Katie Mills. Photo by Martin Boling


When she was in middle school and studying the cello, Katie Mills had a musical epiphany: “I knew I wanted to play an instrument that nobody else played.”

The instrument she chose was the bassoon. And it was as a bassoonist that Mills, now 18, was selected as the only member from Indiana to join the 2019 National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO). She applied to the NYO last fall, submitting recordings and an essay. “I wrote that I wanted to play with other musicians who cared about music as much as I did,” she recalls. 

After graduating from Bloomington High School North this spring, Mills joined 118 other NYO musicians for three weeks of training for a summer concert schedule that included performances of works by Strauss, Berlioz, and Prokofiev. “We rehearsed with faculty from leading orchestras, and we had our first concert at Tanglewood in Connecticut [the summer home of the Boston Symphony],” she says. “It was an amazing way to start.”

The young musicians performed at Carnegie Hall before leaving on a five-concert tour of Europe where the NYO performed with some of the world’s leading singers. “We had a really cool experience in Berlin,” Mills recalls. “We were performing with Magdalena Kožená. She’s married to Simon Rattle [the former conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic], and he was in the audience. I thought, Wow, we performed before Simon Rattle!”

Mills says the entire NYO experience—which also included concerts in London, Edinburgh, and Amsterdam—exceeded her expectations. The best moment, she says, occurred at the final concert in Hamburg, Germany. “Everyone was so emotional. We were all playing with so much passion,” she says. “We were only together for five weeks, but it felt like we had known each other for years.”

Mills is the daughter of Joel and Kim Mills. She studied bassoon with Catherine Marchese, a professional musician who also teaches French at Tri-North Middle School. “Catherine has been the biggest influence in my career so far,” Mills says. 

Now attending the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, Mills is studying with William Short, principal bassoon with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. After graduation, she says, she wants to play in a professional orchestra. 

Currently, most orchestral bassoonists are men, but Mills says that is changing. “I have a few female friends my age who play bassoon,” she says. “I think female bassoonists are starting to become much more common, which is very exciting.” It also means the bassoon is no longer the instrument that nobody else plays.