The pandemic shutdowns across ICSOM orchestras became a time of thoughtful reflection for musicians across the country as they considered what to do next.
Personally, having briefly considered a career change in my mid-thirties (enough to enroll in a pre-med course at the University of Utah), I recognized quickly that the pandemic break would have an impact on the creative, intelligent, and curious musicians of ICSOM orchestras and their future career trajectories.
In reaching out to fellow musicians across the country, I uncovered a variety of decisions being made by players of all ages, some of whom were ready to retire, but others who used the time off to reflect on pursuing different paths entirely.
Laura Park, Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra
Violinist Laura Park joined the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in 2019, only playing for about six months before the pandemic furlough began. Soon after, she found herself studying for the LSAT, the entrance exam for law school.
“I had a lot of time and always had this love for problem solving and reading and writing. What can I do with all of that? Since performances were on hold, I thought ‘Let me see what it looks like to apply to law school.’ I had the time to do it.”
For the first time since she was about five years old, Laura wasn’t practicing for another performance. After a couple months in lockdown, preparing for law school became her focus, but she always felt she might return to the orchestra.
Today, however, Laura studies full-time at Harvard Law School. “I tell everyone it is my long-term goal to somehow take the skills I learned and work experience and, even though it’s going to take time, eventually come back to the industry and be able to help out in a new way.”
Laura intends to continue playing violin during her studies, as she has found a surprising number of musicians at Harvard with a wide range of backgrounds and instruments.
Mitch Newman, Los Angeles Philharmonic
For Mitch Newman, Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist of 34 years, a few things came together when the pandemic started.
“Honestly, for a few years I had been thinking of an exit strategy anyway. I never thought that I would just sort of do orchestra until the end of time.
“I made a bunch of phone calls, to a lot of different cities, and a lot of different people, including in LA, and I just got such a welcoming response in Philadelphia, from Curtis, where I went to school, and from some really deep organizations that work with kids. They just opened their arms to me.”
Mitch sees the pandemic closures as a time of real growth for artists. “For me, I got to practice and get myself into shape and think about things that I’d been wanting to deal with for decades. This is not retirement from life obviously. It is just the second part of my career.”
Having moved back to Philadelphia, Mitch leads an orchestral excerpt class at Curtis and teaches at a couple of Settlement Music School branches. He also works with Play on Philly and coaches PRYSM Strings, a part of the Philadelphia Youth Music Institute, sometimes even conducting the group when necessary!
Mitch is also involved with an organization called Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth, an organization dedicated to making sure that talented kids from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds have the resources necessary to pursue music careers.
“It’s exactly what I want to do.”
Kristen Wojcik, Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra
Cellist Kristen Wojcik has played with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra for the past nine years. At 33, she had been thinking about a career change for a while.
“[COVID-19] offered a silver lining, in that it offered an opportunity to really explore what I wanted to do. It really forces you to think about what is important to you — how short and precious life is.”
In July, Kristen started a pre-med, post-baccalaureate program, enrolling in an accelerated program at Bryn Mawr College. She hopes to apply to medical school this fall.
While the KCOHO musicians have recently come to a new, three-year agreement, Kristen will be taking a sabbatical from the orchestra this season so she can go to school full-time. She hasn’t made a decision yet about leaving the orchestra entirely.
But given her background in music, working hard at school already comes naturally, completing a semester’s worth of material in four weeks over the summer. “I’m striving to find a better balance between school and life this time, I guess, but no promises,” she laughs.
Drake Ash, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Drake Ash spent the majority of her 40-year career as a violinist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, retiring at the end of August. She had been thinking about retirement for some time, but the pandemic made it easier to walk away. With a lot of other interests, and the unusual circumstances of the previous season it just seemed like the right time.
Although some of Drake’s friends did not want to retire after such an unusual season, she suggests “the reality is that I don’t think we’re going to have a normal year this year either.
“Those that are hanging on might end up being disappointed. For me it was the right time, and it just seemed like a logical transition.”
As for future plans, Drake has a fairly serious interest in pottery, maintaining a studio in her basement. “There’s a really big clay community here in our city. It’s always been hard to be as involved as I wanted to be because of our orchestra schedule.”
Grateful for the long career she has had, Drake doesn’t expect to slow down in retirement. “Two of my three kids live out of town and I’d like to be able to visit them. I’d like to do some volunteering. It seems like I’m going to be plenty busy.”
Judd Sheranian, Utah Symphony
Though Judd Sheranian won his position in the violin section of the Utah Symphony in 1975 (in his first audition, no less), most of his former colleagues tend to remember him for his Fulbright scholarship in voice, opera, and lieder. Still, after more than forty years in the orchestra, Judd made the decision recently to transition into retirement.
“It was a combination of physical things and part of deciding to retire was partly waiting for the age to maximize retirement benefits. When [COVID-19] shut everything down, it just made sense.”
Retirement has opened up a lot of avenues for Judd, who still practices violin and voice every day, but has taken up guitar and studies Armenian. He and his wife, Sharon, will also participate in a mission trip to the alpine region of Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.
Judd continues to be active in the musical community, maintaining a studio of fifteen students and attending concerts of his former colleagues.
“I think the orchestra sounds great! I went to the opening concert last fall. It was absolutely beautiful, and I felt that the space between players contributed to the ambient resonance. It was so lush and rich. I couldn’t imagine it being played better.”
It was a pleasure and honor to catch up with some long-time colleagues and to meet new ones. My hope is that those who are following new career paths will keep us all up to date with their pursuits and find ways to continue to interact with music and orchestra musicians!