“I think we’ve found some cool new notes to play,” exclaims a voice from the cello section. “They’re mysterious notes, but I think they add something – so we’ll play them.”
The voice is joined by others, and some laughter ensues among the Ravenna String Orchestra, a group of volunteer musicians who meet weekly at a community center to play under the baton of Judy Drake and with help from co-director Lorraine Hughes.
At 7pm each week, a flood of tiny ballerinas exits the rehearsal room, and in come the musicians. They transform the room in moments, and for the next hour and a half, the room is theirs to fill with music.
As is typical for a community orchestra, members of Ravenna Strings come from all walks of life, spanning numerous professions and more than 60 years in age. Some took lessons when they were young, playing on and off throughout the years. Others began learning later in life.
“When I think about it, it seems strange that ensemble playing works at all,” says cellist Taylor Weiss. “We’re a small group as orchestras go, but we’ve got a really wide range of technique and experience. And there is quite a bit of individual variation that goes into each person’s performance of a piece. You would think that all the variable bits would cause the music to devolve into something a chaotic blob, but the opposite tends to happen. The common threads of each individual performance reinforce and strengthen the collective performance.”
What binds them together?
“There seems something intrinsically down to earth and honest about everyone playing there. There are no pretensions, just an earnest desire to do the best we can and make music,” says violinist (and nephrologist) Michael Sutters.
And let us not forget the diminutive conductor, whom the musicians must crane their necks to see.
“Judy takes this all-volunteer group, selects music to challenge and delight us, and guides us cheerfully and joyously through a quarter of weekly rehearsals. We learn from her and from each other. Somehow, at the end of the term, we produce ‘music.’ It is a magical process,” says violist Lenell Nussbaum.
‘It’s kind of magical’
Lenell, a criminal defense lawyer, says playing with the orchestra lets her use part of her brain that would otherwise lie dormant. A longtime musician, Lenell took up viola for this orchestra, learning a new notation and range.
“My day job relies exclusively on words. My brain physically feels different when it gets to perform music. It’s a good feeling,” she says.
Lenell isn’t the only one enjoying this mental spa.
“Most Wednesdays I scramble out of work, bolt down a bite to eat, and then contemplate whether I really have the energy to drag myself off to rehearsal,” says Taylor. “But after a few minutes into the evening, I’ve lost that lethargy, and by the time we’re done I’ve got a head full of music that has driven out all the little stresses of the day. It’s kind of magical what playing with a group does for you.”
Two pets and a plan
How did this magic come to be? Rewind to 1996. The scene: Green Lake, Seattle. Judy and Lorraine are walking their dogs around the lake, discussing what to do about retirement. “One idea was to lick envelopes; the other was to start a community orchestra,” they write in their bio.
Both women were professional musicians, and also taught music. Lorraine had suggested putting their students together to play chamber music. One day they did, and the orchestra was born. Over time, it grew into a more advanced ensemble.
“Often, someone really skilled would come in, so we’d make the music a little harder… and then someone else would join, and it would keep getting harder and harder,” says Judy. So they divided the orchestra in two, and in 2000 the Ravenna Second String Orchestra was born.
Almost two decades after its creation, the original Ravenna String Orchestra is still going strong. Many of the members have been playing together for more than half that time, and several of their children have grown up in the group, some continuing to play through college.
Members of the orchestra describe the atmosphere as one in which they are both challenged and supported – and no wonder.
“Our mission is to help people love music, and to feel comfortable about playing,” says Judy. “A lot of the tension and nervousness comes from people being treated badly or too competitively as they grew up, so we try and get rid of that – because I think people play better if they can love music.”
They seem to be succeeding.
“Judy and Lorraine are wonderful leaders: warm, welcoming, funny and talented. It’s a gift that they share their expertise and experience with us,” says Susan Fung, violinist and speech-language pathologist.
Soloist on board
The orchestra had a guest this quarter: Nathan Whittaker, a chamber musician, recitalist, teacher and historical cello specialist. Nathan joined the orchestra as soloist for the Boccherini cello concerto – and then seated himself comfortably in the section for the rest of the program. Throughout the rehearsal cycle, he has been on hand to offer gentle instruction on style and technique.
With Nathan on board, musicians are able to work closely with an accomplished performer and learn to shape the orchestral parts to his needs. And Nathan, in return, gets a bit of variety.
“It’s exciting to work with adult enthusiasts who do it for the love of making music,” says Nathan. “They’re eager to learn everything about what music is and what it can do and how to best express emotions and musical concepts through their instruments. It’s a really fun and somewhat different experience working with a group like that.”
He adds, on a sober note: “When you’re in history class in high school, you learn two things: what the wars were, and what the artistic achievements were, of any age. I know which one I’d rather focus on. Every chance I have to be part of the collective consciousness of music is a real gift.”
The Ravenna String Orchestra and the Ravenna Second String Orchestra perform tonight at 8pm at the Eckstein Middle School auditorium. For details, click here.
Would you like to be featured on the Live Music Project? Drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos © 2015 by Shaya Lyon for the Live Music Project.