Veronica Parrales | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Veronica Parrales

Photo courtesy Jose Luis

Photo courtesy Jose Luis

Those who haven't attended a Mississippi Symphony Orchestra performance in recent months will notice a few new faces at the latest show in the Bravo Series, "Bravo! Copland!", a program featuring the works of Brooklyn-born composer Aaron Copland. One of those new faces, principal cellist Veronica Parrales, also happens to hail from Copland's neck of the woods.

Parrales grew up in New York City's East Village in the 1980s, and although her father was a professional Latin percussionist, she never felt particularly drawn to the genre, she says. She first picked up the cello when she was 6 years old after her mother signed her up for a free music class at a the Third Street Music School Settlement. The instrument wasn't even Parrales' choice.

"They said they had too many violin students and needed more cello students," she says. "We didn't realize at the time that, as I got bigger, the cello would get bigger, and I'd have to carry it around everywhere! At that time, it was very small, but I was good at it, and I really liked it."

Plenty of children pick up and lose interest in an instrument over time, but Parrales says she stayed motivated because most of her friends went to the school, and unlike many pre-college and conservatory music programs, it offered quality instruction without the competitive environment.

She continued taking lessons at Third Street until she was about 18 years old while also attending Saint Ann's School, an arts-oriented private school in Brooklyn Heights, on a full scholarship for her instrument. By sophomore year, Parrales had decided to pursue a career as a professional cellist, so she left Saint Ann's in 1997 and earned her GED. She then spent the following year applying for conservatory programs.

Over the next few years, she studied her instrument at major music schools, attending the Manhattan School of Music from 1998 to 1999, the Purchase Conservatory from 2000 to 2001 and Hunter College from 2003 to 2005. From there, she decided to take a break from educating herself to educate others, working as a music teacher for New York City Public Schools from 2005 to 2010.

Between a frustrating lack of parental involvement and interest from the students, though, teaching wasn't much of a "break." Friends would often tell Parrales that she was doing good for society by teaching the next generation about classical music, but most of the children had no interest in learning an instrument, she says.

Parrales says: "After teaching for five years, I started reevaluate, like, 'Is this it? Is this all I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life—playing at this mediocre level and busting my ass teaching? My heart's not really in it. It kind of just fell in my lap, and it's great money but very exhausting.'"

She decided that if she was going to truly work toward a career in music, she first needed to get her doctorate, so she enrolled at Rutgers University in 2010.

"I kind of considered it as not a vacation because I still had to take classes and do homework, but that was going to be my time, almost like a retreat to really learn my instrument, practice and figure out what to do next," she says. "You know, a lot of people, when they do that program, they're already professionals. They already went through that process, and this is kind of the finishing touch, just something to look good on their resume. But for me it was like, 'I need to use these three years very wisely or else it's the end of the road.'"

While working toward her doctorate, she spent a couple of years taking auditions across the country before winning the position of assistant principal cellist with the Baton Rouge Symphony in 2014 but continued living in New Jersey and teaching, taking off the few weeks that the BRS required.

Parrales spent the next few years living in airports, traveling between New Jersey and Louisiana while still taking auditions in other states, she says. To cope with the stress, she adopted new routines, keeping a strict diet and sleep schedule, running a lot and practicing cello at least six hours each day.

"That really helped, but for this MSO audition, it's kind of funny because I kind of ran out of steam a little bit leading up to it," she says. "I was mostly working on my dissertation at that point and teaching a lot. The opening came up, and I was like, 'Well, I'm down there a lot anyway. Why don't I try out for this?'"

When Parrales flew down to audition for the MSO in May, her flight was delayed, she ate pizza, she slept late, and she didn't warm up. And still, later that day, she beat out about a dozen other musicians from around the country and got the job.

The audition phase was something different for Parrales. Growing up in New York, she says she often had opportunities fall in her lap due to connections and not necessarily because of her own talent. Auditioning elsewhere in the country, her skills were the only thing that counted.

"That was an interesting kind of mind shift that happened because for a lot of my life, I could just kind of go with the flow and be a little bit passive about it," she says. "This time, I was like, 'OK. I really want this. I'm going to make this happen, and I'll do whatever it takes to make it happen.'"

She also says that it was more involved than other auditions because when she tied with another candidate, they had to do an extra audition round.

Although this is her first position as a principal player, on whom the MSO will rely for solos (though this season won't have many, she says), Parrales says one of the biggest differences with her past experiences is with the Bravo Series. Each program presents selections from a singular composer instead of several different composers. For "Bravo! Copland!", the MSO will be playing some of Copland's highlight pieces, such as "Billy the Kid," "Appalachian Spring" and "Fanfare for the Common Man," many of which have become quintessential American works.

Outside of classical music, Parrales says she enjoyed putting her cello to work in a variety of genres before leaving New York, having recently played with acclaimed jazz saxophonist Myron Walden, salsa group Charansalsa and her uncle, Latin jazz pianist Gilberto Colon Jr.

Bravo! Copland! is at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, at Thalia Mara Hall (255 E. Pascagoula St.). Admission ranges from $20 to $62. Timothy Coker will give a free pre-concert lecture from 6:45 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. on the mezzanine level. For more information, visit

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