A young musician plays in the present, wonders about the future

November 26, 2013
Grant Johnson with his violin
Grant Johnson with his violin
By David Bank Studios

Note: In coming months, we'll be featuring stories about what classical music has meant to people from all walks of life. If you have a story to share, please write to Jay Gabler.

My love for classical music started so long ago that I can never remember a time when it has not been a part of my life. I started violin at the age of four, piano at the age of six, and voice at the age of nine. For the first few years of taking private lessons in both violin and piano, I naturally avoided practicing like it was the plague. However, as time went by and my love for music increased, practicing became a "get to," not a "have to."

Now, as a senior in high school, practicing both instruments has become part of my daily routine. The personal satisfaction of mastering tricky runs and segments in my music has become extremely rewarding. I believe it is this feeling of self-gratification that pushes musicians to continually work to improve their skills.

As a young musician, I have been fortunate enough to be involved in many youth ensembles that prioritize the improvement of musical skills that are necessary for playing or singing in an ensemble. My school district of Roseville has a very strong musical program, allowing me to be a part of multiple orchestras, even by my later years in elementary school. My choral skills were developed dramatically during my participation in the Minnesota Boychoir. While I may not have realized at the time that every warm-up and exercise we did benefited me, I now am very thankful for the diligence and level of professionalism they taught me, as it has prepared me well for my involvement in high school choir.

My most influential experience was when I had the privilege to sing under the direction of Osmo Vanska, who passionately shouted directions over the orchestra at us. Every one of us in the Boychoir learned a great deal just from his presence. His ability to communicate with facial expressions and body movements is what sets him apart from other directors. I have taken what I learned from him and now use it every moment that I play music.

Playing in musical ensembles creates interactions with others that are not possible anywhere else. One can communicate to another simply by raising an eyebrow or moving an elbow. The relationships developed within an orchestra are special. I admit that sometimes I don't know the brass players by name and I'm pretty sure they don't know mine, but the fact that we make music together creates a special bond. This is why I find as many ensembles to play in as possible, whether comprising adults, students, or both.

This past summer, I had the privilege to play alongside some of the musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra. A wonderful group composed mainly of high-school-age students called the Young Musicians of Minnesota (YMM) organized an orchestra to play some very difficult repertoire. YMM was created to support the locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. Because we were performing to raise awareness on the issue, we invited any Minnesota Orchestra musicians who were available to play with us. The concert I performed in with them is an experience I will never forget.

While my love for music will always be a major part of my life, my career plans are totally different. My passion to act upon the growing crisis of climate change has compelled me to pursue a career in environmental science and climatology. Naturally, I have considered majoring in music and going into performance, but I worry that all of my hard work could be squelched by the mismanagement and devaluation of our nation's treasured professional orchestras. I will continue to play violin in community orchestras and piano on my own time. Even though it looks like I will not be seeing performances at Orchestra Hall anytime soon, there are still plenty of high-caliber classical music performances all around our state, a state that is so special for the arts.

Resiliency is a necessity for all musicians. We face dreaded 16th note runs and the mind-numbing accidentals while playing in the unfriendly key of E-flat minor. But even though we struggle for the first few readings, we come back to it and eventually (or hopefully) master it.

The 16th-note runs are the "well off" members of our society and large corporations that care more about profits and collecting wealth than funding a vital cultural ensemble such as the Minnesota Orchestra. We can change the key from E-flat minor to the friendly key of C major by increasing our will to do something. We can send a message that classical music must always play a large and important role throughout this great state.

One thing is certain; no matter how much devastation the orchestra I grew up with endures, I will always continue to make music. Always have, still am, always will.

Grant Johnson is a senior at Roseville Area High School and an avid violinist, pianist, and vocalist.