The year is 2007. Don Fisher, a WASD band teacher and percussionist, sits his 4-year-old down to watch his favorite music group — the Dave Matthews Band. “Look at those drums,” he tells his son, hoping he’ll take interest. But Michael doesn’t hear. Instead, his eyes are glued to Boyd Tinsley, who is bringing down the house on the electric violin. Michael turns to his father. “I want to do that,” he says, smiling.
Thirteen years later, no one can deny that Michael is well on his way to achieving that dream. Now 17, he has studied under James Lyon, a professor of violin at Penn State University, since he was 10. Michael has made a name for himself in the local music scene — participating in Williamsport Area High School’s Strolling Strings, sitting first chair in the school orchestra and serving as a substitute in the Williamsport Symphony — and already has taken his talent to the world stage.
In the summer of 2019, Michael was one of 110 teens — even more impressive, one of five 16-year-olds — selected to play in the National Youth Orchestra, arguably the most exclusive group for musicians ages 16-19 in the country. Best tour stop? Carnegie Hall.
“(When I got in), I don’t think I said anything,” Michael recalled. “My mom, she was screaming, jumping up and down. I just stood there. (Then) I went upstairs and started bawling. I mean, I was crying like a little baby. . . It was a very emotional experience.”
The intensive program began with a 2 ½-week residency in New York, after which Michael and his fellow musicians performed two concerts in the U.S. and five across Europe, in Berlin, Hamburg, Scotland, Amsterdam and England’s famous Royal Albert Hall. Michael, who has grown used to being a big fish in a small pond, particularly enjoyed getting to make music with college-aged students who were just as invested in their craft as he was.
“I think the biggest thing for me was the opportunity to get to learn from all these (older) kids that have been through what I’m going through now,” Michael said. “Just to hear their experiences, their advice — it gave me a taste of the future. All my dreams, they’re living them.”
‘Never felt so anxious’
Now Michael is preparing for the next highly anticipated step of many high school seniors — college. But as a future music major, the process of applying is more complicated. In addition to scoring well on the SAT and writing a killer personal essay, Michael must also go through a rigorous audition process — starting with video pre-screenings to see if he earns live auditions.
“It’s very nerve-wracking,” Michael said with a laugh. “I’ve never felt so anxious about something. . . Because it’s such a long-term goal, and there’s so many smaller steps — pre-screening recording, live audition, then actually hearing about whether or not you got into the school, deciding where you want to go. . . There’s just so many different variables that make it very overwhelming to a lot of people.”
College auditions in a COVID world
Michael, whose top schools include the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Juilliard School in New York City, and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, also contends with a new hurdle to the college audition process — COVID-19. So many questions remain as to how music schools, particularly those in larger cities, will handle safely bringing kids to campus for live auditions .
For Michael, this obstacle is not only inconvenient — it’s personal. Because his mother, a singer and pianist, is immunocompromised, he is wary of putting her health at risk by traveling to potential coronavirus hotspots. In early 2021, he and his parents will have to make a plan to balance live college auditions with keeping their family safe.
“We just have to see how the world plays out in the next couple months,” Michael said. “But it’s definitely a huge concern.”
‘Doing what I love’
For now, Michael is focusing on what he can control–perfecting and enjoying his craft. He plays his violin for three to five hours each day, logging his journey to 1,000 hours of practice for 2020 on his Instagram account, @michaelfisherviolin. He also occasionally performs personal “porch concerts” for people in his neighborhood, an idea that was inspired by how his own music idols have kept creative during the pandemic.
“I looked around at our community, and not everyone has access to the internet or is internet savvy. So I figured, why not go to them? For me, it’s just very nice to be able to perform and do what I love, to get to see these people and interact with them. . . If I can go and make someone’s day for a little bit, then I’ll do what I can to do that,” he said.
While his dream of achieving professional success as a concert violinist is strong, what’s stronger is Michael’s pure love of music. To other young musicians who share the same goal of playing on the big stage, Michael stresses the importance of long-term thinking and diligence, even when it may be monotonous. But above all, he encourages them to reflect on why they play and how music enriches their lives.
“I had a dream when I was 4 years old and I’ve never let up from that dream,” Michael said. “It gets to a point where you’re so close, why stop? I just look at what my life could be. . . I know music is a huge risk. It’s not a guaranteed career. . . But I feel like that’s a risk I’m willing to take for doing what I love.”