Thursday, March 30, 2023

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Diné cellist takes the Phoenix Metro area by storm

By Chael Moore
Special to the Times


Courtesy photo
Taeyon Tsosie, a senior and Diné cellist from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., poses with his cello.

For Taeyon Tsosie, the cello is the closest instrument that resembles the human voice. This four-stringed bass instrument, deriving from the violin family, can beautifully depict the lower and higher notes of the voice and has become Tsosie’s passion.

Tsosie is the son of Lionel Tsosie and Louri Coversup and is Tsi’naajinii and born for Ta’neeszahnii. He is currently a senior at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, and at 17 years old, he is in the 1% of Diné cellists who play in Arizona.

Meant to be

At 5, Tsosie wasn’t a typical child who would listen to mainstream music. Instead, Tsosie’s parents would catch their son listening to classical music through his headphones.

Tsosie’s first instrument was the violin which became his first introduction to classical music and composers in the fourth and fifth grades. In his sixth-grade year, Tsosie went a year without practicing his instrument.

That all changed in Tsosie’s first semester of seventh grade when he met his current high school music teacher at Saguaro High, Robert Reyes. Reyes has taught orchestra for 18 years and has known Tsosie for about four years. During Tsosie’s first semester, Reyes noticed that he would hang out in his classroom with his other orchestra students despite Tsosie not being part of the school orchestra himself.

Reyes ultimately encouraged him to join in his second semester after learning that Tsosie had experience playing the violin before. Tsosie quickly realized that the violin was no longer his instrument after joining. A year of not playing caused him to forget finger positionings and notice that he was not as advanced as some of his classmates. It was in that year Tsosie met his love for the cello and took to it naturally.

“The guy’s brain operates at a whole other level, and I don’t say this with hyperbole, but he’s a genius. He’s heavy into chemistry, so he’s not just a one-trick pony. He’s really brainy with science and math, and he’s one of the top students at Saguaro, too,” Reyes said.

According to Reyes, some of Tsosie’s greatest strengths is his confidence, and after being a teacher for so long, students like Tsosie are appreciated.

“He’s one of the kindest students I’ve ever had in my career. He’s very thoughtful, he’s very positive, and I think the biggest thing for me is he’s very encouraging to everybody, including me,” Reyes added.

Tsosie also owes much of his skill to his classmate, friend, and consistent duet partner, Olivia Shulte. Tsosie met his classmate in middle school and said she had been someone he had looked up to for her skill and charisma, but he also appreciated that she challenged him.

He improved his skills well enough to be recommended to a private cello instructor, Mary Frances DiBartolo. DiBartolo was a previous music professor at Northern Arizona University and had been teaching for 17 years. DiBartolo said Tsosie had never had a private cello lesson until he met her.

“He was self-taught, which was amazing that he was at the level that he was because he was already quite advanced when I met him. He is his own force,” DiBartolo expressed.

DiBartolo is one of his mentors who teaches historical context, technique, and orchestra etiquette and encourages Tsosie to branch out to different orchestras. She shared that Tsosie is fearless and has great sound and expression in the cello she prefers to book. She recommended Tsosie over some professional cellists in the local Phoenix Metropolitan area.

It takes a village

For the Tsosie family, having a son and grandson play the cello was uncharted territory. Many of Tsosie’s siblings played basketball and football and even went off to play at the collegiate level, but for Taeyon, it was a musical instrument and orchestra.

Despite the learning curve, Tsosie’s parents and grandparents have always been supportive, from attending every performance, and scheduling lessons and practices, to searching for an instrument Tsosie can have of his own.

“We wanted to figure out how long this passion was going to be because investing in something like a cello is a lot of money,” Tsosie’s parents expressed.

Historically, cello prices can range from as low as $300 to $2,500 for a beginner instrument but can increase to over $10,000 to $30,000 for a higher-quality instrument. Bows range from $300 to $400 individually, and cases are separately priced.

Tsosie’s family support system comprises his parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. His grandfather, Rudy Begay, shared that even with his grandson’s potential, it takes the people he surrounds himself with to bring him back down to earth sometimes. His parents believe communication and supporting their children’s interests are key to Tsosie’s success.

Above and beyond

Throughout his high school years, Tsosie is constantly striving to be better. In addition to his school orchestra, Tsosie takes several Advanced Placement courses, is dually enrolled at Paradise Valley and Scottsdale Community College, enjoys science and singing, and experimenting with music. Tsosie expressed that he likes to challenge himself, and although his extracurriculars can make life chaotic, he enjoys what he does and knows his limits very well.

Even with his self-motivation and awareness, Tsosie’s accomplishments would not have been possible without the family and support system that he comes from.

“With the support of my family, my parents, my friends, they made it easier for me to be able to do this type of stuff. Without them, I don’t know where I would be right now. I don’t know if I’d be able to get into this type of profession,” Tsosie shared.

Humble beginnings

Before Tsosie was gifted his current cello, he frequently used the standard school-issued cello from his high school orchestra for his auditions and performances. When he would arrive at competitive auditions, Tsosie often felt intimidated, considering he was performing with his school-issued cello versus others who might have had custom, thousand-dollar instruments.

This didn’t discourage Tsosie, though. Tsosie began to land more auditions, and music opportunities as his skills improved. It became clear he was talented, and the urgency to find Tsosie a better-quality instrument by his high school orchestra teacher and parents came with it.

Tsosie understands that the cello is an expensive instrument for himself and his family. Without the luxury of spending thousands of dollars on this instrument, he needed to be intentional with practicing, work hard, and ultimately be a kind, authentic person, and indeed only good things can happen. For Tsosie, it did when he was gifted his very own cello from a close friend.

Playing for two people

During Tsosie’s sophomore year of high school, he met a good friend, Alec Berg, a senior who also played the cello and was an excellent musician.

During Berg’s senior year, he asked Tsosie if he could perform a duet with him for his audition for the ASU music program. For several weeks, the two would practice and created a close friendship with one another. Berg later graduated in 2021 and was accepted into the music program at Arizona State University, where he was also an honors student with Barrett.

Unfortunately, in May of 2022, Berg passed away. It was a shocking reality not only for the Berg family but for Tsosie as well. At Berg’s services, many of his childhood music teachers were in attendance for a celebration of his life and musical talent. In the same week, Berg’s parents reached out to Tsosie and said they wanted to gift Tsosie their sons’ cello.

“The parents saw that me and Alec were friends, and they always saw us practicing together, and I think that kind of went into their decision. And I remember getting that call from his mom, and she told me that ‘Alec was talking about giving you his cello, and I think that it’d be great if you took it,’” Tsosie shared.

Tsosie later honored his friend at his services by playing a piece for those in attendance and surprising his loved ones using Berg’s cello. The Tsosie family expressed it was not only a bittersweet moment but an honor to receive Berg’s cello. Tsosie shared that he has not considered purchasing a new cello any time soon since that moment.

“I haven’t even considered getting a different cello. It hasn’t even been a thought. It’s all I play with. It’s all I audition with. And since then, I’ve been playing for two people. Every time I audition, it’s not only for myself, but it’s to honor Alec, and to be able to play with his instrument is like playing for two people,” Tsosie said.

Getting to first chair and the future

Since his junior year, Tsosie has landed more opportunities and awards than he thought was possible. Practicing for two hours every day and his years of experience has allowed him to be creative with music writing and distinguish music notes by ear, but also land first chair positions for many orchestras.

In an orchestra, the first chair is reserved for the most skilled or highly competent musician in any given category. It’s the closest seat to the audience and tends to be the leader of a section, granting cues and direction to the other musicians. They are typically given the opportunity for solo performances as well.

Tsosie plays for the Youth Symphony of the Southwest, a classical music source for the surrounding community, as first and second chair. They perform symphonic and chamber concerts for all audiences at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, Arizona. He plays for and is often a substitute for professional musicians in the West Valley Symphony. Other places he’s performed are the Herberger Theater at Arizona State University, Symphony Hall, Phoenix Opera, and the Arizona Opera.

The reason he has been able to work with many of these big companies at his age is not only from creating connections but from the values his family has instilled in him, Tsosie expressed. Values such as having respect for your elders, being kind, humble, professional, and appreciative of every win, big or small, have gotten him far in his passion.

Tsosie receives multiple awards, including the North Central Regional Award in Cello, Section Leader Award in Cello, and Arizona All-State Award in Cello, among others. The ability to play the cello and pursue what he loves comes with much-deserved recognition and responsibility. Tsosie is often one of the very few Indigenous cellists present at his auditions and events and recognizes that due to that, he can be a role model for others.

“You have to kind of go into these auditions like it’s a job. You want them to hire you, and because of that, you always want to share your best self, and I’ve always wanted to be remembered as obviously someone who plays the cello, but also someone nice,” Tsosie said.

Tsosie shared that it can be easy to feel pressure to follow in others’ footsteps and is happy to have found his passion in cello and the sciences.

“I hope that it influences other Native students that pursue any type of art form to keep doing what you love and to not color in the lines, don’t let anyone else shape who you are,” he said.

Tsosie has short-term goals to be selected for a higher chair position for the All-State Orchestra following regionals. In the future, Tsosie has long-term goals of becoming a composer for movie scores joining the Frankfurt Radio Symphony to going home to the Navajo Nation to teach string instruments, like the cello.

Tsosie isn’t planning to apply to a music conservatory yet but plans to attend college within Arizona or out of state, such as in New York. With a love for science and the cello, he is considering double majoring. However, no matter what he decides, his cello comes with him.


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