CLAIM TO FAME
Chandler Custer, 16, is the assistant concertmaster in the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera's Youth Symphony and concertmaster in the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences orchestra. He also has participated in the last three Lee University String Invitationals.
• School: 11th-grader at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.
• Siblings: Sister, Tanisha, 29; brother, Chauncey, 22.
• Favorite violin piece: "Tzigane" by Maurice Ravel.
• Favorite movie: "The Avengers."
• Favorite book: "The Giving Tree."
• Hobbies: Playing music, tennis, video games and snowboarding.
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Chandler Custer's parents and instructor say he plays the violin beautifully and has great potential, but for years he has been far and away his greatest critic.
"He's really hard on himself," said his mother, Teresa Custer, who said she has known Chandler was musical since she made a note in his baby book that he was humming himself to sleep when he was 6 months old.
"He comes out [of practicing], and he's unsure of himself, but I know he sounds wonderful," she added. "As long as there's something he knows could be better, he's driven to make it better."
Chandler, 16, a junior at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, said that drive shifted into a higher gear about four years ago.
After years of him asking his parents if he could take up the violin, they finally relented when he was 8.
In sixth grade, he was accepted as a second violinist in the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera's Youth Orchestra Etude, the program's least advanced ensemble. The summer before he entered seventh grade, however, Chandler was suddenly struck by the distance between himself and other players who started as toddlers and set about narrowing the gap.
By the end of the summer and after hours of practicing, he felt transformed, he said.
"All the sudden, it was like a completely different me, and my violin started producing a completely different sound," Chandler said. "I really liked hearing myself at that point. I was astonished. I wanted to hear myself play more."
Those improvements helped him advance to the second violin section of the Youth Orchestra to the Philharmonic, the second most advanced ensemble. His eighth-grade year, he was the Philharmonic's assistant concertmaster.
In ninth grade, Chandler joined the ranks of the first violins in the CSOYO's most advanced group, the Youth Symphony. This fall, he became the Youth Symphony's assistant concertmaster and is serving as the concertmaster for the school orchestra at CSAS.
With these new positions, however, comes an even higher degree of scrutiny placed on his playing, he said.
"It is a big responsibility because now, when I don't play notes, [the conductor] will hear and the people will hear it," he said. "When I was in the back, it was like, 'Oh well, I can't play that. I'll just pretend.'
"If I'm off, then everyone else will be off. Now I have to perfect the music. It's a big responsibility."
Chandler had plenty of practice last year learning to lead a section as the concertmaster of an orchestra clinic for East Tennessee student musicians. Last summer, he was one of three violinists attending a Lee University music camp, which he funded through a Youth Orchestra scholarship.
Xiaoqing Yu, an assistant professor of music at Lee and founder of the university chamber string ensemble, recently took Chandler on as a student.
Yu first worked with Chandler during the university's String Invitational, a competitive program for high school musicians that Chandler was first accepted into as an eighth-grader. That experience, while brief, was enough to assure him of Chandler's dedication to music.
"I found him very focused and hard-working, and he has great potential," Yu said. "He makes progress very rapidly. He follows directions well and reacts quickly."
Even though Chandler has closed the gap with the musicians who started earlier in life, he said the drive to improve isn't likely to end any time soon.
"Music is absolutely competitive for me," he said. "I know I have to keep up so I won't fall behind.
"I always feel like I'm not where I need to be, regardless of the situation. I can move up, but I always know there's someone else who's better."
Contact Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.