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Baltimore Symphony Fellow Wraps Up Rookie Year With Orchestra

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Tami Lee Hughes is in the middle of a one-year fellowship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Tami Lee Hughes
Tami Lee Hughes is in the middle of a one-year fellowship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Tami Lee Hughes grew up listening to lots of classical music. Her parents, both pianists and music teachers, were pretty much the only people in their African American neighborhood who listened to classical music. Hughes started playing violin at the age of 4, and says her parents taught her the discipline and dedication it takes to play in an orchestra — a longtime dream that's coming true right now.

She's in the middle of a one-year fellowship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra designed to increase diversity among the string players. She took some time in between rehearsal and an evening performance to chat with Metro Connection's Emily Berman. Following are highlights of their conversation.

On her audition for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra:

"I felt very nervous. I've played as a solo recitalist in the U.S. and Europe, and I've even played solos in front of orchestras. I think I was more nervous for that audition than for anything I've ever done in my life. The audition process is extremely tough. You basically show up to the hall, you're taken to a warm-up room, and you're taken to the concert space, and there's a large screen. The adjudicators can't see you and you can't see them. You play a set of excerpts, which are prescribed by the orchestra, and they listen to you and judge you."

On being accepted into the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra:

"I was very excited. This was my first time playing in a full orchestra. It's amazing! There's a sense of community in making music with other people. There are some things you have to be more aware of... I guess they're kind of unspoken rules. We all need to use the same amount of bow, the same vibrato, we need to make sure we're listening very carefully so our pitch blends. It's all about working together.

On some of the biggest challenges:

"The pace is very fast, and these are major works. We learn a new piece every week. I've had to learn tricks of the trade. You have to practice in an efficient and intelligent manner. Playing in an orchestra is very physically demanding. It's almost like playing a sport. In my first couple concerts I was really excited and at the end of the concerts I couldn't move. I felt like I had been in a football game and somebody had tackled me, and the other orchestra member would get up to leave the stage, and I could not move."

On being an African American violinist and whether the issue of race has impacted her career:

"I think as an African American string player, I feel caught between two worlds that don't really meet anywhere. In the orchestral world there are very few African American musicians on stages. There are reasons for that. 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 and I was the only person in my age group, my generation I think, who played a string instrument seriously. When I went to college, I went to university of Minnesota, and I don't remember any other African American string players. One of my overriding career goals is to bridge that gap. I'd like to see more African American string players, African Americans playing in professional orchestras and attending orchestra concerts. One of the things I like so much about the Baltimore Symphony is the Orchkids program. Players 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! Maybe I can do that too."

On her passion for classical music:

"I think a lot of people in general would say they don't listen to classical music, but they haven't heard it live. I think it is breathtaking. This sounds like heaven. People actually like it, they just haven't heard it. We have to take the music into the communities, especially for African American communities, they might not come out to a concert — it's just out of their element. Once that happens, it does unlock something."

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