This month’s Musician’s Musings was written by BSO Board Member and first violinist, Kristin Brinkmann.
As a fairly recent addition to the first violin section of the Bloomington Symphony (this is my third season), I have to say that it’s provided the perfect infusion of musical nourishment, which I desperately needed during a difficult time. And it’s that continuing infusion of musical nourishment that keeps compelling me to get into my car way up in White Bear Lake, and trek all the way down to Bloomington on Sunday evenings for rehearsals. For many years, I used to get into my car and make a similarly long trek to go and play with a different orchestra most days of the week – the Minnesota Orchestra. Based on the various versions of my lifetime career model which used to run through my head, my car should still be driving me to Orchestra Hall and not to the Bloomington Symphony, although the BSO does feel quite a lot like the Minnesota Orchestra most of the time. My fellow Minnesota Orchestra second violinist and frequent stand partner, Michael Sutton, is playing just a few feet away from me, and Manny Laureano is conducting, which he also did from time to time at the Minnesota Orchestra, when they would occasionally let him put down his trumpet for a few days.
Why does my car now drive me to the BSO, and not to Orchestra Hall? First of all, it’s only a 2002 Honda Civic, so it’s technically not capable of taking me anywhere I haven’t decided to go. It isn’t a cutting edge driverless vehicle whose computer brain got hacked and suddenly began driving me to the wrong orchestra one day. Rather, it was my brain that got hacked over 15 years ago, and a neurobiological form of malware began running, which caused me to develop young-onset Parkinson’s disease when I was 33. Parkinson’s is a neurological degenerative movement disorder, with some good treatments, but no cure at this time. It is almost unthinkable for a violinist to suddenly face losing the voice we’ve spent our lives cultivating to a disease that causes you to lose motor control. In most cases, we’ve spent our entire lives and countless hours in violin lessons, practicing, at workshops, music camps and music festivals, and have often completed multiple college degrees learning, among other things, how to consistently make unbelievably precise movements so that we have the technical ability to translate our soul, passion, musical ideas and creativity from our minds, through our bodies, and into a wooden box and a stick with some horse hair attached to it. And Parkinson’s isn’t at all predictable. The saying in the Parkinson’s community is, “The only thing that’s predictable about Parkinson’s is that it’s unpredictable”.
That’s what I was faced with early in my career with the Minnesota Orchestra, and I have to say that in many respects, things have gone much better than I ever imagined they could have 15 years ago. I might be wrong, but I believe that the fact that I was already a professional violinist when I developed Parkinson’s has helped me stay as healthy as I am for so long. But crazy things happen with no warning, and I’d be ready to walk out the door to play a concert at Orchestra Hall when my left arm and leg might suddenly go into severe tremors for no reason I could discern, and that could go on for 15 minutes to eight or more hours. At that point, I often couldn’t really walk, much less open a violin case and pick up my violin without likely smashing it to smithereens. After about a decade of having Parkinson’s while in the Minnesota Orchestra, the unpredictability and severe fatigue caused by the disease brought me to the point where I had to leave the job and the orchestra I loved so much, and I suddenly found myself without my “musical tribe”, and alone at home with a violin. For about two years, I couldn’t listen to music. At least not any of the music that I’d played before, or had hoped to play in the future. Or music that reminded me of music that I’d played before or had hoped to play in the future. We’ll call this my “Beatles Period.” And I didn’t practice very much for the some of the same reasons. Add a few spine surgeries into this mix, and then the fact that there simply wasn’t anything to practice for. No upcoming rehearsals or concerts! This was the first time I’d ever had a calendar completely devoid of anything musical since I took my very first violin lesson!
That brings us back to the point where my car began driving me to the Bloomington Symphony for Sunday rehearsals. I knew that I could still play really well when all things neurological and musculoskeletal aligned perfectly, and I’d had an ample amount of sleep, and when I’d taken my various Parkinson medications on the precise schedule I’d worked out over a decade earlier, and if I was just plain lucky that day. And while some violinists in a similar situation might relish being alone to play the J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin for whatever amount of time every few days that everything was working somewhat normally, I really missed playing in an orchestra! I was already familiar with the BSO because several of my Minnesota Orchestra colleagues had been the concertmaster here over the years. I went online to see where all of the community orchestras were rehearsing, who was conducting them, what music they were performing, and to familiarize myself with who was doing what where, and did White Bear Lake have an orchestra that I wasn’t aware of? Once I saw that Manny Laureano was now conducting the BSO, and that Michael Sutton was the concertmaster, I knew that the BSO was where I needed to go!
I didn’t know whether I’d be able to play an entire rehearsal without some weird Parkinson’s movements starting up, and I can’t always do that. And I didn’t know whether I’d be able to play every single rehearsal and concert, and I can’t. But once I’ve gotten myself there and we begin to play, a part of myself I thought I might have lost forever reawakens! I believe the first piece we played at the very first rehearsal I attended was the Wagner Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – a piece I’d played countless times since high school. But it was as if I were playing for the very first time all over again! Hearing the sound of the full orchestra around me again, and playing that first violin part that has you soaring up into stratosphere gave me more than anything that any of my favorite doctors or the best treatments could provide! Another popular saying in the Parkinson’s community is “Exercise is medicine!”, and I firmly believe that to be true. But in my case, the more important saying would be “Music is medicine”!
People ask me what it’s like playing in the BSO after having been in the Minnesota Orchestra, and I suspect that they think they know how I’m going to reply. We rehearse in a church basement instead of Orchestra Hall, we’re a far smaller group, and not everyone has had the same amount of musical training in their background. But beginning with that first rehearsal three years ago, through to our most recent concert in the Schneider Theater on November 20, I have to say that there’s no difference at all in anything that really matters! I feel the same rush and the same sense of accomplishment and comradery after having played well during a BSO rehearsal or performance as I did during and after my concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra! I’m very fortunate to have found the BSO three years ago when I desperately needed musical nourishment after living in a musical desert for some time, and the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra has most definitely become my new “musical tribe”!