This morning, I stumbled down to breakfast bleary-eyed in a cozy maroon hoodie. Its fabric has that never-been-worn fluff to it that makes all new sweatshirts a joy to wear. But it’s more than the shirt’s fuzzy warmth that makes it cozy. This is no ordinary Harvard sweatshirt. It’s an HRO hoodie, and in wearing it, I affirm my complicated love for the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.
This is the first year I’ve been an HRO member. For three years, I have been a dabbler, never pledging full allegiance to any one group. As a percussionist, I am called upon by seemingly endless musical ensembles to participate in their performances, because there are simply not enough of us to go around here. With never more than about 10 players on campus for the dozens of performing groups, we all get endless e-mails from music directors, managers and conductors. Names are passed around, and eventually you are part of the standard list. I’ve made the rounds with three different orchestras, the percussion and wind ensembles, four operas and numerous pit orchestras, but playing in HRO is about more than just a few cymbal crashes at one rehearsal.
This is the first time at Harvard I’ve felt truly invested in a musical group. Freshman and sophomore years I played in and managed THUD, The Harvard University Drummers, but I was never as attached to that group as I feel to HRO. Perhaps this is a function of the fact that, to me, a symphony is inherently more stirring than a percussion quintet. Emotion runs higher and deeper with a group this large and with works of greater scope.
And so I find myself in love with my new musical home. The week of our first concert, I happily braved early hour masking tape duty to plaster the Yard with posters. The day of the performance, I tabled outside the Science Center for a cold and windy hour at 9 a.m. I wear the sweatshirt and do these things out of a desire to see the orchestra succeed. But I can’t help think that throwing myself into things like this might be a defense mechanism against feeling removed from the group—both because I am a percussionist and because, in some ways, I feel I don’t measure up to the rest.
Percussionists are physically set off from the rest of the orchestra, and we really only interact with each other. Being a percussionist also means doing lots of waiting. My section probably has the best rest counters and listeners in the whole orchestra simply because we play so little. For example, my cymbal part for Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 doesn’t even begin until a good nine minutes into the first movement. The five of us, my four first-year section mates and I, know the second violin part down pat from peering over the shoulders of the last stand of players. When you don’t play for minutes on end, it’s easy to lose your place.
And even though much of my rehearsal time is spent waiting instead of playing, I still love my two-and-a-half hours in Sanders on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The trouble with being a percussionist is also one of the benefits: because of the simple fact that I don’t play much, I can listen to the rest of the orchestra even better. While I wait, my ear can tune in to any of the other sections, listening to the moving line in the cellos, the lilting, almost drunken-sounding flute solo or even a few notes in the lowest French horn part that are clear to me, though lost in the texture to most casual listeners. Listening from inside the orchestra is much different from sitting in the audience. It’s an experience I haven’t had consistently for quite a while.
The other night I called my high school music teacher for, of all things, castanet recommendations. He’s the one who encouraged me to switch to percussion in eighth grade when the flute got boring, and I was proud to tell him about HRO. “So you’re playing in the orchestra now?” he asked, knowing I had not been very serious about musical involvement in college. I told him yes, and that I was loving it, happy to note that we are the oldest continually performing symphony orchestra in the country (est. 1808). Happy to tell him that our conductor, James Yannatos, studied with Bernstein and has been pegged for the assistant conductor position with the Boston Symphony. But happiest to tell him that we’re just really good. “Yeah, I bet there aren’t any slouches in that orchestra,” he said.
Indeed, HRO is a group full of amazing talent, peppered with players who will go professional, with players who could have gone to Julliard, players who spend hours upon hours in practice rooms. Music is past, present and future for these Harvard students, people who are wholly occupied with their playing, but wanting more than the conservatory experience.
I get the impression that the rest of the orchestra is just as devoted, though just not in a professional sense. These are the musicians who played in their local youth orchestras, went to summer music institutes and cannot imagine ending their musical careers when they come to Harvard. Maybe some practice more than others, and maybe some don’t practice at all, but for five hours in Sanders every week, music is all that is on their minds.
Or at least one would think it is. At Harvard, though, there is no way to escape work, and inevitably stress about problem sets, papers and tests carries over into rehearsal. During my interminable rests, I read coursepacks and highlight in books. Sometimes I feel guilty for not listening to what is going on around me, but often there are just too many pages to read before section the next day, and rehearsal is valid downtime in which to do so.
This insecurity over my level of dedication is a recurrent theme in my relationship to music. I was in a percussion ensemble for four years in high school, and when I graduated, I was the only one not to go to college for a music performance degree. I loved what I did, but music was not going dominate my life, and I often felt I had little right to be in a group where that was the case for nearly everyone else.
Here in HRO, I know that I fall into neither category of musician I mentioned above. In the future, this will not be my career. In the past, I never made it to All-State, let alone All-National Orchestra. And I never spent time at a serious summer music institute, except after my freshman year at Harvard when I worked in a dining hall at Tanglewood, actually serving some of the musicians I now play with.
I simply do not know as much as most of the orchestra. At rehearsal this past Thursday Dr. Y., our conductor, gave suggestions as to pieces for our next concert. At his mention of “The Moldau,” about half of the orchestra groaned, and half sat up eagerly. Bows and hands shot up, voting heartily in one direction or the other as to whether we should add the piece to our program. I abstained. My hand stayed firmly planted at my side, because I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever heard “The Moldau,” and I could not have told you before Thursday night that it was by Smetana.
Times like those are the ones when I feel like a freshman all over again. Here I am, one of only 13 seniors in an orchestra of 100 some odd students, a position that should make me feel ancient, like the learned veteran I am. Instead I feel younger, less authoritative and confident and significantly more ignorant than I do in any other arena. Even the freshmen, and sometimes, especially the freshmen, know more than I do. I’m out of practice in the orchestra world, whereas they are just coming from the world of regional youth orchestra and Julliard pre-college.
I don’t think it’s really that I’m out of practice, though; I never was at their level. HRO humbles me. I am constantly envious of the people who can identify the obscure tune someone else is whistling. I have knowledge envy.
I try not to let this get in the way of my enjoyment of the orchestra. If anything, my desire for knowledge makes me love the experience even more. I feel as if, just by sitting on the same stage and playing the same music as people whose knowledge far outstrips mine, I at least gain some by osmosis. In their playing, HRO members leach out their musical knowledge in the form of emotion-filled performance. I sit there, a sponge, ready to take it in.
So when Dr. Y. touches his chest before beginning a piece, meaning “play it from the heart,” everyone in the orchestra already knows this. The HRO hoodie really says it all. The back of the shirt bears our semi-internal motto, “Love It. Want It.” And now that I’m part of this amazing group, I do both.
Jessica S. Zdeb ’04 is a history concentrator living in Adams House. She will try not to drool on her drums when HRO plays Dvorak Symphony No. 9 in March.