Sunday, May 07, 2006

National Symphony Musican Stories

Music Lessons
Surviving the mean streets. Auditioning while in labor. Defying Fidel Castro's militia. For many in the National Symphony Orchestra, the journey to the Kennedy Center has been as dramatic as the music they make

Interviews by Patricia E. Dempsey
Washington Post
Sunday, May 7, 2006; W22

Dotian Levalier
principal, harp

I dig into the harp. I play the harp the way I would play the piano, the way I expect anybody to play an instrument -- full out! Most people play the harp "tinkly, tinkly," and I despise that. It's a musical instrument. Just play it. The harp doesn't have to be soft, it can be exciting. When I came into this

orchestra, people were like, "Holy mackerel! Why so loud?" One thing I never want a conductor to say is, "More harp." I definitely go for it. I'm 62, and I feel like, if you don't live -- every day -- really live it, do what you want to do as long as you're not hurting anyone, you're not living.

I played piano, and I loved piano. Basically, what happened was, I was 7 years of age, and I was playing piano, and I was a tomboy. My mother got very worried. I wore jeans for everything. I didn't want to ever wear dresses. I had Shirley Temple curls, but I would climb trees and hang by my knees. So in order to make me more feminine, they decided that they had to do something. So they took me to a harp recital. My aunt was the musical influence in my life; my aunt was sitting behind me, and she leaned over, and she said, "Would you like to play the harp?" Now, I'm 7 years of age, this woman is dripping in chiffon up on the stage. She's got umpteen harps. When I went backstage for the intermission, they ran and they brought a cushion for her feet. They brought her tea. Well, a 7-year-old sees this and thinks: "Hey! This is the life!" Why not? Right? But I have to tell you, in all the years that I have played, one person brought me a cushion for my feet, and that was only because I told that story. Yes, my mom thought it would make me more of a little girl. I didn't like being a little girl. I really wanted to be a boy. And so I guess they thought it would do something for me. But as it turned out, I would come off the stage from playing a harp recital, in my long gown, pull up my skirt to walk down the stairs to get to backstage, and I'd have jeans on. They'd be rolled up, but I had jeans on.

Harpists today, we have muscles. We don't show our arms, we try to keep them covered. My feeling always was that the harp is not a woman's instrument. There's so much strength required to play it. Physical training. You have no idea how strong my upper back is. I can actually rock-climb not using my legs at all, just pulling with my hands. So I always felt that it took a man to play the harp. But one of the big changes for women was World War II, when all the men went off to war. What were they going to do in the symphony orchestras? Gee, a woman playing? They don't have the endurance. They menstruate. They came up with all these excuses. Then they soon discovered that women had more stamina than men to play. So things started to change.

I took my audition for this orchestra nine months and two weeks pregnant, and in labor. I auditioned in the morning and had a baby in the afternoon. This is 1969. There were only seven women in this orchestra. I was the seventh. I grew up in Boston, and I studied with Bernard Zighera, who was the harpist at the Boston Symphony. When he retired, they sent out invitations to have people come and audition -- only people they wanted to hear. And I got an invitation. And it happened to be right around my due date, so I wrote and asked if I could have an earlier audition because I was due to have my baby around that time. Never heard another word from the Boston Symphony. The same thing with the National Symphony; they said: "No, this is the audition date. We're terribly sorry, but if you have your baby beforehand, you're welcome to come." So I walked in and I said: "Could I be heard first, please? I'm in labor."

They said "What?!"

I said: "Don't worry about it. They're about 12 to 15 minutes apart." So I went up on the stage and sat down. And the conductor said, "Are we going to be delivering this baby?" and I said: "Unless you get a move on! What do you want me to play?" So I started playing. And they decided that anybody that could play like that, in labor, deserved the job.

Stephen Dumaine
principal, tuba

My parents, they didn't know it was possible to make a living playing a tuba, much less doing something that you love. My dad, well, we're both into pipes. My dad was a plumber. We had a garage full of old pipes and plumbing supplies -- old toilets, piles of plumbing in our garage. You have to have a sense of humor to play the tuba. When I was little, 12, I started. I was a fat kid -- a husky, chunky, goofy kid -- so the character of the instrument really suited me. The tuba allowed me to find my voice. The sound of the tuba -- I could relate to it. And listening to the radio, I was always attracted to the low sounds, bass drum, bass line. I remember one of my first

solos: the "Rocky" theme. Here was this little round boy with a beat-up little tuba playing the theme of "Rocky." Funny.

The tuba player has a special place in the orchestra. I'm the only one. Every note I play, I'm the only one, so it's always a solo. We tuba players, we are often the unsung heroes. The trumpet, trombone -- I'm important to them. I'm the foundation of the brass section. Onstage, it takes a huge amount of concentration. I think on a level so hard, so high, a hand grenade could go off next to me, I wouldn't notice. It wouldn't faze me. People wonder: "How do you sit through the orchestra's concert when the tuba isn't playing all that much? Don't you get bored sitting on the stage not playing?" Hey, I've got the best seat in the house. I'm in the middle of the brass section, the trombones around me. I have a free ticket to a fabulous concert.

Jeffrey Weisner
double bass section

I play the double bass, and it's huge. When you're a bass player everyone sort of stares at you, like, What are you doing carrying that thing? Bass players often talk about the piccolo joke. Whenever someone sees you carrying a bass, they say, "I bet you wish you played the piccolo." And bass players are always trying to think of a snappy comeback to that, but there isn't really one.

The bass is always a neglected and laughed-at instrument. It's a string instrument, but we're not really considered a real string instrument by other string players. Violas and basses are kind of the downtrodden instruments of the string section. We're kind of the working-class guy of the orchestra, the average Joes.

People are often surprised that you can play bass and get used to hauling it around. It's a bit of a chore. The bass makes a lot of decisions for you, like what kind of car you're going to get, whether you want to live in a walk-up apartment, all sorts of things. I've always had a station wagon -- I've decided to keep to the two-bass car. I have to carry it up and down the steps a lot. On the road, the symphony has trunks, so [the instruments are] transported for us. We'll get to the hall, and they'll be offstage. I remember when I first got into the orchestra, I was, like: "I've made it, man. There are people whose job it is to carry my bass!" It was a whole new level of luxury that I'd never experienced before.

I started playing bass when I was 13. My mother was a music teacher, so I played piano for a long time, and then I rebelled and quit. My mom gave me a couple of years to quit. I was 13, and my mom said, "You need to start playing an instrument again." And she owned a bass. She had played bass in high school; so I just played bass because we had one and people always need a bass player. She said: "It's a perfect choice. You won't have to work that hard." My mom confessed to me later that one reason she wanted me to play bass was because she knew they needed bass players in the youth orchestra, and she thought I would meet nice girls in the orchestra. I went to an all-boys junior high, so she thought I should meet some nice, quality girls. It didn't work out like she thought it would. The way the story went is, I didn't end up dating girls at all, if you know what I mean. I guess it's a funny story -- you're trying to guess what's right for your kid, and it never quite works out the way you think.

I don't think the bass has any sex appeal. The bass, by nature, is a supporting role. What I love about playing the bass is precisely the supporting, helping create the total sound. Playing the bass line; it's like being at the bottom, the foundation of the music, so you know what the music is based on. And I really like that feeling. I really enjoy that. People say that the bass is the instrument you don't notice unless it's not playing. We're anonymous, but if we're missing, people know it doesn't sound right.

Adel Sanchez
assistant principal, trumpet

My dad was a cigar roller in Tampa. This was in Ybor City. There were gobs of cigar factories, with several hundred rollers per floor. He made about 500 cigars a day -- that was his quota. He was paid by the number of cigars, the box. He was allowed to roll a few of his own -- maybe he'd bring home three cigars a day. And when he lit one up, it was just so wonderful. I think he meant to be a musician. When he was younger he played a guitar and sang. He had so little free time. My grandmother lived with us; there were four kids; he had three jobs. He was a cigar roller, a general contractor, he cut men's hair.

He took me to see the cigar factory just once. It was on a day off. Sunday. I was 6. I was so interested in the cellophane wrappings -- there were thousands of them in a huge box -- and I would blow them up and shoot them off as projectiles across the room. But he didn't want me to work there. My dad was a very great proponent of my proper learning and getting a profession, so I would not have to work as he did. His father died of yellow fever when he was only 2 years old. He began working in the cigar factory when he was 10 or 11. He quit school in fifth grade to work. He was educated in the cigar

factories, in a way. The tradition was to have a lector in a booth high above the workers at their tables. He would read the newspaper, novels, poetry. It was a lovely tradition.

I would sing for my father when he got home from work. He had his big cigar, sitting in the living room. He was very happy. I can see him lighting up his stogie and listen as my sister, she'd play the piano. So when the time came for me to have music lessons, my dad said, "What do you want to play?" "Piano," I said. He said, "How about the trumpet?" The reason that he wanted me to play trumpet, not piano like my sister, was because he wanted me to play a more masculine instrument. I was so excited about starting music lessons. I had been waiting for such a long time, it didn't matter to me. His happiness, this was my biggest reward. He was my biggest encourager, my impetus. He was my beacon. But my mother, she wasn't a supporter of my music. She thought my music lessons were a waste of money. She thought my sister's music lessons were a waste of money. My mother was always warning us, "Never stick your neck out." She didn't like my father's activism with the union.

Unfortunately, he only lived for two years after I started playing the trumpet. After my father died, I was 11. She didn't let me play. It was the tradition during a time of mourning -- you don't play music in the home. For three months she wouldn't let me play. My trumpet teacher, a good friend of the family, came to see her. He said: "Alfredo would have wanted him to keep playing. At this age he needs to play, to keep practicing . . ." He talked her into it. But [for many years] still she wouldn't accept that the music was my life. But there was something about the ring of the words "National Symphony Orchestra" that changed her mind. When I called her to tell her I won the audition, she said, "La Orquesta Nacional?!" Suddenly she was okay with my being a musician.

F. Anthony Ames
principal, percussion

I know I play way beyond my gifts. I have mastered some aspects of this -- playing percussion -- but it is so unbelievably hard. Sometimes it's mysterious exactly what I'm afraid of. When I came here to the NSO, I used to stand when I played. Then, during a concert one night, something started to move along my lower calf, up my right leg, into my back, along my shoulder, down through my forearms into my wrists, and in seconds I lost control. Instead of tiny taps with the sticks, I made scrambled eggs, mush. It came from nowhere, this shake in my wrists. I went home that night and changed how I play. In 24 hours I changed. I changed the way I hold the stick. This is one reason I'm still here after 38 years: I survive. Can I still do it? I worry.

If it were possible I would resign from the position of principal percussionist and get out of the limelight, but it's not possible. There's nothing below me, nowhere to go in the orchestra, and no one here who would want the pressure of this position. If they were 25 years old, they might. I used to. I practice at least two hours a day, sometimes five. The younger players, they don't need this -- it's their vitality. It's different when you are old. I'm always exposed. Even if I have just a very few notes to play, they are always solos.

I've been with this orchestra since 1968. The sheer wonder of the combined sound of a symphony orchestra, when you are sitting in the middle of it, is totally intoxicating, a sheer pleasure. [But] it doesn't get easier each time you perform. It gets harder. It's not about the music, it's about the sport, the body. It's an act of faith for a drummer: Your hand is in the air; it's an act of a faith the mallet will go where you want it to and hit the note. When I was younger, I played like I had nothing to lose and everything to play. Now doubt looms -- the jitters, adrenaline rushes, a surge. It can make me shake.

I don't look forward to playing a concert.

Desimont Alston
second violin section

The conditions I come from were extremely pernicious growing up: the inner city of Philly -- the Badlands. I grew up there amidst heartache, carnage, death.

There were 25, 30 kids in my class in the fourth grade, and in walks a gentleman who says, "Who wants to play the violin?" It could have been the chin fiddle, the glockenspiel -- I was going to play and get out of the classroom. I followed a few paces behind him down the hall wondering, "What's a violin?" So we went to the teachers' lunchroom, and there was a young lady. She says: "Everyone who wants to play, play. Give it a try." She was halfway through her student teaching, and this must have been one of her first assignments. "Each of you have the privilege of learning the violin. Here's a test." It was a hearing and rhythm test. I flunked it miserably. She was about to march me out, and I burst into crocodile tears. I was the only child crying. "This is unfair. I didn't even know what I was being tested on. How can I be tested on something I don't know?" So she allowed me to learn the violin. I remember looking at her and saying to myself: "I'm going to prove it to you. I can learn this." If it wasn't for that first rejection, I wouldn't be here today. I was an 8-year-old that had something to prove. The violin became my ticket out, and as I became more serious I had to survive the gangs, survive the police. You can imagine them saying, "There's a little black boy carrying a violin case?" The police thinking, Hey, what's wrong with this picture? I learned how to survive the game of life. When they threw me up against the police car, I always kept my mouth shut. They were hoping you'd say something --pushing and shoving me, provoking me -- but I never did. I didn't tell my violin teacher that this happened to me. More than once, on my way to a lesson, just a half-hour earlier, I had my nose up against a police car. I just went into my lesson as if nothing had happened. All I knew was: I had to be as good at the violin as I could. It was my chance to get out of this mess.

I can count on my hands the number of times my parents made it to one of my concerts. It didn't matter to me. They loved me, they supported me in their own way. The violin just wasn't their cup of tea. They gave me shelter, they fed me. They gave me that kind of support. I had the violin.

Luis Haza
first violin section

A cousin of mine, he had a violin, and he didn't want to play. I begged for that violin. The other kids said it was a sissy instrument. I didn't care. So my father, he got me the violin. The day I was going to start violin lessons I rushed home so excited. Then I found out we had to leave Santiago and go to the other side of the island, the outskirts of Havana. We had to leave everything, even the violin. This was November 1958. My father was part of Castro's [revolutionary] pact. My father, who was [Juan] Batista's chief of police, helped Castro overthrow him. [My father] wanted free elections. Castro guaranteed my father our safety. You see, Castro fooled him, he betrayed my father. My father was taken in the middle of the night. There was no trial. Four days later, he was executed. Dumped into a ditch. There were executions en masse.

Our house, our car had been taken by the government. My mother, she had five children. As children of an executed man, we were in danger. So my uncle had a house. He helped us move there, to Holguin. Some nine months after, I found the violin on top of my mother's chifforobe. One of my uncles had brought it. I was dying to play. A teacher came to the house for three hours each time -- he came three times a week for $5 a month. I would rush home from school to play. I would resist coming to the table for dinner, and my mother would pull me by the scroll of the violin.

Music was my sustenance, my strength. By the time I was 12, I had a certain amount of notoriety as a child performer in Cuba. Castro was trying to convince the nation that the new government was good for the nation. So I walked a difficult line. If they could convince a young performer to incorporate himself to play his musical instrument in certain ways, that would make them look good, the government -- Look, even the child of an executed man can have the chance to have something to say, to perform here in Cuba. For instance, we were rehearsing, I was 12. I was assistant concertmaster of the Lyric Theater orchestra in Holguin, Cuba. I was paid by the ministry of culture, by the government. It all belonged to the government. We are rehearsing one night when several militia, Castro's militia, they come barging in. I mean, they come barging in carrying machine guns, rifles, very bold. I'm sitting there in this chair in the front, in the middle. They are looking around at each one of us. "Why are they here?" I am wondering, we are all wondering. "Who do they want?" Then the soldier in front, his eyes stop at me. He points to me and says: "Hey, boy. Play something for us." Hey, boy. It was a command. Of course, I was scared. The orchestra musicians were wondering, "What the heck is going on?" Prior to that, Raul Castro [Fidel Castro's brother] had held in that town a televised event, and I was supposed to play. I could not possibly play for Raul Castro. They sent an official to my house to bring me. I refused. I was holding my breath. A few days later nothing had happened. I knew something would happen, but when? That is when they burst into our rehearsal. I played. I played "The Star-Spangled Banner." And the more I played, the more I got into it, and the quieter it got. Everyone shut up. They were thinking, This is the end of Luisito -- they called me that, Luisito. I finished. Dead silence. A guy, one of the musicians, broke it: "Hey, that is supposed to be in C major, isn't it?" "Wasn't that B-flat major?" said another. They tried to protect me with all this talk the military didn't understand. They created movement and commotion and talk, and got me moving toward the back of the orchestra.

I couldn't contain myself. I had to play it. I was shaking when I played "The Star-Spangled Banner." I was shaking over the anger about my father's death, the neighbors who were executed, the friends who were gone. I was saying there is something you cannot take from me. I wanted them to know I am a free man. I will speak through my violin, my instrument. When I play, I feel my father on my shoulders, my sister, my brothers. All the musicians in the orchestra standing behind me, we play for all our ancestors.

Patricia E. Dempsey is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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