Long ago, in a past life, back when I was young and in college, before I found my voice, and before life taught me my strength, I was a classical violist playing for the Helena Symphony Orchestra in Helena, Montana.
My favorite concert of the dozens I played over the years was when I played with the Montana Summer Symphony in 2001 ~ the Symphony Under the Stars ~ at Carroll College. Only the Christmas concerts played in the St. Helena Cathedral come close. Musicians who have played in cathedrals understand that magic.
The night before the concert, there was a reception after our dress rehearsal where I might have indulged in several glasses of champagne handed to me one at a time by several of the conductors who were not aware that I was not exactly of age. *cough* They loved me. I was young, passionate, and talented. I may have been in the back of the viola section but mine was one of only a couple stands with a mic. My job, young as I was, was to be the strength in the back of the section with the harp to my left and the brass section behind me and to the right. One of them even proposed. My conductor, Erik, bless him, handled that issue for me, and although those 3.5 carrots were tempting I still had enough wisdom at that young age to know trouble when I saw it (and he was trouble)!
Of the 100 or so musicians on the stage, I think I was the youngest that year. I was still in college but playing alongside orchestra and band teachers and professors from across the state who taught by day and enriched the world by night, including my own teacher. It was profoundly amazing to me that in my 4th year playing I had joined the woman who had been my chamber teacher the year before on stage in a professional level symphony and that by my 6th I was playing with the most talented musicians Montana had to offer.
Montana is a goldmine like that with more professional level, all volunteer symphony orchestras than what seems reasonable for their population along with public schools and private teachers that turn out incredible musical talent despite the state’s rural nature. A charming juxtaposition and an unfortunate truth that most places simply aren’t as cultured that way.
We had received our music with time to prepare but I never practiced mine more than one or two runs through before the rehearsals started a couple days before the concert. I was one of those irritatingly talented humans who didn’t have to practice… so I didn’t practice. The nerve bundle in my left shoulder would compress when I played leaving me with sharp nerve pains down my arm every time I started to play. The more I played the less I could feel my arm and so I built a habit of playing only when in rehearsals and concerts. It got to the point that I would be unable to feel my fingers, though watching them out of the corner of my eye and listening I could still manage to play, so I played… until I could no longer make my hand move. I even had my first rib amputated at one point to alleviate the issue, but it didn’t.
I imagine those who work within a framework of teamwork understand the magic that happens when everyone on the team does their thing and does it well. There’s a certain satisfaction in it. In a professional Symphony of that caliber, imagine the magic that comes with 100 individuals who are among the best professional playing perfectly together… without a conductor leading. That’s what we did in rehearsals one day. Our conductor (probably Erik) told us to play and without his direction 100 musicians took a collective breath in and began to play as one… perfectly.
Fucking magic if there ever was magic.
It only gets better when the conductor at the front can draw from within each individual soul the emotions they want to bring to the audience. That is what those conductors could do… and it is what they did do.
On that lovely Saturday night ~ July 21st ~ 17 years ago, I remember walking onto the stage, taking my seat, and the goosebumps as we played our set to near perfection. Rain and thunder didn’t damper our spirits or the spirits of the audience sitting live on the hillside with umbrellas, ponchos, picnic dinners, and smiles. We started the night with this piece as the sun was getting low over saddle mountain and Ft William Henry Harrison. My Symphony shirt was lavender and it seemed to glow in the pink light of sunset before the rain began to drizzle on the crowd gathered on the grass for a free summertime Symphony ~ because that’s how Montana rolls with the culture. I couldn’t say how many states it was broadcast live in, only that it was and that the ultimate count on the live audience between those who attended and the half a dozen or so places it was viewed live was some ridiculously obscene number that I won’t even share because it seems too inflated to be true.
My favorite part of this piece comes at 3:06 with a depth that gives me goosebumps and makes me cry every single time I hear this piece. Live on stage, in a rehearsal, alone in my room. If it doesn’t give you goosebumps I won’t look down on you, it just probably means your brain likely doesn’t have quite as many fibers connecting our auditory cortex with the emotional centers of your brain or as high a prefrontal cortex as I have. Those with brains like mine feel emotion more readily and deeply, particularly with music, and we are able to find meaning in the music than the average human.
I have superpowers.
If you don’t, it isn’t your fault.
Blame your parents.
If you want to discover if you have the goosebumps, don’t scrub to 3:06 but listen to the whole thing. Twice if you have to. With your eyes closed. The tingle sometimes starts in your spine or across the crown of your head or leading from the crown to the forehead.
7th movement of The Planets, Opus 32, written between 1914 and 1916
Composer: Gustav Holst
This is “Woodwinds” by Monte Dolack and was the image for the poster for the 2001 Summer Symphony. I have it framed in my office.