Music, my muse

I just got home from work about half an hour ago. It’s been another long day, although it really started at about 10 am in a coffee shop even if it ended at 9 pm in my office. Anyway. I came home after an hour and a half of talking with a colleague about our respective experiences in our department. She gave me a lift home, and I confess I was pretty worn out by the whole day, including our conversation.

But then an amazing thing happened, and I want to tell you about it.

I made up my little dinner (leftover spaghetti with feta and artichokes, and sauteed brussels sprouts with pine nuts, or is this too much information?) and came in to the living room to eat it in front of the TV for a little company.

I’m a PBS kid, so I turned on one of my local PBS channels (WTTW in Chicago), and there was an orchestral concert being broadcast. The music was extraordinarily familiar but I couldn’t think what it was for the moment. But it occurred to me that the hopes I have for our department are pretty analogous to playing in an orchestra.

For those of you who have never done so, please put aside any ideas about the conductor running the show, and everyone else following him or her. I played violin in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra from 7th grade through the end of high school (missing one year as I was in England – wouldn’t you know that was the year they went on tour to Japan?!?), and I so enjoyed playing in an orchestra. It was so intensely LOUD, you felt so a part of the sound you all were making, you were contributing to the overall experience of the music, you were adding your part to the whole. Yes, the conductor was up there, but that was just to have a signpost that everyone could see — you the players were really where it was at, making all that amazing noise.

Two things struck me in listening to this concert on TV – the first was that it was so familiar because I had played it in WYSO all those years ago, and the second was that the experience of playing in an orchestra is really what I hope for our department. I want that sense of contributing to a whole, to feeling part of something momentous and knowing you were helping, to trying to inspire everyone around you to play better in order for the overall experience for your audience to be better, and, frankly, the thrill of playing brilliant music together. While this may not sound very “engineering-y,” I realized I want to be able feel that high of playing in a fabulous orchestra when I am at work every day.

I had to remember what this music was.

I called my mom, and put the phone up to the television speaker for a few seconds so she could hear.

“It’s Dvorak,” she said. And in a heartbeat, I remembered – this concert was a broadcast of the New York Philharmonic playing in Pyongyang, North Korea two days ago. And they were playing – no joke – the New World Symphony.

I was stunned. How fitting for my analogy. I could hardly believe it. And hence, I had to share with you.

While this may be hokey beyond belief to read, it has been a pretty profound experience for me, and startlingly emotional. I guess music, particularly that which I participate in making, tends to have this effect on me. And it is reminding me how much I miss playing in an orchestra.

Now they’re playing Gershwin’s An American in Paris, another favourite. I’m going to sit back and enjoy it, and worry about my grant proposal that’s due tomorrow, tomorrow.


  1. #1 chezjake
    February 28, 2008

    So the music was also the renewal you were looking for earlier. That’s very fitting.

    I too love the Dvorak New World. It never fails to leave me in a good, contented mood.

  2. #2 doc-in-training
    February 29, 2008

    I’ve never played in an orchestra, but I agree with you with the role of a conductor (well, a good conductor) in an orchestra. I sing in choirs.

    I had tears in my eyes watching New York Philharmonic playing in Pyongyang on CNN. That was powerful.

  3. #3 sciencegirl
    February 29, 2008

    I totally agree: I loved playing violin in a symphony, and it is such a powerful feeling! I think it is what I miss the most from my childhood musical career. I hope you write more on this if you figure out how to recreate that feeling at work.

  4. #4 maria
    February 29, 2008

    thank you for writing this post. i was also a violinist in a couple of orchestras during high school and college and have lately been trying to get our lab group to collaborate a bit more, and this post really pulls that together for me. please keep us updated!

  5. #5 Uncle Al
    February 29, 2008

    While you were picking your muses’ nostrils your male competition was sweating, screaming, and punching their fists through walls. There is an operational difference between envy and greed.

    To err is human, to forgive, divine. Neither one is Marine Corps policy.

  6. #6 Alice
    March 1, 2008

    Uncle Al, you are an odd duck. I have no idea what you are saying. But really, I’m okay with that.

    To the other folks- if only we could play chamber music together online. 😉

  7. #7 ace
    March 2, 2008

    i suspect that Uncle Al is a computer program.

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