I’m writing this post just two days before returning to rehearsals with my orchestra colleagues for the first time performing in a concert hall since March 2020. It seems like an appropriate time to consider my relationship with my symphonic friends. In music school and while taking national auditions, I was in competition with them. While free-lancing in various performance situations early in my career, I felt self-conscious about fitting in with them and matching their sound. More recently, as I have aged, I have found myself surrounded by younger and younger violinists, wondering at times if I’m still in my prime. Then the pandemic happened and everything got turned upside down.
Over the past 18 months, I have seen my orchestra colleagues in a whole new light, literally having only seen them on Zoom. I have witnessed their ups and downs, frustration and anger with management, and the suffering in silence about financial loss from a population that had already seen severe cutbacks in contractually guaranteed services. The strongest emotion, however, was grief. Grief from the loss of playing music together in front of an audience.
It probably isn’t lost on you that this image is a take on Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. This most famous painting depicts a moment in time with Jesus and the Apostles. I do not mean to present orchestral musicians as apostles but as a group of human beings working together to create a beautiful gift to the world. This is how I feel about playing music. My intention was to present these musicians as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is truly magic when it all comes together. It is a relief that we have crossed the divide of the great silence to once again flood concert halls with the power of music.
When I first moved to Connecticut, I started teaching in a public school system which required that I enroll in a teacher certification course. My first year teaching was horrendous. I was still rehearsing and playing concerts as well as going to school at night and on the weekends. I had also just moved to a new state. It was definitely culture shock moving from Boston to a suburb of Hartford.
One day during my first year of teaching, I was called into the principal’s office due to a phone call from a parent. The mother had told the principal that her son and daughter, both of whom played in my orchestras, complained that all I did in class was “yell and tune.” I can’t deny that I had done a serious amount of yelling and tuning. Fortunately, the principal had many years experience with middle school parents and didn’t challenge me on how I ran my classroom. However, due to the complaint, he had to spend a week observing my classes. Not the most pleasant week of my life! During the next symphony series, a few of my colleagues who were also public school music teachers checked in on how I was doing. When I told them the story, a huge group of colleagues formed a circle around me. They insisted that I not give up. They told their own war stories and cheered me on. I think it is one of the reasons I survived teaching that year.
The epilogue to this story is that ironically, the school had received No Child Left Behind “blue ribbon” recognition. While observing me, the principal used the opportunity to video my classes to show them off at a ceremony in Washington D.C.
Over the years I have encountered many wonderful colleagues. Other than the occasional stand partner who doesn’t have any interest in socializing, I have found colleagues to be generous in sharing fingerings, navigating new repertoire, finding the bathroom, knowing when to show up and what to wear. I have even had wonderful colleagues who knew how to lighten the mood by telling an occasional joke or finding the humor in a pretty much ridiculous situation. I am saddened that some of these people made the choice to retire during the pandemic. I respect their decision but I will miss them. Symphony orchestras are struggling to be relevant in a rapidly changing world. Orchestral musicians are the frontline workers of an industry in the midst of an identity crisis, desperately trying to survive.