Professionals String Players Describe Their Careers & How They Found Their Way to the Stage

This fall, a new flood of string players will rush into the halls of music departments and conservatories the world over. Many of these new students will be driven by visions of a performance career, their momentum fueled by the ambition for a place onstage among their own string-playing heroes. Each dream, each student, each path will be unique. But it is difficult to chart a course between a student’s first tentative steps into a university setting and the confident strides that may one day deliver him or her to that place onstage. We thought, perhaps, a bit of perspective would be instructive from those who have navigated these waters themselves. —Megan Westberg

Stefan Jackiw

New York–based violinist, recording artist, chamber musician, and recitalist Stefan Jackiw performs throughout the world with premier orchestras on some of the most prestigious stages. He is a recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and studied with Zinaida Gilels, Michèle Auclair, and Donald Weilerstein. He holds a BA from Harvard University, as well as an Artist Diploma from New England Conservatory.

Two years ago, I found myself backstage at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston. I was warming up for a performance of the complete violin sonatas of Charles Ives, with pianist Jeremy Denk. The homey green room had a familiar, comforting, musty smell. The stage crew included faces I’d known since I was a kid. When the old air-conditioning unit sputtered to life, I was brought back to my childhood, when I warmed up in this same room some 20 years before.

For me, performing in Boston always carries special meaning. While I now live in New York City, I was born and grew up in Boston. I spent nearly 15 years studying at NEC, first in the preparatory division, and then as an artist-diploma student in my early twenties, over a decade ago. It was here that I was first introduced to the wonders of music. From my early lessons on violin technique to rehearsing Bartók and Mahler on Saturday afternoons as a member of the Youth Philharmonic to studying and performing the complete Brahms violin sonatas for the first time for my artist-diploma recital, I can chart my musical and personal development in this building.

The first time I performed in Jordan Hall was in 1999, when I played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with NEC’s Youth Philharmonic. At 14, this was my first performance of my favorite concerto, and it gave me a glimpse into what it means to be a performing musician: the tireless study of the score, the never-ending quest to render my internal vision of a phrase more vividly through the violin, the joy of rehearsing great music with others, and the jitters before walking out onstage. Sitting backstage before the Ives, I remembered warming up in the same room 20 years earlier, playing the opening bars of the Mendelssohn—one of the most elusive phrases in the repertoire—over and over, just before walking onstage to perform the piece for the first time. I remember turning the same air-conditioner on full blast to cool my flushed, excited face.

Today, I travel around the world, playing concertos with orchestras, violin recitals with pianists, and chamber music with my piano trio JCT and with other colleagues at various music festivals. My life as an itinerant musician is, at turns, immensely rewarding, intellectually and emotionally stimulating, exhausting with all the travel, and stressful—performing onstage does get easier, but it never gets easy.

What got me here today? While my 15 years at NEC—shuttling between orchestra rehearsals, chamber-music coachings, and private lessons with various teachers—all contributed to any successes I have enjoyed, with each passing year I realize with increasing certainty that it was my studies with Donald Weilerstein that influenced me most profoundly and shaped who I am as a musician, and as a person, today.

I began studying with Mr. Weilerstein when I was 17, in my senior year of high school. Prior to working with him, the violin teachers I studied with primarily focused on honing my technique and understanding different styles of playing, dependent on the repertoire at hand. This was necessary and valuable for me. To this day, I rely on the technical foundations that these teachers gave me, and I continue to use many of the same practice methods that they taught me. In my lessons with these teachers, there was a goal—sometimes implied, sometimes explicit—of dazzling listeners with the ease, elegance, and stylishness of my playing.

When I began my studies with Mr. Weilerstein, I have to admit I was confused for several months. Instead of correcting my phrasing, or picking at faults in my intonation and articulation, he spent nearly every lesson talking about “vulnerability.” My entire life with the violin had heretofore revolved around eliminating vulnerability; I practiced to attain a kind of invincibility. And here was Mr. Weilerstein, seemingly advocating the exact opposite!

Over the course of my first year with Mr. Weilerstein, it gradually dawned on me that I had approached playing the violin as a means to display my excellence. Never before had I considered that mastery, if such a thing exists, was not an end in itself, but rather a necessary but incidental ingredient to inhabit and then convey the emotional world of a musical work. I realized that I had regarded the concert experience as an opportunity to impress, rather than to communicate. Necessarily, through this misguided approach, I had unwittingly rendered music as a vehicle through which to display my violinistic proficwiency. Mr. Weilerstein had opened my eyes to this fallacy.

However, this shift in paradigm was not without its growing pains. I discovered that I had constructed a protective wall around myself when it came to playing the violin. Since I strove to achieve a high level of technical consistency, I unconsciously avoided any variations in my playing that might jeopardize my ability to execute onstage as I had repeated ad nauseam in the practice room. I was reluctant to step out of my comfort zone, and certainly unwilling, even unable, to relinquish control and welcome the mental and emotional freedom that can lead to openness and communication.

While this may seem like a subtle shift in mindset, it felt like a profound unmooring of my values and even my identity as a musician. I desperately wanted to commit to this new philosophy, but I also resisted. I worried that I would be abandoning a way of living that had seemed to have worked relatively well for me, and I was unsure of what was on the other side. Mr. Weilerstein recognized this cognitive dissonance and helped me work through it. For the next four years, my weekly lessons with him on Friday afternoons became a kind of safe space for me, where I could gradually peel away layer after layer of defensive instincts. My lessons became both a laboratory for experimenting with different methods of emotional expression and a kind of psychological therapy, through which I reevaluated my priorities as a violinist and reconsidered why I wanted to be a musician. To this day, I feel that my most raw, expressive playing happened in Mr. Weilerstein’s studio on the second floor of NEC.

It’s been 12 years since I graduated from NEC and left Boston for New York. But not a day goes by that I don’t consider the idea of emotional vulnerability. I still grapple with the concept. Of course, we violinists have to maintain a certain level of technical acumen—it’s part of our duty to the composer. But, at what cost? Where is the line beyond which the quest for “excellence” is no longer to facilitate a more flexible emotional expressivity, and becomes a reflection of some sort of vanity? On the flip side, is there a point at which emotional vulnerability can itself become self-consciously performative?

I’m not sure that there are cut-and-dried answers to these questions. But, when I’m at home, revisiting a familiar work or learning a new one, I try to recapture the spirit of experimentation, openness, vulnerability, and catharsis that I discovered on Friday afternoons in Boston.

What Stefan Jackiw Plays

Primary Instrument:Violin made by Vincenzo Ruggieri, Cremona, 1704
Primary Bow: F.N. Voirin, Paris, 19th century
Strings: Thomastik-Infeld Dominant for A, D, G; Jargar Forte E
Case: The lightest I could find: a shaped Gewa case
Other gear I can’t live without:Liebenzeller rosin

Tatiana Hargreaves

Old-time, bluegrass, and acoustic musician Tatiana Hargreaves had already released a solo album and toured before she attended Hampshire College. A veteran of the fiddle-camp circuit, she has extensive teaching experience and has toured with Laurie Lewis, Darol Anger, and Bruce Molsky. Her most recent collaboration is with banjoist Allison de Groot, and their work together can be heard on their recent release, Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves

I’d been to California many times and I’d performed throughout the state, with the Dave Rawlings Machine and Laurie Lewis, but tonight was different. As I sat on the Berkeley Back Room stage, I realized I’d never actually performed under my own name in California before. It wasn’t a large venue, but it was sold out—100 people had come out to hear us (myself and my duo partner banjoist Allison de Groot). I took a moment to scan the room. It was packed with friends and mentors from all parts of my life; people who had supported me from when I was a kid, friends from college and even some high-school friends. I felt my throat tighten as I put layer upon layer of expectations on myself, imagining all the ways I would disappoint people I cared about and admired.

We sat down to play. I shut my eyes, visually blocking out the audience, but soaking up the energy they were feeding us. And then I smiled, realizing all I felt from the audience was love and support.

It’s been almost two years since I graduated college. Sometimes I get frustrated with all the things people didn’t warn me about being a musician: the back aches from long car rides, the hours of emailing, website design, social media, etc. Getting onstage and playing—that’s the easy part. 

One of the most difficult things for me about being a musician is the lack of structure in my life. It’s taken about two years to adjust to being a full-time musician outside of school. Up until I graduated, school was always my priority. Yes, I was still a musician, but school provided my life structure. Now, there is no “average” week for me. Sometimes I’ll be touring, sometimes I’ll be at home teaching, and sometimes I’ll have a rare few weeks of nothing, when I try to catch up on everything else in my life. As someone who likes structure and routine, I’m still adjusting to this lifestyle. When I finished school, I didn’t know how hard that would be.

I graduated from Hampshire College in May 2017. I didn’t study music performance, although music was a big part of my curriculum. Instead, I focused on ethnomusicology. After high school, many people expected me to go to a music school. I already considered myself a semi-professional musician then, with an album, and touring and teaching experience under my belt. I also knew that no matter what I studied in college, music would always be a big part of my life, so I figured that I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to go to college to study something else. 


I took classes in ethnomusicology, identity politics, Africana studies, Cuban history, Czech language, Spanish language, and literary journalism in addition to music performance classes, such as an improvisation orchestra and a Baroque ensemble. One semester I participated in the Dosti Music Project, a State Department funded program hosted by Found Sound Nation that brought musicians from India, Pakistan, and the US together for a month of collaboration, performing and recording. Another semester I spent three months in Havana, Cuba, studying the history of the violin on the island from Cuban contradanza to danzón and charanga ensembles. 

I spent my final year doing an ethnographic analysis of the “fiddle-camp phenomenon,” critically analyzing the musical communities I grew up in. Through all of these courses and experiences, I realized that the more I learned and grew as a person, the more I improved as a musician. Yes, of course I spent lots of time practicing too, but the more I learned outside of the practice room, the more “me” I sounded.

Interestingly, the class that inspired my music the most was a Spanish literature class entirely dedicated to reading and studying the book Cien años de soledad (100 Years of Solitude) by Gabriel García Márquez. Until then, I had never seriously considered composing, but the book and the class opened my mind. I began writing solo violin pieces inspired by characters from the book, using the concept of “magical realism” as a guide. I had never felt so connected to making my own music before.

After graduation, I was lucky enough to tour all summer with Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, starting in California and ending in Durham, North Carolina, where I now live. I feel very grateful for the education I’ve gotten and I’m excited to continue learning and educating myself outside of a formal education. I’ve learned as much or more from just living my life, and seeking out those whom I want to learn from. I’m starting to appreciate the lack of structure more—enjoying the time I have to fully commit to music, myself, and my community.

This past year I’ve released two new albums with two different projects (Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, Hard Drive) and started teaching bluegrass fiddle at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In some ways, I feel like the rest of my life is just starting and I’m scared, excited, and ready to keep learning.

The main words of advice I’d give to someone seeking a career in music is: Don’t use music as an excuse to isolate yourself from the world. Immerse yourself in your community and learn about more than just the music, whether inside or outside of a school setting. As Pablo Picasso said: “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.”

What Tatiana Hargreaves Plays

Primary Instrument: John Sullivan 5-string fiddle & Jonathon Cooper 4-string fiddle
Primary Bow: Still searching for the perfect match . . .
Strings: D’Addario Helicore 5-string set
Case: Bam

Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt

Violist, chamber musician, and recording artist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt is a founding member of the Dover Quartet. The ensemble formed at the Curtis Institute, and tours extensively throughout the world. The Dovers won first prize and all special awards at the 2013 Banff International String Competition, and the gold medal and grand prize at the 2010 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. The ensemble received the Avery Fisher Career Grant and is the first-ever quartet-in-residence for the Kennedy Center.

“Final grievances?” I ask jokingly. Everyone laughs. “See you at the concert tonight!” We all get up to pack up our instruments, but within seconds I become aware of a hush in the hall. A beautifully pure piano sonority comes into focus, gently and effortlessly filling the elegant and historic Wigmore Hall. I look around and everyone has stopped in their tracks to listen and watch. Bryan even has his phone out, sneakily capturing the moment so he can enjoy and revel in the memory of it later (I’ll definitely be asking him to send it to me). Emanuel Ax is running through the Schumann Arabesque in C, Op. 18, for his 70th-birthday celebration concert that evening. We are along for the ride, hearing a musical hero and legend in that intimate, empty, iconic hall.

Unforgettable moments like these confirm that this career as a chamber musician is a dream job. That being said, it is not without its extreme challenges and curveballs . . .

To be honest, when I decided to try to make playing string quartets my career, all I knew was that chamber music was my favorite form of music making, and string quartets had the best and the most repertoire of all chamber-music ensembles. It seemed simple: Find three like-minded individuals who are great musicians and nice people—ideally my friends. A main reason I fell in love with chamber music was its social aspect; not only the intimate music making and deep, detailed discussions (with a healthy mix of joking around) in rehearsals, but also how each person, with a unique voice, interacts with the others spontaneously and intricately, creating a new experience from concert to concert.

It’s ironic that I got into chamber music because of the social aspect, as it is actually the life of a professional traveler. I find myself having to go out of my way to maintain friendships and stay in contact with friends and family. Not to mention, I’m married to Brook Speltz, cellist of the Escher Quartet! Brook and I have a joint Google calendar that we have to consult six months to a year in advance to ensure we don’t end up spending months apart. We aim for a 2–3 week rule, but that has become nearly impossible. There have been many, much longer stretches apart—especially in the summer, with extended periods at music festivals—and we’ve had to be proactive about meeting on FaceTime and texting to stay in each other’s lives. This season we got creative (and lucky!) and our two quartets will be touring together with a program of octets.

Another challenge is navigating being with the same three people around the clock. One of our primary coaches at Curtis, Shmuel Ashkenasi of the Vermeer Quartet, asked us in a coaching “Have you considered getting married?” We didn’t know just how apt that wording truly was! Not only are we rehearsing and performing together every day, discussing our deepest emotions and musical philosophies, but we are also traveling together, experiencing one another at our most sleep-deprived, most vulnerable, most stressed moments. 

We have different privacy thresholds, and after ten years of playing together, we’ve learned how not to take things personally, and to recognize each other’s differences. I’ve shocked many a hotel restaurant employee by insisting on having breakfast in my own private corner while my three colleagues sit together chatting at another table. We aren’t fighting—I just like to start my day more quietly. Even funnier is the bewildered reaction of the person at check-in when we request our rooms to be “as far apart as you can get us—separate floors if possible!” 

Gasp! But think about it—if you worked a 9–5 desk job every day, how would it feel to have everyone in your office go home together to the same apartment building and be next-door neighbors? You can love your colleagues, but still require a semblance of personal space and a private life outside of work. Most years we are on the road upward of 250 days.

I’ve learned so much from being in a full-time string quartet. The “business” side of things is intricate, from maintaining a social-media presence, working with agents and management, and monitoring finances and international tax documents to learning to speak publicly, socialize with presenters and donors, and even learn how to manage airline officials, airport agents, and fellow passengers. Our mentors during our time as graduate-quartet-in-residence at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, including my viola teacher there, James Dunham of the Cleveland Quartet, were pivotal in opening our eyes to how intertwined our lives would be with this job. 

It’s hard to stay healthy on the road, too! Discovering yoga (huge thanks to violinist Elena Urioste of Intermission Sessions!) was a life-saver for me, because it helps prevent injuries, heals and strengthens my body, and I can do it anywhere. Even more powerfully, it has completely changed my mindset when it comes to patience with my own practice and performance, and the ability to live in the moment amidst a relentless whirlwind lifestyle.

Music was a life-consuming hobby since as far back as I can remember. My dad (a surgeon) plays piano, and started teaching me before I was 4. I began violin shortly after in Oxford, England, at a Suzuki program. I dabbled in cello, and even became quite a serious trombone player. Eventually, I was taking private lessons every week on violin, piano, and trombone, and attending music festivals during the summers, including Eastern Music Festival, Meadowmount, and Bowdoin International Music Festival. I also did intramural sports and ballet—perhaps that was why I refused to apply for an arts or music high school.

School was where all my non-musician friends were, and where all my options stayed open. I was not set on a career, but there were pivotal moments that directed my life to where it is now. Competing in the junior division of the Sphinx Competition, and then studying with one of the jurors, Sergiu Schwartz, both privately and at Bowdoin was one of them. And the other was finding my musical voice. My high school had no string program, and during my junior year, the music director, Lynne Radcliffe, suggested that my brother (then a cellist) and two friends (sisters who played violin) form a quartet. I asked them immediately if I could play the viola, and fell in love. 

That summer, at Bowdoin, I met Michael Klotz, violist of the Amernet Quartet and my first viola teacher. My sudden immersion in the viola world planted a seed in my brain. Playing viola in a string quartet—this was my voice. For undergraduate studies, I applied on violin to schools where I could double-major, but on viola, I applied to my dream conservatories—did my sudden fantasy have any merit? When I found out I was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music to study with Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet, and Roberto Díaz, I almost fainted from joy and immediately canceled all my violin auditions. I could pursue my dream—being a violist in a string quartet.


What Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt Plays

Primary Instrument: A 1780 Michele Deconet, (Venice, Italy) generously on loan from the grandson of Boris Kroyt, violist of the Budapest Quartet
Primary Bow: I love my modern bows by David Samuels and Charles Espey
Strings: Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore tungsten C string, silver G string, and chrome D string. Vision Solo or Peter Infeld A string
Case: A sassy leopard-print viola case from Maple Leaf Strings
Other gear I can’t live without: My bedazzled bling mute, lightweight pedi shoulder rest, and hypo-allergenic almost-center-mounted chin rest

Tina Guo

Electric and acoustic cellist, recording artist, composer, and entrepreneur Tina Guo has established a career as a genre-crossing musician, and has contributed to hundreds of film, television, and game soundtrack recordings. She tours extensively with arena shows, including Cirque du Soleil and Hans Zimmer Live, and is signed to an exclusive recording contract with Sony. She has composed music for Bentley, the Ritz-Carlton, and Mercedes-Benz.

October 2, 2011.  I’m standing backstage in Montreal, hearing the roar of 20,000 people anticipating the opening night of Michael Jackson “The Immortal” World Tour.  I’m wearing a leather and Swarovski crystal outfit and am nervously checking my drawn-on “abs” (using bronzer). I’m a little self-conscious of my cellist body compared to the amazing dancers, acrobats, and aerialists around me. I wait through the first four numbers, and then it’s time for my electric cello and I to climb underneath the stage, past the lifts where performers are catapulted onto the stage above, and into the underbelly of the runway that leads to the center of the arena. 

I hand my instrument to the waiting technician and lay down on a bobsled-like device, push off the ground, and slide down the narrow path toward center stage. The tech follows with my cello, speeding directly behind me. As we reach the stage, the number ends right before my first appearance in the show. The platform is lowered and I climb on, stand, and grab my instrument and bow from the tech. The music fades as the stage platform rises into the air over the crowd, higher and higher as I stand in an aggressive position, making strange grunting animal noises (my pre-show ritual, which is oddly energizing and relaxing at the same time), prepping to perform.  

My hands are sweating and my heart beats out of my chest. The countdown in my in-ear monitors begin: 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . 

A sudden boom silences the arena, signals my hair whip to reveal my half-shaven head, and the start of my electric cello solo. 

Just two months after this opening night, we had sold over $100 million in tickets from US and Canada dates, and became the top touring act in America.

Rewind seven years to 2004. I moved to Los Angeles on a full-tuition scholarship for classical cello performance at USC. I had no money, no car, and no instrument (the Colburn Foundation loaned me a cello during my college years). I did have one suitcase of garage-sale and thrift-shop clothes, and lots of crazy dreams—many of which seemed outside the norm of a classical musician’s aspirations. Nevertheless, I focused obsessively on expanding musically, spiritually, financially, and mentally. Every interaction I had with someone telling me my musings were inappropriate and unrealistic only fed my fire and all-encompassing desire to take my own path. And it wasn’t an easy one.

I grew up with music-teacher parents who immigrated from China, and we always pinched pennies. I never owned a new item of clothing until 2005 when I splurged on a sweater from the clearance rack of Armani Exchange—I was racked with guilt for months after for spending $40 on a piece of clothing! I studied at USC for three years, and during that time I took out student loans to cover living expenses (books alone were $900 per semester). I also took on other personal loans and credit card debt to purchase my first electric cello, amplifier, bow, and later, my 1880 Gand & Bernardel cello.  

I had to sell that first electric cello a few years later to pay rent during a hard month. And let me tell you, most months were hard during my first six years in Los Angeles. I purchased food from clearance aisles at Ralphs and Dollar Stores, and went to the bank to deposit everything I could—even a quarter once that I found on the ground (much to the amusement of the bank teller). 

But I was focused on becoming a self-made millionaire, never having to depend on anyone but myself (or having to buy expired food). I wanted to be able to create art and music in my own way, as well as become the best classical cellist I could be. So many people told me that it was impossible to do so many things well and that I should only focus on one thing, but I’m glad that I followed that insatiable desire to expand and grow in every direction. 

By 2012, my career as a musician and entrepreneur really began to take shape. I was able to pay off all my student loans, car loans, credit cards, and instrument loan while on tour with Cirque du Soleil. I established my savings and also took investment courses online. I began investing in stocks and peer-to-peer lending, and still have these accounts in my portfolio today. I got an online BA in metaphysics purely out of curiosity about the religions and belief systems of people throughout history. I also brought my recording equipment with me on the road so that I could offer remote recording sessions to clients while on tour from my hotel room, and sometimes in arena bathrooms.

I’m living in Los Angeles now and balancing a career as a solo artist (I signed with Sony two years ago after self-releasing nine albums on my own label), composer, recording musician (on soundtracks or collaborating with other artists), career and financial consultant to other creative types, YouTuber, and investor. Last year, I was a Bentley Brand Partner, composing the music for the Bentayga Hybrid commercial. This year, I’m honored to be a Ritz-Carlton brand partner, composing soundtracks for their individual destinations. I’m also excited to be performing throughout Europe this fall with the World of Hans Zimmer, after touring Australia and Asia with Hans Zimmer Live.


My schedule varies wildly every day and I love the excitement of constant change. When preparing for classical concerts, I practice 4–6 hours a day, but on normal days I try to do at least an hour of focused practice. Sometimes, it’s just not possible but I do my best! Ninety percent of the recording sessions I do for film, television, and video games are done remotely from my home studio.

Sometimes it seems like my career is such a departure from why I first came to L.A. My professor at USC was Eleonore Schoenfeld—an amazing woman who taught me so much musically and encouraged my experimentation. I first began my heavy-metal cello playing during my time there, when I discovered guitar shredders on YouTube and wanted to emulate that sound and feel. Other than what I learned from my wonderful cello teacher, the rest came from personal experience, the magic of the internet, and self-help articles and books.   

After Ms. Schoenfeld’s passing, I had reached a point where I was touring as a classical soloist with small orchestras—and missing too many classes. I decided that pursuing career opportunities was more important than receiving a degree. For me, it was the right decision. But no matter how much formal training a student decides to pursue, I encourage all young musicians to take the initiative to educate themselves on top of their traditional education systems, due to the constant-changing nature of the music business, especially in the technology age!

I reached my financial goal of becoming a self-made millionaire two years ago, and am constantly creating new musical goals to reach. I think the best advice I can give young musicians is to take it upon yourself to learn as much as you can about everything and anything—legal matters; photo and video editing; social-media optimization; engineering, recording, mixing, and mastering. Read books and articles. Watch YouTube videos. There is an endless amount of free knowledge sitting on the internet, and yes—knowledge is power when you take action on that knowledge. 

Ninety-five percent of the things I’ve tried have failed, be it bands, projects, music releases, etc. But people only see the 5 percent that do work—and your failures have to make you want to succeed even more, with more intensity and obsession. That unrelenting drive, combined with a thick skin and conscious goal setting and planning, is the path to growth and success. 

What Tina Guo Plays 

Primary Instrument: Electric: Yamaha SVC-210; Acoustic: 1880 Gand & Bernardel, Paris
Primary Bow: Lothar Seifert with woolly mammoth ivory tip
Strings: Larsen Magnacore
Case: Otto Carbon Fiber Auto-Close Case
Other gear I can’t live without: My Helix LT effects processor!

Wyatt Underhill

Violinist Wyatt Underhill joined the San Francisco Symphony as assistant concertmaster in 2018. He was previously assistant concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony, substitute concertmaster with the New Haven Symphony, and associate concertmaster of Symphony in C. He is the founding first violinist of the Blue Hill String Quartet and a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory and Juilliard School.

For years, if someone were to ask me any variation of the question, “What has been your most fulfilling musical experience?” I had a ready answer: During my second year as a master’s student at Juilliard, I had the opportunity to play concertmaster for the orchestra’s annual concert at Carnegie Hall, performing Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. This piece has one of the most famous concertmaster solos in the repertoire, and I was understandably rather excited to play it in context and in such a setting. As an undergrad, I had solidified my desire to pursue the orchestral path and, more specifically, the concertmaster path, and leading Ein Heldenleben was one of those times when I could honestly say there was nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing.

At this point maybe you would expect me to write about the concert itself: the feeling of hearing my own sound reverberate back to me from that beautiful hall, the power of the space and the excited energy of the orchestra filling it. But I want to talk about more than just one concert, and why, though it still stands out in my memory as one of my finest musical moments, its role as a guidepost of sorts has become more important in my overall career.

Just about a year after Heldenleben at Carnegie, I was sitting in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, just behind the concertmaster, starting my first week as a professional orchestral musician. So many experiences had led to this moment, but I was drawn back to something my violin professor at Oberlin had once told me. He was a wonderful, pedagogical ball of energy, and in one lesson, quite out of the blue, he told me: “You know, Wyatt, there is an ineffable quality and unity to playing in a professional orchestra, from the Big Five to any regional orchestra, that can never be approached playing in a student ensemble.” Like many things my teachers have told me over the years, this one was squirreled away in my brain, for the most part unexamined and disregarded, until I reached the point in my own life when I experienced it for myself.

So there I was, in the BSO, preparing to do professionally what I’d been doing already for years, when it came time to make the first entrance, to play the first phrase. The piece was Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, but something was off. Everyone seemed to be in a slightly different plane of reality from me, reacting as one to cues I couldn’t see or hear. I didn’t even know how to come in confidently with the section and had to resort to air-bowing the first split second of many entrances for fear of coming in wrong. The tempo would change, bend, and fluctuate, and everyone else was riding along at the top of the wave together, while I was in the valley racing to catch up, or over the peak already, wondering where everyone else was. The concertmaster would give cues I wouldn’t understand, or seem not to cue at all. What was I missing?

The shock of my unceremonious dunking in the ocean of real-world professional music making still crackles in my memory today, but after riding the orchestral waves those first few times it didn’t take me long to realize that I was coming to know the difference between playing the same music at the same time, and playing together. It took me a little longer than that to understand the role of the concertmaster in that delicate dance—and just how much I didn’t know. I discovered I had somehow gone about the whole thing backward: play as concertmaster, pursue the path of becoming a concertmaster professionally, learn what it is the concertmaster really does, become fascinated by the idea of the concertmaster all over again. But the thing about going backward is that each step illuminates the one that came before, seeing it from a wider perspective. I look back at my Carnegie Heldenleben and my early days at the BSO in a different light now, just as I will see myself today differently from a future vantage point. Maybe all this ruminating and retreading even reveals the linear progression to have a circular element.

Learning aids doing, and doing aids learning. “Fake it till you make it” isn’t a particularly original (or pedagogically approved) message to end on, but perhaps my point is that we often don’t quite realize we’re faking it until later. And that’s OK. My Carnegie Heldenleben remains very special to me, and while I can chuckle at my ignorance at the time, I also know that the excitement that it engendered resulted, in large part, in where I am today. Passion for music is a powerful force driving all of us, and even if it might sometimes feel like you’re going backward, holding onto that thrill that got you playing music in the first place can push you through to where you want to go.

What Wyatt Underhill Plays

Primary Instrument: Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi violin, owned by the San Francisco Symphony
Primary Bow: John Greenwood, local San Francisco maker
Stringss: Thomastik-Infeld Peter Infeld (PI)
Case: Bam
Other gear I can’t live withoutt: The eraser on the end of the pencil is just as, if not more, important than the pencil itself.