The art of being an orchestra dork

Like any passionate group of people who throw their entire body into what they do, you can tell an “orch dork” by their battle scars.

The imprints of bass, cello, violin or viola strings are almost permanently embedded in their fingertips. Streaks of rosin, used to keep their bows in working condition, end up on their clothing. And always look for that telltale hickey on the left side of a violin or viola player’s neck – the end button gets them every time.

But like a “band geek,” an orchestra dork is branded by association without any firm foundation for the moniker. What makes a person who plays a string instrument a dork … or not a dork?  Is it the classical music? The shyness that evaporates when they perform? The tendency to stick together?

Dean Marshall, musical director and founder of the world-touring string group Barrage, sees the initial connection between a person and his instrument as the beginning.

“The string instrument is so difficult to get it sounding good initially,” he said. “It’s not like a piano, trumpet or guitar, where you can hit a chord right away. But boy you pick up a violin and it can really sound terrible. Geeks, being one myself, we kind of have a one-track mind that we’re really going to get this figured out. That determination of really getting it and going for a challenge, it’s what geeks do.”

Marshall paused. “Geeks and strings,” he murmured. “What is it really? What is that?”

The connection is difficult to discern, especially for musicians, because string musicians don’t see themselves as “orch dorks.” They are drawn in by the tug of the music when it resonates in their hearts, the camaraderie of lifelong friendships and the idea of performing alongside like-minded musicians, all contributing lilting components to one great swell of music.

The violin spoke to Marshall when he was a small child. It was the family instrument, beginning with his great-grandfather. “My mom told me that I couldn’t speak but I carried around this fiddle record all the time. At a very young age, that’s what I wanted. It was having that connection, that spark of joy in life.”

Christina Smith, principal flute for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, also works with the organization’s youth orchestra, the ASYO. Working with young musicians, ages 13-18, is a reminder of the joy Smith discovered when she first joined the San Francisco Youth Orchestra in high school.

“I’ll just never forget the first rehearsal, the first chord that the orchestra played and how it sounded in my ears,” she said. “It was absolutely intoxicating and I knew that I couldn’t not have that in my life. I always felt like I was sitting on cloud nine during youth orchestra rehearsals. It’s like you’ve excelled in an area that very few people get to do, and it makes you feel really confident.”

Smith has maintained her friendships from youth orchestra and she’s never forgotten the lessons of teamwork, leadership and discipline contained within every rehearsal.  Feeling like a geek because of her love for music, or considering the string musicians around her to be geeks, never really crossed her mind.

“I think I had an idea that people thought I was a geek, but I realized later that my classmates thought it was super cool,” she said. “If there was a stigma, I probably didn’t even notice it because I was doing what I loved. When people have a passion for something and they pour their heart into it, they don’t care what other people think.”

Now, Smith is part of a new family with the Atlanta Symphony. The familial atmosphere prevails not only because of the amount of time they spend together, but because of the respect they have for one another. It takes tremendous effort to win each seat in the ASO. And they are bonded by the music that flows through each of them. “It’s very personal making music with other people on stage,” she said.

But just why do orchestra’s instruments become the weapon of choice for musicians? And why do we enjoy the sound of string music?

Stanley Romanstein, the president of the ASO, believes it has to do with good vibrations. Romanstein was “born a musician,” and has always been singing, conducting or playing some sort of instrument. For a time, he tried his hand at the cello and viola. Now, he regularly watches his ASO practice. Rehearsal is one of his favorites.

“My experience is there is something about that sense of vibration of bow on string that resonates with us as humans in a way that almost nothing else does,” he said. “Everything exists as a series of vibrations. Our human connection with string instruments is because of those elemental vibrations.”

These vibrations are largely responsible for connecting people to music or instruments. They can also sooth a broken heart – literally.

Musician Dave Villano’s heart would race out of control from time to time. It wasn’t because he was constantly listening to heavy metal, but due to Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. During the time he spent in hospitals for three separate heart surgeries, Villano discovered the soothing and healing power of string music. After mastering guitar, he also went on to become proficient on the violin. Now, he performs shows on his electric violin around the world.

“I’ve always had music in me,” Villano said. “When I saw that you could play more than classical on it, that opened up my eyes to the whole thing. Of all the instruments, I feel that I’ve been able to express myself best on violin.”

Villano especially fell in love with the electric violin, what he calls a “game changer” for the face of string instruments and their “nerdy” association.

Marshall was thinking the same thing when he formed Barrage. The group is far from your average sit-down orchestra with classical arrangements. They stroll, jump and dance while they fiddle and play popular music. Electric instruments, colorful themes and vibrant personalities add to the rock-star quality of the group. “I like taking the violin where it’s never gone before,” Marshall said.

While Marshall admits he was a “geek” in youth orchestra, it formed the blissful foundation for his musically-inclined life.

“It’s that feeling of getting in front of people and moving them and moving yourself - it’s infectious,” he said. “You put something out there and then it comes back at you. That energy goes back and forth. For me, orchestra was more important than school, socially. That was the social centerpiece for everything.”