By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Kaila Potts never expected to win the most important contest of her life.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/JOSEPH FUQUA II
"I knew I had done one of my best performances, and I felt good about it. That's all I wanted from the whole experience," says Potts, a graduate student in viola at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. "When they said I was a finalist, I was just floored."
Potts, 23, won first prize in the Sphinx Competition, held two weeks ago in Detroit, which includes a $10,000 prize and a chance to play with several major American symphony orchestras.
The unique contest showcases young black and Latino classical string players, who have long been under-represented in the classical music industry. Only 1.5 percent of American symphony orchestra musicians are African-American or Latino.
Potts is friendly and articulate, and her eyes light up when she talks about music. She jumps into the car to go have coffee, tossing her sheet music - William Walton's Viola Concerto - and a Harry Potter book into the back seat. She is never without her viola, carrying the instrument she has had since she was 15 with her into Starbucks. "After winning this competition, I just realized I need to be practicing a lot," she says. She could be called on with less than a month's notice to play with top orchestras in Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta or Cincinnati.
Hundreds of hopefuls sent in tapes for the first round, she says, leaning over a tall mocha. Eight made it to the semi-finals. Then it was down to three.
MEET THE ARTIST
Name: Kaila Potts
Born: in Los Angeles; grew up in Las Vegas. "I love the glitter and excitement of the city that never sleeps."
Education: Bachelor's degree in viola and violin; working on an Artist Diploma at CCM.
On playing the viola: "In a lot of ways, it's harder than the violin. It's harder to produce a really nice sound."
What she tells her students: "They could get work accompanying Metallica or playing with Britney Spears. That's something I've always been interested in - finding a creative way to bring string playing classical music into the mainstream."
Favorite place in Cincinnati: Mount Adams. "It reminds me of how San Francisco looks in the movies, with hills and little shops."
Organization encourages minority talent
"The funny thing is, in most competitions, there's a lot of animosity," she says. "You lock yourself in your room, and hope that nobody breaks your bow while you're in the bathroom or something."
A title, and a friend
But instead, she and another finalist, Mariana Green, decided to buy new dresses and shoes for the finals. They ended up with almost identical gowns - and became friends for life. (Green was third.)
Still, playing the fiendishly difficult Bartok Viola Concerto with a full, professional orchestra in Detroit's Orchestra Hall was daunting. Potts' only experience playing with an orchestra had been in high school in her native Las Vegas.
"I don't think any of that can compare to what it felt like to have a full orchestra behind me," she says. "Before the first rehearsal, I was really nervous, because I thought, what if I missed a note? I was self-conscious. I didn't want them to think badly of me."
When she won, she realized, "this is what I want to do, this is what I should be doing."
Her school music program drew her in when she was 10 years old.
"I was always walking by the orchestra room," she says. She signed up to play strings and started viola because she liked the sound.
"It's low and mellow, like my voice," she says.
Potts is the oldest of a large extended family of eight siblings. Her parents, now divorced, both studied music and played in the marching band at the University of Southern California. They were supportive of her, and gave her private lessons in both viola and violin.
But it was her violin teacher, Rebecca Ramsey, who gave her the advice she has never forgotten. It came when Potts was getting ready for auditions at CCM, for her undergraduate degree. She felt it was too hard for her, and she didn't know if she could make it.
The teacher took her student to her backyard, to look at the flowers.
"She said, 'If you tend a flower and add water, you don't see how much it's growing. One day, you go outside, and you realize that the flower has all these beautiful blossoms, and it's turned into more than you ever could have imagined,' " Potts recalls.
"She said, 'Right now, we're watering the flower. But one day, you'll look at yourself and you'll realize how far you've come.' "
She has never looked back. She has earned her bachelor's degree at CCM - a double major in both violin and viola - and participated in prestigious summer programs, usually one of a handful of minority musicians.
Does she have to try harder to be accepted?
"I do feel like I have something to prove - not just because I'm African-American, but because I started later in my development than lots of people, and I'm pursuing viola," she says.
Viola has never had the solo cache of a violin, and less solo music has been written for it. But several musicians have had stunning careers playing viola - among them, Pinchas Zukerman, to Potts, "the god of viola."
Although she practices up to five hours a day, she doesn't spend her whole life in the practice room. She loves going to Mount Adams with her boyfriend, another CCM violist. She writes poetry, and likes to read and re-read Harry Potter books.
While living in Cincinnati, she discovered Judaism, and converted last year after two years of religious study. And she loves teaching young students. She works in the preparatory departments at CCM and Northern Kentucky University, including an after-school strings program in Covington.
Now, she is both excited and nervous about her newfound fame.
"No matter what happens after this," she says, "this year of my life is going to just be amazing."
NEW SEASON OF THE SOPRANOS
The mob scene
A penne for your thoughts
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Superb acting keeps a pale 'Blue' script afloat
Fine Arts Fund Profile: Cincinnati Art Museum
Japan 'Godzilla' movies to hibernate
It's all 'amazing' to violist
Organization encourages minority talent
NKU slates new musical for summer
Costco begins selling 'fine art' on Web site
Black theater fest still thinking big
CCM ices Hot Summer Nights
SEEN: BENEFITS AND BASHES
Bashes and Benefits
Demaline: Art notes
Knippenberg: Mixed media
Grilled cheese refit for new era
Get to it: A guide to help make your day