Catching Up with Bill Neri '09
This month we chatted with Bill Neri, a graduate of our Music Department who is currently working with the Sphinx Organization on a multi-year project to diversify professional orchestras. Bill reflected on his time at Walnut Hill, in addition to updating us on his work with Sphinx.
1. What first brought you to Walnut Hill, and what was your experience like as a music student here? Do you have any favorite memories from those years?
The first time I experienced Walnut Hill was when I was in middle school. I was a viola student at the Sphinx Performance Academy, a full-scholarship intensive summer chamber music and solo performance program with a focus on cultural diversity, which, at the time, was hosted by Walnut Hill. Hearing their faculty was my first time being exposed to world-class-level playing, and I knew a place like Walnut Hill would be the perfect environment in which to continue the journey that Sphinx initiated. And you know, if I recall correctly, when I first auditioned as an incoming high-school freshman, I didn't get into Walnut Hill! I had a terribly embarrassing audition where I knocked the stand over with my bow; I really wasn’t prepared enough. Then, two years later and after lots of practice, I auditioned again and was invited. The friends I made those two years are by far the most valuable takeaway, many of whom I keep in touch with today!
2. Catch us up on the past 12 years. Where did you go post-graduation, and how did that lead you to the life and career you have now?
It’s been 12 years?! Wow. After graduating from high school, I went on to pursue my bachelor of music degree at the Peabody Institute, where I studied with Victoria Chiang. Living in the heart of a great city, coupled with the fantastic tutelage, I was able to capitalize off the foundation Walnut Hill created. From there, I committed to finding a life in the world as an orchestral violist. Countless auditions, video recordings, and lessons helped make my dream a reality. Right up until the pandemic, I found myself playing with different types of groups performing on stages of all types, and meeting incredible people along the way. I’d say the best thing to come out of the lifestyle is the access I get as a musician: not just in terms of places to visit, but also the human connections I can tap into. Creating and deciphering art at such a demanding pace ultimately takes one to a place of shared understanding with people and ideas from all backgrounds; the concept that art is a language everyone can speak is something I celebrate.
3. Tell us about your work with the Sphinx Organization and the National Alliance for Audition Support. How did you get involved, and what goals are you working toward?
As I said in response to the first question, my first exposure to Sphinx was also the first time I experienced Walnut Hill, so there are a lot of shared beginnings there! The mission of Sphinx is to transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts, and by the look of how the last 12 years went, I’d say my life has certainly been transformed. The specific goal of the National Alliance for Audition Support is to increase diversity in American orchestras, which is achieved through a partnership between Sphinx, New World Symphony, and the League of American Orchestras, with the support of a $1.8 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In a nutshell, NAAS aims to level the orchestral playing field by supporting auditions, substitute musician opportunities, coaching, and instrument upkeep. We also work directly with more than 100 orchestra partners to encourage them to embrace equitable hiring practices. I am still an active performer and can speak firsthand to the financial burden of orchestral auditions; an audition can easily end up costing over $1,000 between flights, hotels, gas, food, and lessons, and then multiply that by the number of opportunities I want to show up for! Before working with Sphinx as the Project Manager of NAAS, I was an audition grant recipient and understood the value of performing an audition without the stress caused by financial strain, leading me to play, and ultimately succeed, in an orchestra audition. I’ve always been looking for ways to challenge myself outside the traditional means of freelance musician work, and leaped at the opportunity to give back to an organization that has done so much for my career. The work has placed me behind the screen, if you will, and I speak regularly with managers from groups all over the country about developing a more diverse demographic onstage. I’m lucky to have a place, and a familia, that gave me the vantage point to understand and value how the performing arts industry operates.
4. Our Class of 2021 graduated last weekend. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for our newest alumni as they enter their post-Walnut Hill lives?
I think my headmaster at graduation said “Go forth and multiply”—lol! My advice would be to focus on your dreams, be disciplined in your pursuit, but to never close yourself off to opportunities. It’s a difficult balance, because so much of our passion-driven work can force us to shut out the world around us and tunnel-vision our way to a dream job. What I’ve realized is that there are a lot more opportunities on the periphery, as long as you keep an open mind and live in the present. Good luck!