Allison Park

From 11 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. on any given night, Henry Shapard ‘20 can be found in the Pierson College basement, playing the cello. It’s the only block of uninterrupted time Shapard can consistently dedicate to his craft. Alone, Shapard plays facing a 10-foot-high gray wall. It helps him visualize the setting of a professional orchestra audition — to him, the wall looks exactly like most audition screens.

Last month, following a monthslong audition process, Shapard became the principal cellist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The Juno and Grammy Award-winning ensemble is the largest professional orchestra in western Canada and the third-largest in Canada. This makes Shapard, who is 21, the youngest principal cellist of a major orchestra.

“There’s a musical instinctiveness in [Shapard’s] playing, which is breathtaking because every time he plays, it sounds like he’s playing it for the first time — there’s that wonderful spontaneity,” said William Boughton, conductor of the Yale Symphony Orchestra.

Shapard began playing cello at 3 years old. He knew he wanted to play for the rest of his life when he saw the Cleveland Orchestra perform Anton Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, he said.

“There’s a feeling of satisfaction that comes from blending really well with the section, and making musical choices that enhance the musical experience of the people who are sitting directly around you,” Shapard said. “You can really feel it. I find that so rewarding.”

Shapard came to Yale trying to keep his career options open. Yet he realized he had a calling after watching his close friend Charles Comiter ’21 pursue computer science. According to Shapard, Comiter “spent every night working at it until four in the morning because he loved it, and [he] loved that sort of chase.”

Halfway through his sophomore year, one of Shapard’s friends dared him to audition for the Boston Symphony. Shapard explained that the audition process for a professional orchestra is a stressful multistep process. Most applicants don’t pass the resume and recorded tape rounds, and most musicians invited to live auditions are dismissed from the stage soon after they begin to play the material they spent months, or years, preparing. Most orchestras hold several rounds of live auditions.

“At this point there was, like, one item on my resume,” Shapard said. Yet he passed the resume round, submitted a tape and was invited to audition in person alongside 25 to 30 other candidates. Then, the audition panel dismissed Shapard after less than two minutes of playing.

Shapard remembers two things from that audition: “I remember looking at the chair and the screen onstage and thinking: One, I am so not ready for this, and two, I know there’s a day where I’ll walk out onto a stage like this and be ready for it. And I want to get to that point.” 

In the two years since, Shapard saved the money from his library job to cover audition expenses. He took 13 auditions in all. Several were similar to his first — a quick dismissal followed by harsh written comments. In several recent auditions, Shapard advanced to the final round but ultimately was not hired.

During his time at Yale, Shapard juggled auditions with other demanding aspects of a Yale education. He has learned to manage his practice time efficiently, which for Shapard means practicing late at night, he explained. In addition to practicing in front of the wall, Shapard has an index card for each excerpt of music he has prepared. At the beginning of each practice session, Shapard chooses a card. He records himself playing the excerpt noted on the card and listens to the recording. He plays back the recording and critiques himself, writing feedback on the card, not unlike an audition judge. After practicing with that feedback in mind, he records himself again. Then, he notes the progress he has made. His goal is not perfection, but rather: “Don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Shapard flew to Vancouver three times in his senior spring: once for the live audition rounds and twice for trials. Trials are periods in which the candidate rehearses and performs full concert cycles with the orchestra. This helps the orchestra and leadership decide whether the candidate is a good fit for the ensemble.

“After my first trial week, I remember sitting in the airport in Vancouver on the way home and getting teary-eyed because I had such a good time with the colleagues,” Shapard said. “I was upset at the prospect of not getting to spend more time with them.”

Although the Vancouver Symphony cannot currently perform due to the pandemic, the orchestra received funding to secure its musicians’ jobs. Shapard has already helped create material for some of the orchestra’s digital projects, including its VSO@Home series.

This semester, Shapard is not only a professional cellist but a college senior. At Yale, Shapard is a history major. He was the principal cellist and assistant conductor of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, as well as music director of both the Berkeley College Orchestra and Low Strung, Yale’s all-cello rock band.

Dayle Chung ’21, Low Strung’s former president, said Shapard’s success comes from a combination of passion and hard work. “He competed against people with decades more experience than him, spent time traveling to audition after audition while juggling schoolwork and leading several musical organizations on campus, and managed to spend hours daily in the practice room while being a kind and supportive friend,” Chung said.

His twin sister Serena Shapard ’20, a principal violinist in the Yale Symphony Orchestra, said that “even though Henry’s chosen music, he can really be a role model for launching yourself into any field.”

Shapard credits his cello teacher, Ole Akahoshi MUS ’95 ’97, for supporting him and believing in his dream to become a professional cellist from the beginning, when others “chuckled” when he told them about his aspirations. Shapard said that “[Akahoshi] took me very seriously from the outset and told me, ‘okay, we’ll make it happen.”’

Shapard said he is excited for his time in Vancouver, but he will miss being a part of Yale’s music scene. During a Low Strung concert at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, the group played an arrangement of “Hotel California.” Before the beat dropped, Shapard screamed “one, two, three, four” so loudly that the audience reacted with gasps and cheers.

“People will be talking about [Shapard] for a long time,” Boughton said. “I hope to see him back soon.”

Like in “Hotel California,” Shapard is counting — counting down the days until he can return to Yale, a place that’s influenced him so profoundly — even if just to retrieve his belongings.

Phoebe Liu | phoebe.liu@yale.edu

Correction, April 24: This article has been updated to include information — Shapard’s acknowledgement of Ole Akahoshi MUS ’95 ’97, his cello teacher — that was mistakenly deleted during the editing process. A previous version of the article also listed Dayle Chung ’21 as the president of Low Strung. In fact, she is the former president.