MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Our next story is also about a young person venturing out as a rookie of sorts, Tami Lee Hughes grew up listening to classical music, lots of classical music. Her parents were music teachers, and pretty much the only people in their African American neighborhood who listened to stuff like Bach or Brahms or Beethoven. Hughes started playing violin at the age of 4 And now, years later, she's in the middle of a one-year fellowship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She took some time in between rehearsal and an evening performance to chat with Metro Connection's Emily Berman about being a rookie in one of the country's most celebrated symphonies.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
So you grew up in Louisiana. How did you end up here at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra?
MS. TAMI LEE HUGHES
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has launched an initiative to increase diversity in the symphony orchestra world. And so I am here as part of a fellowship program in which African Americans are invited to audition and come and play for the orchestra. I flew to Baltimore last June to take the audition and it was very scary. (1) 00:01:04 MS. EMILY BERMAN
MS. TAMI LEE HUGHES
So when you did your audition for the Baltimore Symphony, did you feel like you nailed it or was it -- were you nervous?
MS. TAMI LEE HUGHES
I felt very nervous. I've played as a solo recitalist in the United States and Europe. I've even played solos in front of orchestras. And I think I was more nervous for that audition than I was for anything that I have ever done in my life. You basically show up to the hall, you're taken to a small, warm-up room, and then you go onto the stage where the concerts take place, and there's a large screen so that the adjudicators can't see you and you can't see them. You play a set of excerpts, which are prescribed by the orchestra in advance, and they listen to you and judge you.
I have to tell you, it sounds horrendous.
It's just very challenging. I mean, it's just a lot of pressure to prove yourself in a very short amount of time.
But in that instance, you got it. So can you tell me about the moment when you realized you would join a major city's symphony orchestra?
Well, I was very excited. It's amazing. Actually, there's a sense of community in making music with other people. There are some things that you have to be a little more aware of when you're trying to get a bunch of people to play together. I guess they're kind of unspoken rules, in a way. We all need to use the same amount of bow. We need to use the same vibrato. We need to make sure that we're listening very carefully so that our pitch blends. It's all about working together.
Can you talk about some of the biggest challenges you've found, that maybe have surprised you?
Playing in an orchestra is very physically demanding. It's almost like playing a sport which is very surprising to me. In my first couple concerts I was really excited and I was working really, really hard, and at the end of the concerts I just felt like I couldn't move. I felt like I had been in a football game and someone had tackled me and my whole body hurt. I would sit in the chair and the audience would be applauding and everything would die down, and the other orchestra members would get up to leave the stage, and I would just be sitting there, like, I cannot move.
What have you done to get better, to feel better?
I have stopped overplaying in orchestra. You have to be very conservative and efficient with how you do everything. And you can't waste, you know, muscle power.
Because of the nature of your fellowship, I want to ask about race. How has race impacted the way you feel about being a violin player and do you feel like it has impacted your career?
As an African American string player, I feel caught between two different worlds. In the orchestral world there are very few African American musicians on stages. There are reasons for that. I think in the African American community, classical music is not a big part of the culture. It is a European tradition. I grew up in a community that is predominately African American, in Baton Rouge, and I was the only person in my age group, in my, even, generation, I think, who played a string instrument.
When I went to college, I went to University of Minnesota, and I don't remember there being another African American string player for the first two years. And I think there may have been one for my last two years. And this was a large music program at a very wonderful school of music. One of my overriding career goals is to bridge that gap. I would love to see more African American string players, young people studying string instruments and even pursuing careers in classical music. And I would also love to see more African Americans attending classical and orchestral concerts. And so one of the things that I like so much about the Baltimore Symphony is the Orchkids program.
It's an educational outreach program in which symphony members go into the Baltimore public schools and provide free instruction. A lot of them have never seen an African American string player. They're like, "Oh, well, maybe I can do that, too."
You seem to have a real appreciation for the tradition of classical music. What is it that you think, at least the community you grew up in and maybe other communities like here in Baltimore, what is it that you think they might love about it?
I think a lot of people would say that they don't really listen to classical music, but they haven't heard it live. I think it's breathtaking. It's like what music would sound like in heaven. It's just beautiful. One of the things that we have to do is actually take the music into the communities, especially for African American communities. They might not just come out to a classical music concert because it's just out of their element. Once that happens, it does unlock something.
That was Baltimore Symphony Orchestra fellow Tami Lee Hughes speaking with WAMU's Emily Berman. You can catch Hughes playing with the BSO through the end of the summer. We have a link to the Symphony's performance schedule on our website, metroconnection.org.
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