve had amazing support [from] people around me the whole time, that made it a lot easier,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing, all throughout the time that I’ve played violin I’ve felt like there were people there who wanted me to play, who came to all of my concerts. They’re always there for me, and that really helped me get to where I am.”