LEXINGTON -- When Joseph Litao plays the violin, all his troubles melt.
“It puts me into a zone where I feel like nothing can touch me,” said Litao, 16. “It's like an escape room, if that makes sense. I take it out and while I'm playing the violin everything just goes away.”
Litao is a member of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra (COYO) a full symphonic ensemble comprised of 100 middle and high school-aged musicians from across Northern Ohio. Members receive regular coaching from musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra.
“It’s a pretty big deal in my opinion," said Stephen Domka, conductor of the Mansfield Symphony Youth Orchestra and Lexington High School Orchestra. "The Cleveland Orchestra one of the finest orchestras in the world and obviously the youth orchestra would be a representation of what Cleveland has to offer.
“Its rigorous. It's hard to get in there and they play a very demanding repertoire."
The last students from Richland County to play in the COYO were Colin Henley of Mansfield Senior High and Laura Grube of Plymouth High School. Both graduated high school in 2016.
Litao also plays with the Mansfield Symphony Youth Orchestra and Lexington High School Orchestra.
"I think it's wonderful that Joseph is a part of the Cleveland Youth Orchestra and he gets that experience and at the same time, he has remained dedicated to our local youth orchestra here where he can also utilize and show his talent and his leadership," Domka said.
Litao’s parents Achilles and Rowena enrolled him in violin lessons at age 6. As a boy, Litao was more interested in playing outside with his friends, but today he’s grateful his parents forced him to stick with it.
“My mom basically threw me into it. She was like, ‘You're trying this out,' ” Litao said. “In the end, little by little, I started to admit that I actually liked it.”
The Litaos are immensely proud of their son’s progress.
“Learning violin is really hard,” said Rowena Litao. “It's character building, as well as it teaches them persistence and to accept challenges as they are and just practice until they overcome.”
Joseph’s musical success is just one manifestation of the big dreams the Litaos carried with them to America from the Philippines more than 20 years ago.
“I'd wanted him to have the opportunity to study with good teachers, which were not available to us,” Achilles said. “We saw that he has talent and as parents, it’s our responsibility to guide him because there are a lot of distractions.”
When he was in fifth grade, Joseph’s parents printed out a 100-day calendar and scheduled time for violin practice every morning and evening.
“They would wake me up at 7:30 and I’d practice until breakfast for 100 days,” he said. “Then after that 100 days I was like, I'm starting to like it a little bit.”
“I would go through phases of ‘Oh I like this’ and ‘Oh my God, I don’t like this.’ It wasn't really for the love of it at first,” he recalled.
That changed about two years ago, when he started to feel confident in his abilities.
“That's when I really saw the bump up in progress. I was like ‘Oh wow, this is where it got me?” he said. “I got so much better and I actually enjoyed listening to myself playing. Before I was like ‘Eh, it sounds so bad.’”
Litao auditioned virtually for the COYO last year amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had to play a scale, a song of his choice and multiple excerpts for the audition video, but the most challenging part was finding the courage to start.
“Whenever you would click that start button or the red little circle that determines your fate ... I was like, ‘I hope I do well!’” he recalled. “I think one night we stayed up until like four in the morning, just making videos.”
Litao’s family took close to 15 audition videos before he was satisfied with the result. He chose Praeludium and Allegro por Fritz Kreisler.
Czardas and other gypsy-style compositions are his favorite type to play.
“I like how free you can be with it,” he explained. “You can mess with the tempo. You can mess with the interpretations. I would listen to those pieces with different artists and every one of them has a different start. Notewise they're the same, but you can hear the difference in how they play it.”
Litao spent nearly the entire COYO season practicing with a group of second violins over Zoom. The youth orchestra was only able to have one in-person rehearsal before its concert at the Blossoms Music Center on June 6.
Seeing the range of musicians around him was intimidating, but also motivating.
“I was like ‘Oh my God, these guys are insane,” he said. “That's what really inspired me -- I want to do this next year, because I'm like, ‘Where can this take me?”
Wei-Fang Gu, a violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra, has taught Litao for the past three years.
"His progress in violin performance has been nothing but impressive," Gu said in an email. "COYO is one of the great youth orchestras in the nation and the world. I am very grateful and with great pleasure that Joseph is a member of that ensemble and believe he will benefit greatly in furthering his music study."
Litao hopes to attend college and enter the medical field after high school.
His advice to other families is to encourage their children to pick up an instrument, even if they resist at first.
“I know forcing your kid to do something might not sound right, but our parents know what's best for us and they do these things because they want the best for us,” he said.
“My advice (to young musicians) is just stick through the tough times because you never know where it'll take you.”