Musicians in Breckenridge orchestra learn life lessons
July 23, 2009
Some might assume the National Repertory Orchestra’s grueling pace of learning a full nine-month orchestral season in eight weeks transforms the young musicians into workaholics without a social life. But it seems to be quite the opposite: The NRO experience actually has taught many serious musicians to bring more balance into their lives.
Brian Thacker, principal bass player of the NRO this year, sacrificed his social life for his music. He started learning bass late, at age 17, so he was about 10 years behind his peers, he said. In his undergraduate program and his graduate studies at Yale University, he spent eight to nine hours a day in school practicing. In high school, he was an athlete, but he had to put most outdoor activities on the back burner. Needless to say, he hasn’t owned a television for the last five years.
Despite the pressure of learning how to play and perform a minimum of two to three concert programs a week – which involves orchestral rehearsals five hours a day, six days a week – Thacker is now taking hours out of his days to enjoy mountain activities, like hiking and going to the Breckenridge Fun Park. He said it’s given him a new perspective on life.
“It’s nice to learn that you can actually have fun while being productive,” he said.
Meanwhile, flutist Amy Sedan has spent her downtime hot tubbing, hiking five (so far) 14ers, going whitewater rafting and taking in baseball games.
“It’s easy to leave the stress in the rehearsal hall,” Sedan said. “We have it cushy outside the hall … our host parents make sure we have time off to relax.”
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And though the musicians do feel pressure in rehearsals, it’s not like the kind they feel at school.
“The stress level’s about the same, but it’s different,” said Ross Holcombe, trombonist. “I don’t enjoy papers. Here, trying to perform doesn’t feel like work because this is what I love and this is what I want to do. There’s no wishing I was somewhere else.”
Maestro Carl Topilow expects the musicians to bring their best performance not only to the concerts, but also to daily rehearsals – and even warm ups. And, the musicians have plenty of incentive to bring their A-game, because they never know who might be sitting in the audience. Just the other week, scouters from the New World Orchestra showed up.
Topilow calls the habit and ability of consistently playing at one’s peak the difference between a “pro-fessional” and a “pre-fessional.”
“There’s no B-game at any time,” Thacker said, adding that even a rehearsal in a Green Room would need to stand out.
But even with his attitude of giving 120 percent, Thacker has broken out of the mold of all work and no play, or, if there is play, it’s with other string players like himself. This is the first festival he’s attended where he has hung out with musicians other than string players. Violinist Kyra Davies is experiencing the same thing – mingling. It’s one of the NRO’s special charm: The 80 musicians bond easily, and often the friendships last a lifetime.
“The group of people here are some of the nicest, most accepting people in an orchestra,” Sedan said. “The first day, we all hung out, and that’s rare.”
A few elements contribute to the easygoing atmosphere. First, as Holcombe pointed out, all of the musicians possess a high level of artistry, whereas, in schools, skill level varies more.
“There’s none of that drama that goes on, because everyone respects each other,” Holcombe said.
Second, the musicians are treated like young professionals. They are not referred to as students, and they are put in nice housing, as opposed to dorms, which can make people “behave like children” Thacker said. The housing environment also encourages people of different musical groupings to get to know each other, since they all live together.
And, as Davies mentioned, it doesn’t hurt that 40 musicians travel together on one bus to concerts in Keystone, Vail and Evergreen, creating ample time to get to know one another.
It is here, in the mountains of Breckenridge, that young musicians transform into professionally-minded artists, often with a new understanding of one of the most important lessons:
“… being able to be flexible to keep work at work and have a real life,” Sedan said. “I always thought, ‘Oh, I can’t have a real life as a professional musician,’ … but there’s definitely time for yourself.”