As Besnik Abrashi stepped on stage for the finals of this year's International Clarinet Association Young Artist Competition, he had one thought going through his head: perform your heart out.

A ball of nerves just minutes before, the internal pep talk gave the University of North Texas College of Music junior exactly what he needed to power through a performance that earned him first prize in the contest for young clarinetists.

Each year, the International Clarinet Association hosts a select group of clarinetists from around the world to perform live in the finals at its ClarinetFest. Besnik and his fellow UNT classmate Nathan Kock earned two of five finalist spots in the 2019 competition, which was held in Knoxville, Tenn. this year.

Making it to the finals meant perfecting three audition selections. It took hours of practice over a span of 10 months.

“The pieces we had to play this year were pretty challenging. My professors said this was the hardest repertoire they had seen in a long time,” says Besnik, who is a member of UNT's Symphony Orchestra and Wind Symphony as well as a former drum major for the Green Brigade Marching Band.

The first prize title came with $2,500 and a professional Henri Selmer Paris clarinet. For Besnik, the confidence boost from the experience will likely have the most lasting impact.

“It helps me solidify my journey of being a music performance major and know that I have what it takes to succeed in the musical world,” Besnik says.

It's the only annual international competition of its caliber for clarinetists. UNT's nationally ranked College of Music has sent many students to the finals, but receiving first prize is quite an honor says UNT clarinet professor Kim Cole Luevano.

“It's a nice marker,” Luevano says. “If you look at the roster of first prize winners from past competitions, they're all known names in our profession now.”

And she wouldn't be surprised to see Besnik go far in the industry as well. She's been impressed with not only how naturally things come to him, but also his unwavering work ethic. 

“Despite the fact that he's a very gifted clarinetist, he's one of the humblest people I've ever met,” Luevano says.

There's not a precedent in his immediate family for musical talent.