First, and most importantly, I'm a section violist with the Minnesota Orchestra. (If you're just interested in the usual orchestra musician bio, you can find an out-of-date but basically accurate version here.) That's the job I get paid regularly to do, and the one I spent most of my formative years training for. Like many orchestra musicians, the bulk of my life revolves around that identity, which often comes as a surprise to non-musicians who frequently assume that we view the orchestra as something of a hobby. It's a complicated job, full of pressure and politics, but I love it, and am sometimes indecently proud of it.
Music has always been the dominant theme of my life. I was born in Boston to Midwestern parents in 1976, and began playing violin at the age of 4, after seeing a photo of children playing at a Suzuki clinic in the Boston Globe and pestering my mother for six months to get me an instrument. Boston may be the best city in America for a child interested in classical music, and I spent my first few years as a violinist reveling in the glory of New England Conservatory's Saturday youth orchestras and chamber music programs. And if that wasn't enough to set me on the track to where I am today, my first non-Suzuki violin teacher was Marylou Speaker Churchill, then the principal second violin of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who invited me to Tanglewood at the age of 9 for a week of backstage access, daily lessons, and frisbee on the lawn with the very BSO players whom I idolized. I was hooked, and vowed to make it onto the stage of the Koussevitsky Music Shed myself one day.
In 1986, when I was ten, my family moved to rural Pennsylvania, more than an hour's drive north of Philadelphia, and for a while, my dreams of playing music professionally hit the back burner. Due in small part to the distance involved, and in large part to my incorrigible sulking over the move, I wasn't participating in any of Philadelphia's youth orchestras, and other than weekly private lessons, I wasn't playing much music at all.
The same summer that we moved, I began attending a small, low-pressure chamber music camp in the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts, where I would annually rekindle my love of performing, if only for a few weeks. The camp is called Greenwood, and its alumni are spread far and wide across America's musical landscape. It's nearly twenty years since I first set foot there, and I've never missed a summer over the course of my advance from camper to counselor to faculty member. Something about the purity of a place like Greenwood is intoxicating, and it's still the highlight of my year, every year.
I was still playing violin exclusively up until the summer of 1988, when a counselor at Greenwood by the name of Ken Freed suggested to the camp director that I might be able to handle a second quartet in which I would play a simple viola part. (Youth music camps are nearly always short of violists.) I was game - game enough, in fact, to lie and tell the director that I knew how to read music in alto clef - and despite the mildly traumatic experience of that first week, when my part had to be completely rewritten into treble clef once my ruse was discovered, I was taken with the instrument's medium sonority and melancholy voice. I began playing it regularly, and somewhere around my junior year of high school, I gave up violin completely. (The counselor who first put a viola in my hands, by the way, also still works at the camp, and beat me to the Minnesota Orchestra's viola section by 18 months. This type of coincidence happens constantly in the music world.)
I spent my college years at Oberlin Conservatory, in rural Lorain County, Ohio, where I was lucky enough to study with one of the great husband & wife teaching teams working today. Jeff Irvine was the reason I had come to Oberlin: a protege of the legendary viola instructor Karen Tuttle, he specialized in a style of teaching known as "coordination," in which musicians are taught that playing the viola is not supposed to hurt. This may sound fairly basic, but I assure you that it is not. Viola is a wildly awkward instrument to play, and for most of its history, players have simply accepted near-constant neck, back, arm, and shoulder pain as the cost of doing business. As a fairly tense kid to begin with, I was headed firmly down this path when "The Irv," as he was known to his students, intervened and began the long, slow process of loosening me up.
Later on, when I had managed to shake at least some of my jaw-clenching, arm-bending habits, I began to study orchestral viola with The Irv's wife, Lynne Ramsey, who was, is, and will always be my foremost role model in this business. Lynne is the associate principal viola of the Cleveland Orchestra, and is without a doubt the toughest teacher I have ever had. You can play an excerpt from a Strauss tone poem for Lynne, and be thrilled with your performance, and still be sure that she will have a list of ten things you did wrong the minute your bow leaves the string. (I should stress that this list is always presented with a smile, and in a completely non-threatening way. Lynne may be uncompromising, but she's also a total sweetheart, and bears no resemblance to the "tough" teachers you may have read about in books by musicians of an older generation.) This can be quite a shock to the system at a time when most young musicians like to think that they're well on their way to a successful career, but Lynne's no-nonsense style and exacting methods turned me from a student into a professional musician in less than two years.
With the lessons I'd learned from Lynne about orchestras and how to get jobs in them, I managed to win the second audition I ever took, and began my professional career in Birmingham, as a member of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. The ASO has an annual budget that wouldn't keep the Chicago Symphony going for more than a month, and it's usually too much to expect that the gorgeous 1,300-seat hall in which the orchestra plays its concerts will be full, but in terms of the professionalism and dedication of its musicians, the ASO is anything but small-time. This was an orchestra which had been shut down in 1992 for financial reasons, but which had battled back through the efforts of a core group of musicians and volunteers to relaunch as a new organization in 1997. I joined the new ASO for its second season in the fall of 1998, and for 17 months, had the time of my life in Birmingham.
But young professional musicians aren't supposed to get too comfortable too early - we're expected to keep taking auditions, to push ourselves to see how far we can advance in this highly competitive business. So when the Minnesota Orchestra announced that it had two openings for violists, I jumped at the chance. This was the fall of 1999, and I spent the better part of three months preparing for the audition like I had never prepared for anything in my life. Whenever I started to feel like I couldn't possibly practice any more, I would conjure up Lynne's voice in my head, and run down the list of things I knew still weren't quite good enough.
Orchestral auditions are a brutal process, in which candidates prepare a list of 10-15 of the most harrowing excerpts from the repertoire, and are expected to be able to play any of them on command, over and over, without any missteps. It's quite possible to be eminently qualified for an orchestra job, and still exit the audition in the first round because your hands were cold, or you were momentarily distracted and missed a shift. Second chances are rare at major auditions, and Lynne always used to say that the key to winning wasn't so much to be better than anyone else, but to be so good that the orchestra couldn't afford not to hire you. Over the course of three days in Minnesota, the pool of applicants was whittled from 122 to 17, then from 17 to 7, and when the dust cleared on an unseasonably warm Monday night in November, I was offered a job in Minneapolis. I was 23 years old. (The other winner that weekend, also 23, was the spectacular Kerri Ryan, who has since become my good friend, and our assistant principal.)
I've been here for four years now, long enough that I'm no longer considered the orchestra's kid brother, but not so long that I've forgotten how much I still have to learn. Our viola section is a lively collection of pranksters, pun enthusiasts, and assorted loudmouths, backed up by some serious musical chops, and I'm still a bit awed that I'm allowed to be a part of it.
Over the years, I've added a fair number of other jobs and activities to my schedule, as well: I'm the current chair of our orchestra's Members' Committee, which speaks for the musicians in all contract matters, and acts as a conduit to our management and board; I serve on the governing board of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and edit that organization's quarterly newsletter; and I've been working for ArtsJournal as a news editor for three years now. In the course of doing these jobs, I've developed some fairly strong opinions about music, orchestras, critics, and the way America views the arts generally. Some of these are opinions shared by a majority of my colleagues, and some are the type of radical notions which can get a guy shouted down at an orchestra meeting. I'm sure many of them will come up in the course of writing this blog.
But basically, after all is said and done, I'm a section violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, and that's still enough to bring a smile to my face.
Feb. 6, 2004