Meet the 2017 VSA International Young Soloists Award Winners

This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the VSA International Young Soloists Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program that recognizes talented, emerging artists ages 14-25 with disabilities from all over the world. The four young musicians who have been named winners of the 2017 award are: pianist Elliott McClain, age 23, from Nashville, Tennessee; Kohlin Sekizawa, a 17-year-old pianist from Davis, California; 21-year-old mezzo-soprano Natalie Sheppard of Cincinnati, Ohio; and Jessica Tucker, a 21-year-old saxophonist from Carson City, Nevada.

Photo of a man with brown wavy hair, a dark collared shirt, and a dark blazer.Elliott McClain, age 23, is a pianist and graduate student at Belmont University in Nashville studying commercial music performance. He is an independent artist and musician, specializing in jazz and popular forms of music for live performance and session recording. Blind since birth, Elliott started playing piano as soon as he discovered a keyboard, and has been known ever since for his exceptional aural and improvisational skills. A recipient of the Woods Piano Scholarship, he has performed with Belmont’s top jazz ensembles, and has been a guest performer in many of Nashville’s most prestigious venues. Elliott is the 2016 VSA Tennessee Young Soloist Award winner.

Photo of a young man with a black collared shirt with silver tie, sitting at a piano.Kohlin Sekizawa, age 17, is a high school junior in Davis, California. He has been taking piano lessons for 12 years with Mrs. Huei-Ping Chen Lin. Kohlin, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, has won numerous local and statewide piano competitions, and performed in the honor recitals of the Music Teachers’ Association of California and the California Association of Professional Music Teachers. Last year, he earned a Paderewski Gold Medal from the American College of Musicians. He is currently playing the harpsichord and the violin in the Davis High School Baroque Ensemble, and he performed J.S. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto with them in April 2017. Besides music, he enjoys basketball and tennis in TEAM DAVIS, a Special Olympics program.

Photo of a young woman with long, black hair, green eyes, and red lips wearing a shirt with purple and blue flowers.Natalie Sheppard, age 21, is a mezzo-soprano from Cincinnati, Ohio. She is an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, receiving a scholarship to study voice under William McGraw, as well as pursuing studies in International Human Rights. Natalie has performed roles including Dido from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and will sing Cherubino from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro this summer in Berlin. She has worked with composers such as Jake Heggie and Libby Larsen at the prestigious SongFest art song festival in Los Angeles, California, and will return this summer as a Colburn Fellow in the Young Artist Program. Natalie, who has anxiety disorders and depression, has recently been recognized by Aspen Opera Theatre, the Opera Guild of Dayton, Cincinnati Three Arts Foundation, and Classical Singer, and has sung on stages around the world.

Photo of a young woman with long, dark hair wearing a black dress and holding a saxophone.Jessica Tucker is a 21-year-old classical saxophonist from Carson City, Nevada. She has performed across the United States and Canada, including in Vancouver, Seattle, Reno, San Francisco, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Jessica was born with amblyopia in her right eye, which renders it effectively blind. She graduated in May 2017 with a Bachelors of Music in saxophone performance from the University of North Texas, studying under Dr. Eric Nestler. While at the University of North Texas, Jessica performed with the North Texas Wind Symphony under the direction of Eugene Corporon, and can be heard on several of their recordings. She will begin her Masters in saxophone performance this fall at the Russian Academy of Music, Gnesin.

These four young artists receive a $2,000 cash prize and travel to Washington, D.C. for a performance on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on May 25 at 6:00 p.m. The performance is free and open to the public, and will be streamed live online at www.kennedy-center.org/millennium; a recording of the concert will be available for viewing after May 25 in the Millennium Stage online archive.

Five Tips for Submitting a Good VSA International Young Soloists Competition Application

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Each year, a select number of outstanding young musicians with disabilities, ages 14-25, are recognized by the VSA International Young Soloists Competition. These emerging musicians from around the world receive a $2,000 prize, professional development activities, and the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center. If you or someone you know is interested in applying for the 2017 VSA International Young Soloists Award, check out these application tips before submitting your entry:

  1. Upload high quality, live recordings. Professional recordings are not necessary. Video recordings are recommended but not required. If you are using accompaniment, it should be live and not pre-recorded.
  2. Submit pieces that showcase your proficiency as a musician. Please choose selections focusing on your primary instrument regardless of whether you play multiple instruments.
  3. Variety is encouraged. We encourage you to submit selections by different composers showcasing facility with different styles or eras of music.
  4. This award is for excellence in performance, not songwriting or composition. Original compositions may be submitted, but will not augment your score. Select pieces that showcase your technical skill, artistry, and musicianship as a performer.
  5. Carefully review all elements of your application before submission. Applicants will not be notified if components of their application are missing.

You can find more information about the 2017 VSA International Young Soloists Competition on the Kennedy Center’s website. Application materials should be submitted no later than February 8, 2017. Questions about the VSA International Young Soloists Program can be sent to VSAinfo@kennedy-center.org.