Violinist Danielle Taylor shares her story of how music and the Oakland Symphony’s education programs changed her life.
“Good evening everyone-
My name is (still) Danielle Taylor and I am honored to share this evening with you as we celebrate both Michael Morgan’s birthday and the wonderful Oakland Symphony. It is now my responsibility to tell you a bit about how my life was permanently changed by Michael and the Symphony’s program, in an entertaining, heartfelt way, complete with comic relief, in under ten minutes. At 9: pm. Challenge accepted.
This story begins in many places, but I’ll start at one point, at the end of the 20th century. At the time, Michael, during his mythical free time, made regular visits to music programs in Oakland Public schools. If I understand it correctly, part of those were to identify students who could benefit from private instruction with the idea that they would eventually have gained the experience and skills to audition for the Youth Orchestra. This idea later became the MUSE program. During this same period, more than 20 years ago, I had chosen to learn violin at Sobrante Park elementary school. (To be completely honest, violin was my second choice- saxophone was all the rage in 1995). I had a wonderful school music teacher, Lana Patterson, who didn’t accept my attempts to give up prematurely. Through Michael’s visits and a recommendation by Ms. Patterson, I began taking private lessons with the most amazing teacher, Debbra Schwartz, who is in the audience tonight.
Learning the violin was no easy process. It took a few years before I became certain that I wanted to play it forever. By 8th grade, although I was only 12, I auditioned for OYO. It was a tour year, and I was told that if I worked really hard and could keep up with the big kids in the orchestra, I would have the chance to go on the Italy tour.
It would be difficult to overstate how quickly I fell in love with orchestral playing as a result of my time with OYO. So much of that had to do with the quality of the orchestra, and the way that Michael worked with us. As you heard in the video, Michael treated us as future professional musicians, expecting that we would always give our best, because to this day, he always gives his best.
“…how my life was permanently changed by Michael and the Symphony’s program…”
In OYO, I learned the golden rule of pizzicato “be the last to play”. I learned how to sit in the section and learned how to be a section leader. And above all else, I learned to come to rehearsal on time, always bring a pencil, and to never, ever, ever cross my legs and slouch during rehearsal. These are lessons that have kept me employed. Thanks, Michael.
Needless to say, I worked very hard that first year, and was able to go on the tour to Italy. Outside of military deployment, I don’t believe any member of my family had ever traveled outside of the country. It was an opportunity that changed my life. It was during this tour that I decided to become a musician- who wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their life playing Beethoven 5, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and other great pieces while eating gelato 24/7? Honestly? It’s still my dream. During my time at OYO, we were lucky enough to experience some of the diverse programming that has become the symphony’s reputation. I remember playing an organ concerto featuring the teenaged composer as soloist. We once played a concerto with Erhu, (a traditional, two stringed Chinese instrument), which was one of my favorite concerts. In addition to the high level of playing, and the engaging repertoire, we had the privilege of working with seasoned Symphony musicians as our coaches. So, not only was Michael a necessary part in getting me on this path, joining OYO under his leadership kept me engaged and excited about this big, wide musical world, from Rossini overtures, to a Beethoven Mass, and premiering works by young composers.
After five years and two international tours, I was officially forced out of OYO so that I could pursue my undergraduate studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory, making me the first in my family to attend and graduate from a four- year institution. Not too shabby. During my first rehearsal, we read through the Shostakovich’s 10th symphony- certainly not a walk in the park. But I never encountered a moment of intimidation or fear because of the expectations and the years of experience that I received through my training at OYO. It’s also worth noting that during my freshman year at Oberlin, I was one of two freshman to be chosen for the orchestra’s first tour to China. Coincidentally, I will be returning to China in March for my fourth orchestra tour with the fantastic orchestra from Northwestern University.
In 2015, I moved to Chicago to pursue my Master’s in Violin Performance at Northwestern University. Coming from a city of great music educators, I couldn’t resist spreading the joy of classical music in classrooms and community spaces around Chicago. Although I would like to take credit for my stage presence, conversational style, and impeccable comedic timing, I must admit that I’ve borrowed most of my material from the occasions when I accompanied Michael during his school visits. Side note: there has been much praise for Michael’s many achievements and his broad impact. However, there has been no talk of Michael’s two secret weapons: his sense of humor and, of course, in its own category, we have Michael’s Laugh (patent pending). If you are among the chosen ones to witness this fantastic event, you will know that it’s an ingredient in the fuel that energizes any space that he visits. All of us who have had the pleasure of sitting under Michael’s baton, have experienced moments of unexpected stories, hilarious depictions of our not so great attempts at music making, and Michael’s creative letter naming, like please go to letter J, for Jose. A great example is from earlier this year, when Michael and I were reunited as Michael appeared as guest conductor of the Chicago Sinfonietta. We were working on Barber’s Overture to the School for Scandal, which has a really fast and unnecessarily tricky part for the string section. I witnessed people furiously practicing and beating themselves up for not being able to play it in tempo. I also watched and experienced the panic that undoubtedly arrived every time we played the passage. At one point in the rehearsal, Michael turns to the violins and says quite seriously, “This passage is absurdly fast. And honestly? Whatever happens between letter E and letter F is between you and your maker.” The orchestra exploded with laughter mixed with relief. And once again, I felt extremely lucky to have been molded by such a fantastic person.
I hope that you all are beginning to see the impact that Michael and the Symphony’s programs have had on my life, and on the lives of countless others. I do not exist outside of my community, so Michael’s presence in my life has also changed my family. My younger sister, Rachel (who is here tonight), also joined OYO after hearing about my tour experiences. We both looked forward to leaving church early on Sundays for our favorite time of the week: orchestra rehearsal! I remember understanding the significance of my grandmother attending one of our OYO concerts- her first classical concert. I learned that she never thought she would attend an orchestra concert- because for many years of her life, it was illegal for black people to attend classical concerts in the legally segregated southern states. Our time with OYO fundamentally changed what my family and community thought was possible to achieve in our lives.
“You find a need and you fill it.”
I am a testament to how worlds can change when you give a child a chance. And not just a chance, but also the continued commitment, support, and care. I am what can happen when people believe that talent knows no color, gender, socio- economic status, and any other division that so often prevents people from identifying and nourishing talent in unlikely places. It is orchestras like the Symphony and people like Michael, who help to provide proof to the idea that the sky is the limit when you have a vision, commitment, and a community behind it.
I will end my time by leaving you with simple advice that I received from a man who helped to bring Michael to the Symphony- a person who was deeply invested in the success of Oakland’s artistic organizations and our children. Although Bob Schwartz passed away earlier this year, his words visit me regularly, “Danielle, this is what you have to do. You find a need and you fill it.”
Thank you Michael for your commitment and dedication, congratulations to the Symphony on your past and future successes, and for all of you here: I encourage you to look around, find a need, and fill it. You just might change worlds.