Orchestra Boot Camp

Violins were dusted off. Tubas were taken out of the closet. Clarinets were re-assembled. And 53 amateur musicians gave their instruments—and chops—an intense workout at the Minnesota Orchestra Fantasy Camp, where they rehearsed alongside members of the Minnesota Orchestra for two days, September 15 and 16, culminating with a performance of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances on the orchestra’s season sampler concert. The camp was spearheaded by Minnesota Orchestra Education Director Jim Bartsch, who got the idea from the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians program. Besides the two rehearsals and concert, led by Conductor of Pops and Special Presentations Sarah Hicks, campers were treated to breakout sessions by instrument, a seminar on orchestra programming, and backstage tours.

The camp was open to all adult musicians. The 53 participants were selected from 92 applicants, who were required to submit essays outlining their musical experience and explaining why they wanted to attend the camp. The fee for attending camp was $500, which included the cost of ten tickets to the concert for families and friends.

Hoping to get an inside look at the excitement, nervousness, and elation of playing alongside one’s idols, Symphony asked three of the campers to share their experiences here on SymphonyNOW. Violinist Allen Huang, violist Emily Cain, and hornist Stephanie Lundquist kept blog diaries on their impressions before, during, and after the camp that capture their individual voices and experiences.

Pre-camp thoughts:

Allen Huang
Instrument: violin
Age: 48
Occupation: ophthalmologist

As I place my bow and fiddle back into the case this evening—Wednesday, September 14—the exotic themes of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances are still swirling in my head with an unrelenting intensity. Tomorrow morning I begin my participation in the inaugural Minnesota Orchestra Fantasy Camp.

I recall with fondness the countless Minnesota Orchestra concerts my family and I have attended over the past 16 seasons. During each and every performance, I marveled at the virtuosity of the musicians and the artistic vision of the orchestra’s brilliant conductors. From our preferred seats on the main floor of Orchestra Hall near the stage, close enough to see the brand of strings the first and second violinists were using, it was always easy to see on the musicians’ faces their supreme confidence, passion, and sheer joy at making beautiful music. How could one not fantasize about joining them in such an exalted, sublime experience?

And so it was that I dreamed about playing alongside the violinists of the orchestra each time we attended a concert, the fantasy ultimately dashed by the realization of its improbability, only to be rekindled again by the next concert. Now, on the eve of my nearly two decade fantasy becoming a reality, I am besieged by a torrent of complex emotions. Excitement at the prospect of playing with such peerless musicians? Of course! My resting heart rate has been 10 b.p.m. higher all day today, I think. Trepidation at the prospect of letting down my fellow musicians with errant intonation or a mistimed entry? Unexpected, but inescapable!

We will be playing Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, (Nos. 8 & 17) for the finale of the concertThe orchestration is masterful. Deceptively simple, but beset with a minefield of key and tempo changes, with an underlying, inexorable momentum that will bring the evening to its climax. I have practiced my part with the marked bowings and fingerings diligently over the past few weeks, but will I be able to play confidently at the tempo our conductor Sarah Hicks will choose? I hope so, and knowing the Minnesota Orchestra’s bravura, it will be a fearsome tempo indeed!

I better take my fiddle out and practice a bit more tonight…

Emily Cain
Instrument: viola
Age: 25
Occupation: marketing and communications coordinator, Minnesota Youth Symphonies

To music fans of the Twin Cities, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are considered nothing short of rock stars.

It’s like, you know those tween girls who burst into tears when they meet Justin Bieber? It’s like that, except, we’re adults. But what can I say? We’re loyal fans.

And Thursday, September 15, 2011, this fan-girl gets to live out a fantasy, and rehearse/become best friends forever with some of the greatest musicians on the planet. Yes, planet.

All I can think about today is how nervous-excited-giddy I am for tomorrow.

There’s going to be that agonizing moment, right before rehearsal starts, where performance jitters kick-in, and my inner dialogue starts going nuts. My thought process will probably go something like this:

Why did I apply for this? This was a terrible idea! I’m a fake—a fraud! It’s only a matter of seconds before someone realizes this.

Which hand does my bow go in?

It’s really hot on this stage. Now my hands are sweating.

I don’t know when this place morphed into Abu Dhabi, but my sweat glands are working in over-drive. I’m definitely going to drop my bow. My stupid, sweaty, shaky, bow-hand is going to experience a performance malfunction. My bow is going to fly out of my hand, drenched in sweat, and stab Tony Ross in the eye. Great. My favorite cellist ever, and I’m about to stab him in the eye.

I’m going to be sick. This is making me more panicky than that one ride at Disney World where you sardine yourself into an elevator with strangers and plummet thirteen stories to the ground “for fun.”

I better not screw up. I’m definitely going to screw up.

And then I’ll start playing.

And all of my anxieties will fade away, because I’ll be sitting amongst my viola heroes, in the heart of my favorite orchestra, living a dream.

At least, that’s what I’m hoping …

Stephanie Lundquist
Instrument: French horn
Age: 42
Occupation: special education paraprofessional, autism spectrum

September 15 is my birthday and I am so excited! No, not about turning another year older—after all, I’m no kid anymore. I’m excited because I’m going to play my horn with the Minnesota Orchestra as part of their first-ever Fantasy Camp! What a thrilling dream come true! I never could have guessed that in my life I would be able to do such a magnificent thing—play alongside top-notch professional musicians in a distinguished orchestra. Wow! My heart is racing. Wait. Is that because of the excitement, or is it from the brief panic attacks of sheer terror I occasionally get when I realize what I have done—put myself in a situation where I could make mistakes in front of players who are the top in their field? Breathe, breathe. But these brief moments of realization and self-doubt are so few and so short-lived. This unique opportunity far outweighs the nervousness of playing in front of such gifted individuals, not to mention an audience at Orchestra Hall. I get the chance to live out a dream for two days! What a rare gift!

I am really looking forward to this first day, when we will get to meet the conductor, the staff and the musicians, go backstage, share a meal, listen to the orchestra rehearse, and then join them to rehearse our piece together. I can’t wait to meet these musicians who get paid to do what they love. I want to see what a day-in-the-career-life is like for these performers. It will be fun to see what a rehearsal is like, and to feel the camraderie of such a prestigious group.

Some of my loved ones have told me I am brave to do such a thing. I think they might be right—it can be quite intimidating to realize what I am about to do. But, I applied for fantasy camp because I was totally focused on the bliss of it all. And, for me, I see it as a responsibility to do these sorts of things—to stretch a little bit out of my comfort zone and try new things that I have dreamed of and to share those things I most enjoy doing with others.

Thursday, September 15 – DAY ONE
Allen Huang
This morning, road construction and rush-hour traffic did their collective best to thwart my compulsion for punctuality, but thanks to a supportive spouse and the “diamond lane,” we pulled up in front of Orchestra Hall with nearly fifteen minutes to spare, time for a few photos in front of the iconic, sculptural blue whatchamacallits that grace the facade. I was filled with excitement, but as I bid farewell to Lydia, a surprising feeling of dread overcame me, much like being dropped off on the first day of school, a feeling that was both familiar and yet strangely alien.

Conductor Sarah Hicks addresses campers before their first rehearsal. Emily Cain and Stephanie Lundquist are at right. Photo by Allen Huang

I arrived in the rehearsal room to find several dozen campers already enjoying a light breakfast of fruit and danishes. My nerves made none of the food appear appetizing, unfortunately. “No, I think I will just have a glass of orange juice,” I thought. Introductions to the incredibly friendly and helpful staff of the orchestra were followed by a short pep talk by our conductor, Sarah Hicks. As if on cue, the question of tempo for the Borodin arose, and Sarah’s response put to rest my silly hope for a slower tempo. It will be fast, she said. What was I thinking—did I actually expect Sarah to say that we would play this glorious work at half speed? I gulped. Was anyone else feeling warm in the room?

Out of the corner of my eye I spied the seating assignment sheet, taped to a door. I was to play beside the orchestra’s esteemed concertmaster, Sarah Kwak. Oh, my, I thought, how did that come to be? Now it was getting unbearably hot.

By 10 a.m., the regular members of the Minnesota Orchestra had taken their places on stage for rehearsal. We sat on the main floor to watch, listen, and marvel at the orchestra’s awe-inspiring cohesion and utter virtuosity. To say that I felt intimidated would be an understatement. I found myself wrestling with the paradox of dreading that which I knew that I had wanted to do so very much.

Following the rehearsal break, we joined the orchestra on stage. I was introduced to Sarah Kwak, who recognized me as a familiar face, since my family and I usually sit front and center for many of the orchestra’s concerts. The next hour passed by as if in a dream. I played with tense shoulders and a clenched jaw during the first read-through, but with the subsequent passage work became more at ease and began to feel organic to the ensemble.

Emily Cain
OK, where did we leave off?

Oh right, me having an imaginary panic attack about all of the things that could go wrong at Fantasy Camp.

Well, I’m pleased to report that I did not stab principal cellist Tony Ross in the eye via my sweaty air-bound bow, nor did I become sick to my stomach before rehearsal began—two major successes of the day right there.

Photo by Allen Huang

“Campers,” as we were warmly and enthusiastically referred to, began the day with a greeting by Jim Bartsch, Minnesota Orchestra education director extraordinaire, who was in large part responsible for bringing Fantasy Camp to life (thanks, Jim!), and our conductor, Sarah Hicks, who shall henceforth be referred to as my “lady hero, conductor category.” Sarah’s the kind of gal who earns a degree from Harvard, goes on tour with Sting, and arrives to work clad in some of the most beautiful suede boots you’ve ever seen. And, she’s just so dang charming!

But let’s get serious. Music is a serious business.

Unless … you are in the viola section of the Minnesota Orchestra. Known for their antics and impeccable having-fun skills, the section did not disappoint. They are so good at what they do, so flawless, so dedicated, and so in sync, they can afford to have a little fun.

I was lucky enough to be seated next to Richard Marshall, Minnesota Orchestra co-principal violist (27 years and counting), who is as kind as he is talented. Despite the look of fear that came over me when I first walked on stage, a look I desperately tried to hide behind a nervous smile that wasn’t fooling anyone, he actually made me feel welcomed, and even encouraged me to have some fun.

Fun. That’s right. This should be fun. Nobody dreams of being embarrassed on stage in front of a large crowd—I signed up for Fantasy Camp, not American Idol.

Lucky for me, and the rest of the campers, there wasn’t a Simon Cowell in the bunch.

Stephanie Lundquist
The first thing this morning, after being happily greeted by the terrific orchestra staff who arranged this very special program, we were able to meet fellow campers, which was such a delight. They were all so friendly and open with intriguing backgrounds and fascinating stories of performing. I especially found it reassuring to learn that many of them shared my feelings of fear and worry, as well as unbridled excitement at this rare opportunity.

The next order of business was to listen to the orchestra rehearse their pieces for Friday night’s concert. Their sound was gorgeous! As I listened and enjoyed the beauty of their performance, the side effects of nerves began to build.

Then, it was time. Glorious it was to enter the stage and immediately be warmly and enthusiastically welcomed by the orchestra’s horn players, who were so pleased to have us join them. Throughout the rehearsal, they were encouraging, supportive, and complimentary! The feeling of being completely included was tremendously comforting, especially when dealing with nervousness. It’s always a challenge to hit all your notes and avoid mistakes when your mouth is getting dry and the shaking is threatening to alter your tone. But being accepted and brought into the fold so immediately was a great antidote to the dreaded case of nerves.

At the end of the rehearsal, the principal horn player summed it up very well for me and told me to “just forget about the nerves, to just enjoy the whole experience and to have fun!” Later, a fellow camper told me that once I start playing to “keep going; go, go, go; do it!” Finally, this evening, a dear friend wished me the best for tomorrow night’s concert, and told me to “play my heart out!” So, I have decided: I am going to listen to the wise advice from all three of these wonderful people. I’m going to forget about those bothersome nerves, give it my all, and have the time of my life!

Friday, September 16, day – DAY TWO

Allen Huang

This morning, I struggled with the desire to interact with my fellow campers and the conviction that I needed to practice several passages of the Borodin prior to our rehearsal. As I worked on relaxing my right shoulder and executing a clean and consistent Saltando, members of the orchestra’s first and second violin sections began to arrive, and prepare their instruments and music. I took a few moments to introduce myself to several of the violinists, prior to taking a seat in the hall to enjoy the orchestra’s rehearsal with the soloists.

Watching the musicians on stage, I could not help but recognize how differently I felt. The near-panic that I experienced exactly 24 hours previously was now replaced by a nervous desire to improve upon my playing, and to strive to approach the level of artistry of our gracious stand partners, to the best of my ability. Sarah Kwak commented on my being a rebel, since I had not donned the personalized camp shirt that my fellow campers were sporting for the day. The opportunity to interact with professional musicians at the level of the Minnesota Orchestra on a relaxed and informal basis, and the camaraderie of playing alongside them, are truly experiences to cherish.

Allen Huang with Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Sarah Kwak. Courtesy Allen Huang

As we gathered for our group photo out on Peavey Plaza under a glorious sun, a strong sense of community and group identity could be felt. Our common passion for music had brought us together, our busy lives put on hold for two days in the quest for a unique experience. There was much discussion about continuing to play together, and I believe that many of us will carry forth the momentum generated from these two days.

In the forty minutes remaining before the opening of the doors for our invited guests, we changed into our concert dress and began to warm up in earnest. As we stood in the wings during Duke Ellington’s Caravan, awaiting our stage entrance during the concert, a curious feeling of excitement and relief suddenly displaced the nervous tension and anxiety I had harbored the past few days. I savored the moment and found myself swaying to the intoxicating rhythm. Dread had given way to desire…

Emily Cain
In high school, some kids rebelled by drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. I, on the other hand, rebelled by doing things like: forcing my friends to listen to classical music CDs whenever they rode in my car; wearing one of my many acquired orchestra t-shirts to school five days a week so as to send a message to she-jocks (who didn’t notice) that I thought music deserved as much attention as football; and skipping school (once) to attend a Minnesota Orchestra concert.

The concert was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto. It was one of those weekday morning concerts that primarily attract a slightly older crowd. I’m not trying to be ageist, it’s just a fact. My friend Carolyn and I were the only people in the crowd that day with our original/any hair color, and we stood out like sore thumbs.

If someone would have told me ten years ago that I would be playing on stage with the same orchestra I skipped school to see, I would have thought they were straight-jacket-crazy—like full on cray-cray (that’s a hyphenated word I made up that means: crazy).

But here I am, a few hours before the big show, and my fellow campers and I will soon perform side-by-side with one of the greatest orchestras in the world.

I’m nervous, excited, anxious, honored, and a million other adjectives. For some reason I feel the need to go all Michael Phelps right now, by which I mean: psych myself up before the big moment by blaring pump-up music on my iPod to help me get in the zone.

I imagine this is what all of the professional musicians do before each performance, not like say, eat dinner with their families or watch the evening news—that’s just not exciting enough.

As I play on repeat the events of the past two days, this big stupid grin keeps spreading across my face, because I can’t stop thinking about what my nerdy high-school-self would have thought of all of this.

Stephanie Lundquist
The second day of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Fantasy Camp was a full day featuring rehearsal, section rehearsals, presentations on auditions and artistic programming, and backstage tours of the music library, the public radio broadcasting booth, and the catwalk above the famed Orchestra Hall ceiling of cubes.

A special highlight for the horn players was that our section rehearsal was in the Conductor’s Studio, a beautiful room with two sides of windows and splendid acoustics. After a brief review of the performance piece, we were treated to great advice and counsel from the Principal Horn player Michael Gast on techniques, practice routines, and suggestions for combating nerves. It was all valuable and priceless guidance for improving our horn playing.

Taking the lessons from today’s section rehearsal and other excellent tips from the orchestra horn players, I plan to go for it at tonight’s concert! I am going to play like I am fearless! I am going to be fearless. I will not focus on the full house of 2,400 audience members. Instead, I will imagine I’m at home, practicing and going all out with my playing, like no one is around. Only by shutting out the nerves I get from knowing people are watching me can I truly play in a way that expresses the true joy I get from playing. Sharing joy with other people in this way is eternal, and that’s what I hope to accomplish at tonight’s concert.

Stephanie Lundquist (center) with other campers prior to the final concert. Photo by Allen Huang

Post-camp reflections:
Allen Huang
The lilting rhythm of Caravan had stopped, and as the audience erupted into applause and the stage doors swung open, we immediately made our way onstage. Even without having played a single note, an inner feeling of joy and immense satisfaction relegated any stage-fright I may have had to the depths of my consciousness. As I exchanged greetings with Sarah Kwak, and Sarah Hicks introduced us to the audience, I was beaming, and acknowledged my family sitting in the audience just a few rows from the stage.

Sarah’s baton aloft, I immediately felt nervous again. I think it is this complex dynamic between anxiety, excitement, and the joy of making music that gives live performance such a unique vitality and electricity.

Perhaps it was our collective confidence and the elation of the moment, but it sure appeared to me that we played faster than we had during rehearsal. I played with as much abandon as I could allow myself, and felt that I played better than I had in any of the rehearsals. I could not be any more proud of my fellow campers, and all of our gracious and very patient orchestral musician hosts. The audience’s applause, the congratulatory handshake from Sarah Hicks and my stand partner Sarah Kwak, all seemed surreal, and I sat there, transfixed. I was smiling with a profound happiness and satisfaction that is impossible to put into words.

I rejoined my family and friends for photos. Having friends and family share in the moment made the experience infinitely more rewarding and memorable, and I could see genuine joy and excitement on their beaming faces. The stage crew were already stacking up the chairs and the stage lights were sequentially extinguished when we made our way to the hospitality suite, packed solid with a crowd of fellow campers and their family and friends. We shared our experiences and perceptions of the performance, and I sought feedback from our “camp counselors.”

It was getting late in the evening, and the gathering was gradually dissipating as exhausted musicians and their families left. I was not ready to say goodbye to our hosts, to say farewell to my fellow musicians, to bid adieu to my home away from home for the past two days. I had become not only comfortable in and familiar with my surroundings, but thrived on the energy, passion, talent, generosity, and kindness of all whom I had the fortune to have met. Playing on stage with members of one of the world’s greatest orchestras was certainly an unforgettable experience and perhaps the acme of my musical life, but I will remember and miss the other campers I met far more.

It will take days, perhaps weeks, for me to fully digest and sort through all of my experiences and place them in proper context, but as I laid my head down on my pillow early Saturday morning, I still had a grin on my face that I could not erase.

Stephanie Lundquist
Leading up to the final concert, we changed into our concert clothes, greeted our guests in the lobby and, once the doors opened, moved quickly into Orchestra Hall to claim the seats we had scoped out for our invited guests. What a pleasure to sit with our biggest fans and supporters and enjoy the first half of the concert together. The Minnesota Orchestra played powerfully, flawlessly, and spectacularly! Their performance was unsurpassable!

At intermission, we headed to the rehearsal room to warm up for our big moment on stage. My nerves were gradually building as we all reviewed a few notes, chatted with others, and contemplated how it would go, as well as bolstered one another with words of encouragement and inspiration to play our very best. After all, wasn’t this what we signed up for?—to enjoy the whole experience of playing with the Minnesota Orchestra? As we waited in the wings to enter the stage and take our seats, I gave myself a pep talk, thinking, “play fearlessly,” “this is what you came to do,” “enjoy it,” and “give it your all!” It must have worked, because, in spite of my racing heart, and the relentless shaking of my body, I played Borodin with gusto, excitement, and jubilance that superseded the stage fright. It was one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done! Rising for the standing ovation I looked all around me at the awe-inspiring view: my beloved family cheering, grinning, and glowing with happiness; the full house of 2,400 audience members applauding and emanating the shared delight. I was breathless! It was a moment I will remember forever!

Emily Cain
I woke up Sunday morning in a haze of groggy confusion, not really sure if Friday night actually happened. Facebook photo evidence from friends who came to the show confirms that it did in fact happen.

I’m not sure what happens to other people before a big performance, but I go into a state of nervous butterflies, followed by an eerie calm, followed by a lot of thoughts where I command myself to “Remember everything!” and “Stay in the moment!” which never really happens, because adrenaline doesn’t encourage “stopping to smell the roses,” it pushes you forward, and what you’re left with is a lovely feeling that something really magnificent probably just happened.

I remember Richard Marshall, my super-friendly and good-humored stand partner asking if I was “OK,” right when I walked on stage and sat down. I had that fake-nervous-smile going on again—I think it concerns people. (Note to self: My nervous smile is a terrible disguise! Practice something more convincing in the mirror once in a while.)

I remember waving my bow to my friends and family when I walked out. I was lucky enough to have a full gaggle of supporters cheering me on

I remember starting Borodin’s Polovistian Dances, and it felt a lot like starting a race. When that gun goes off, or in this case when Sarah Hicks give you the downbeat, you just GO. You start moving and you don’t stop until it’s over.

You want to know the best thing about playing next to a Minnesota Orchestra musician? Their sound is so rich, and so full, and so superhuman, you get confused for a second, and think that the person playing so perfectly is you. It’s an amazing trick of the ear, and I recommend it to any amateur musicians out there. Far exceeding my wildest expectations, this was truly the experience of a lifetime.

After day one, campers were already asking if they could come back next year—a true testament to the success of the program. Would I come back? In a heartbeat. Except, next time, I’m going for the podium.

Conductor camp, anyone?

All photos by Greg Helgeson, unless otherwise noted

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