Side by Side: Amateur Orchestra Musicians Get a Chance to Play with the Pros

side by side performing

Side by Side

By Theresa Litz

Eric Navin is a 42-year old cellist. Like many amateur musicians, he intended to make a career of music and entered Ohio State University as a cello performance major. But he says, “After considering the small number of jobs available for a professional cellist, I switched to mechanical engineering.”

For one evening last April, Navin had a chance to share the stage with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) at the historic Ohio Theatre. Under the baton of Associate Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson, he and 38 other nonprofessional musicians were united in CSO’s Side by Side, a special program where members of the community were invited to play major repertoire alongside their professional classical music counterparts.

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Although Navin has long been involved in smaller local symphonies, nothing quite prepared him for this experience. The crispness of the sound was never more evident, and detectable. “It was fantastic,” he says. “Being part of an orchestra where half the musicians play at the highest level is very powerful in terms of musical satisfaction,” he adds.

Though he’s been playing the cello for 30 years, when playing next to musicians of a much higher caliber, he says, “not only do I learn something from the experience, but I push my own standards higher in the moment.” He’d played Beethoven’s Fifth previously with the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra. He knew the piece both as a performer and as a listener, but he says, “The difference this time was the total skill level of the group being elevated by the professionals.”

side by side
The Side By Side orchestra’s strong horn section was made up of a healthy mix of professionals and amateurs from all walks of life

If excitement and enthusiasm were any indication, the community Side by Side was an overwhelming success. Even for seasoned performers like CSO principal bassoon Betsy Sturdevant, the experience was inspiring. She says, “I was blown away by the high quality of playing, as were many of my CSO colleagues. The community members blended quite well with the professional musicians, and I really didn’t have to do much adjusting, other than playing a bit louder and ‘leading’ a bit to keep the tempo steady, due to the size of the orchestra,” she says.

The experience served as a reminder to some of the CSO musicians of why they became musicians in the first place. Sturdevant says, “It’s because of the indescribable exhilaration which results from group participation in the performance of great art.”

CSO Director of Education Jeani Stahler laid the groundwork for the event. “To play among core musicians, to have this interaction with professionals—just being in the middle of it—was exciting,” she says. She and colleague Daren Fuster steered the project, reaching out to other orchestras that had established similar programs.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Rusty Musicians may have been the first successful side-by-side program. Since then, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Pacific Symphony, and others, have created their own versions. Social media plays a large part in their efforts to attract participants.

The only requirements for the CSO program were that the guest musicians had to be amateurs with experience and be at least 25 years old. They used the orchestra’s core musicians, about 55 members. The rehearsal lasted two and a half hours, with repertoire that included Beethoven (Symphony No. 5), Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius.

For Judy Barasch, a 63-year-old retired teacher of deaf students, Side by Side answered the overwhelming question. “Can I do it?” Barasch, who started playing violin in the fourth grade but quit after high school, says “Other things in life took over—a career and children—and from 1969 to 1999 my violin was under the bed.” She and her niece would play duos at Thanksgiving, but when her niece surpassed her, she decided it was time for private lessons. Barasch plays in the Vivaldi Ensemble at Suzuki Music Columbus, which performs everything from fiddle and folk to classical music. She is also a volunteer for elementary school children, assisting the strings teacher.

side by side
CSO principal bassoon Betsy Sturdevant (brown shirt, center) was impressed by the skill level of community musicians who joined CSO for its Side By Side program.

As an adult learner, Barasch’s focus has been about getting the musicality correct: the accents, dynamics, and flow. The Side by Side experience reinforced this dimension to her performance. She played second violin, alongside Rhonda Frascotti (assistant principal second violin) who was able to give her practical advice, suggesting, for instance, a passage might play better if she played in second position. For another passage, she recommended playing off the strings, called “bouncing the bow.”

Barasch, who dreamed of this moment from the time she was 10 years old, says, “It was like a special effect. It went by in a flash.” She admits that some of the playing was beyond her skill level, but says she had enough experience to know when to stop and when to come back in as the pace slowed down. She explains, “It’s important to know when you’re off, and stop—and not create a sound I call mud.”

Reflecting on the outcome of the evening, Barasch says, “It was exhilarating, exciting—grown-up fun,” adding “My intellectual brain wanted it to last longer, but the other part was so exhausted from concentrating, I’m not sure I could.”

Like Navin, 43-year-old Monique Riccobelli (who has played violin since fifth grade) has stayed involved in local orchestras. Until moving to Columbus in 2009, where she heads the home lending department of a bank, she played for the Cincinnati Community Orchestra (CCO) for 18 years. Not surprisingly, she jumped at the chance to play Side by Side. One of the challenges for Riccobelli, who is usually a second violin, was playing first violin that night. “It amazes me,” she says, “These musicians can come in and sit down and play effortlessly the music I had been practicing for weeks.”

“When you play by yourself, it’s a question of can you play the piece on stage with 90 other musicians,” Riccobelli explains, “It’s all about expression, playing together, holding the ensemble together.” Her son now plays viola, and Riccobelli says, “I look forward to the day when I can sit up on stage with him for a Side by Side.”

For all of the participating amateur musicians it was a reaffirming experience that made them that much more devoted to their instruments. Through the Side by Side program Navin connected with both professional and nonprofessional musicians, and he has now played chamber music with other nonprofessional musicians he met during the event.

For anyone entering the world of music as an adult learner Navin recommends joining local groups, and not allowing skills to diminish. He says, “Be very patient and enjoy the learning process. Keep playing, or try a new instrument.”

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