"I walked out to give a concert at a college in Minnesota," recalls baritone Christopher Trakas, "and I found myself in an unfinished rehearsal room with only three people in the audience."

A performer's nightmare? Perhaps, but Trakas was able to play it cool: "I said to myself, 'Well, we're going to have some fun,' and I didn't just sing; I talked with my audience and we got acquainted."

Trakas didn't have to worry; he knew that he would receive his full $1,000 fee plus expenses, even though only three tickets had been sold, because he was working for Young Concert Artists. When you're a YCA artist and you lose money on a concert, YCA absorbs the costs.

Some managements are less understanding. A musician who doesn't draw a large crowd can play or sing his heart out at a concert and still end up owing money to his management.

But most musicians still are happy to sign contracts that contain such pitfalls. A good management nowadays is hard to find. And a good management is absolutely necessary. For a young musician in the 1980s, extraordinary talent is nowhere near enough.

You can't have a career without it, but mere musical ability doesn't get you very far when you step out of the conservatory into the real world where music is a business as well as an art.

Artists are supposed to be not only highly trained but also high-strung: delicate, hypersensitive souls. Their art may suffer if they get too far away from this state of mind.

So established musicians have managers to guide them through the jungle of concert life and take care of the prosaic details of the music business -- setting up contacts, booking tours, hustling publicity, nailing down travel arrangements, haggling about fees. Managers are and have to be hard-nosed types, and both parties benefit in the symbiotic relationship of the hard-nosed manager with the sensitive artist.

The problem for young musicians with no reputation is how to get a manager. The supply of brilliant young artists far outstrips the demand. Managers can pick and choose -- and, being hard-nosed types, they tend to pick the easy clients who will bring the maximum profit for the minimum effort -- people with well-known names like Perlman or Horowitz or Rostropovich; people who automatically draw crowds.

The Catch-22 in the music business is that you have to have a reputation to get a manager and, short of winning something like the Indianapolis Violin Competition, you can't get a reputation until you have a manager. Young Concert Artists, an organization established to cope with this problem, is now celebrating its 25th anniversary and its seventh year of presenting concerts in Washington.

Trakas, one of its young clients, will give a recital Sunday night in the Terrace Theater. Another, violinist Daniel Phillips, plays at the Terrace next month, his last YCA concert before he moves on to another management -- which YCA, with typical thoughtfulness, helped him to find.

If the past track record of YCA is any indication, audience members for these programs may be seeing future international stars at the beginning of substantial careers.

Previous beneficiaries of the YCA treatment include such musical celebrities as Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman, Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Ursula Oppens, Paula Robison, Marvis Martin, Anthony Newman and the entire Tokyo String Quartet. Some of them would have gotten where they are without the early help of YCA, but none of them is sure of that.

One YCA artist whose last name, at least, is an attention-grabber performed here earlier this month. "I have a management in Europe where I perform most of the year," says pianist Jeremy Menuhin, "and they suggested I should apply to YCA because it's the best way to get into the scene here and have a good New York debut."

Menuhin got his contract with YCA the way all the organization's artists do, by winning it in an audition that YCA is careful not to call a "competition." "You're really not competing with anyone else, only with a standard of excellence," says Trakas, and Phillips explains: "The year Chris won, they took three baritones."

"You perform before a jury of good musicians," adds Phillips, "and they don't bother with numerical scores or an effort to appear objective or any of that. All they care about is whether you will be ready to give a New York debut concert next year. You can enter as many times as you want and any number can win. I wasn't ready the first time I tried, but I won two years later. I was 21, and I gave my first YCA recital the next year, fresh out of college. "There was one year when nobody was selected; that was between the year I lost and the year I won."

The key point about Young Concert Artists is that it looks not at how many tickets a musician can sell but at how good his music is. And it is specially geared for beginning performers, offering a lot of unusual services they badly need. "They will teach you how to take a bow and how to pick publicity photos," Phillips says. "These are things a young musician has to know, things you don't learn in the conservatory. They are a real management, a real career-maker. And they are the only management I know whose doors are open to any young musician who has the talent."