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Musician Profile: Stephen Drake, Cello, joined in 1984, from Boston, Massachusetts

Stephen Drake, Cellist

Stephen Drake, Cellist

What inspired you to become a musician, and what drew you to the cello?
Both my parents were musicians to some degree. My mom is a composer and was a piano teacher, and my dad played accordion professionally at one point and still plays to this day. So I was always surrounded by music of various types. My mom was more classically oriented, while my dad was more popularly oriented. So the records in the house were all over the place.

I played piano first, and then picked up guitar and got pretty good at it. Cello just happened because there was a music program in my elementary school, and cello was one of the instruments they offered. It seemed cool, and I just went out on a limb and tried it.

Which composers write the best music for cello?
The three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms all have fantastic cello stuff. In the contemporary world, I’ve always liked the works of George Crumb and Peter Maxwell Davies, who write very nice cello parts.

What’s it like to work at the Nashville Symphony?
It’s a pretty amazing experience that I had no idea I was going to enjoy and keep doing for 30 years. The musicians of the symphony are all top-notch, amazing people, and I’m the luckiest person alive to get to play with them.

What’s the most unusual thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
Perhaps the most memorable was a chamber orchestra concert the symphony was doing at St. George’s Episcopal Church one gorgeous spring day. We had the doors open, and it was just beautiful and going really well — and then a wasp stung me on the chin. For the last 10 minutes of the piece, all I could think was, “My gosh, this hurts. I can’t believe the pain.” My chin was swelling like crazy. As soon as the piece was finished, I ran offstage, but nobody in the audience had noticed.

Tell us about your family.
My wife works at the Center for Nonprofit Management, although she used to work for the Nashville Symphony, where I met her in the early ’90s. I have a teenage daughter who is an enthusiastic equestrian.

Who has had the greatest influence on you as a musician?
The main person would be Jacqueline Du Pré; I went to a concert of hers in the late 1960s. She was a rock star of the cello world, and it was the first time I realized you could really do something with this instrument. Between seeing her and Rostropovich a few years later, that’s what drew me to the cello.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not rehearsing or performing?
I enjoy geocaching, photography and building and playing synthesizers. You can see my photographs on my SmugMug page at http://sdrake.smugmug.com/. I got interested in synthesizers back in the early 1970s, when I discovered that they were being made near where I lived, in Trumansburg, N.Y. I started learning about them in college, but the cello took over. There was a resurgence of interest in modular synths around 2000, and on a whim I bought a couple of modules and kits, started building my own, and it just kind of snowballed from there. A guy in Holland asked me to start building modules for him, and I ended up building a whole synthesizer for him. Now I’m busy building them for other people.

Do you enjoy listening to music when you’re not working?
I grew up on progressive rock and classical music, so those are the main things. Maybe about one-third of the music I listen to is electronic music. It changes from week to week. I like a lot of the old stuff – I have box set of the band YES from their first 10 years together, which I’m making my way through right now.

Do you like to read?
I am a big science fiction fan. I like reading almost anything that Neil Stevenson writes.

What would you most like people in the audience to know about the Nashville Symphony?
The 84 members of the orchestra work together in close quarters many hours of the day each week. It’s different from many work environments in that we don’t have our own offices or work spaces. We’re in shoulder range of each other, and it kind becomes like a family because we have to be able to work together so closely. In order to do what we do, we have to get along well, so there is a whole social dynamic that is different than a lot of workplaces.

Musician Profile: Bradley Mansell, Cello, joined in 1984, from Sharon, Pennsylvania

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What inspired you to become a musician — was there a moment of epiphany, or a particularly influential person who encouraged you?
My inspiration for music in general came from my mother, who was a singer. Literally from the time I was born, I was around her singing at the piano. I was just drawn to it. I was such a pest, wanting to climb up on the piano bench when she was practicing, that when I was 6 she started giving me piano lessons.

When I was 15, I went to hear The Cleveland Orchestra. They played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, and the minute they played those first two chords, I was like, “OK, that’s what I’m going to do.” It just grabbed me by the hairs on the back of my neck, and that was it.

Which composers’ music do you most enjoy performing?
Bach always comes to mind first, but as an orchestra musician my favorite would be Prokofiev.

You’re a faculty member at Blair School of Music. How does your work as a teacher influence your work as a musician?
Teaching and performing are definitely connected, in that when you’re teaching, you’re constantly aware of what you do as a player. It’s a learning experience as much as a teaching experience, because you learn about your playing by teaching.

One of the really important things about teaching is that with students who aren’t going to pursue music as a career, you’re teaching them an appreciation for music, which is how we build audience – that’s the audience of the future. Whether students want to go into music for a career isn’t as important as teaching them to love music.

You’re active in the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). Can you explain the role of the organization and your involvement?
ICSOM is part of the American Federation of Musicians. It was organized in 1962 because there was a need to have a separate entity that deals specifically with our own issues as symphony musicians, and it has grown into an organization with 51 orchestras. It’s a network of sharing information. I am the delegate from the Nashville Symphony, and that means I’m responsible for giving information about the Nashville Symphony to the other delegates. We also obtain information from delegates when we have questions about what’s going on with our orchestra.

One thing you take away from being a delegate is that any issue that might occur in the Nashville Symphony, you can pretty much expect has occurred in another orchestra. At the end of the day, there’s not a lot of difference between orchestras in general. What we do is the same, whether it’s in Chicago, Nashville, Cleveland or Columbus. We might be doing it on different levels, but we’re doing the same thing.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not rehearsing or performing?
One of my favorite things to do is cook. I love to experiment with pretty much every type of cuisine. I’ve started making my own granola; you have a blank slate of what you can do, and I’m finding that to be a lot of fun. I really like utilizing local ingredients that are in season when I cook.

What do you like about living in Nashville?
I love the fact that Nashville is now more neighborhood-oriented than when I moved here. I love exploring different neighborhoods and the fact that each has its own personality.

What’s the last book you read?
I’m an avid reader. I just finished David Sedaris’ Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.

What would you most like people in the audience to know about the Nashville Symphony?
When people see us onstage, what they probably don’t realize is that we’re more like our audience than they know — the things we like to do outside of what you see us doing onstage are probably similar to what everyone else in the audience likes to do. People see us in tails and gowns, and they think of us a certain way, but we’re pretty much like you guys.

Musician Profile: Jeremy Williams, Violin, joined in 1998, from Albany, N.Y.

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What inspired you to become a musician, and why did you pick the violin?
I started playing violin when I was 3 years old. I was never the best player, but I could mimic fairly well. So I always watched the best players and followed them. I started with the violin because my mom picked it for me! She played violin for a year in high school and thought music was important for a well-rounded education. All of my siblings played an instrument too, but they didn’t stick with it as I did.

What are some highlights of your time performing with the Nashville Symphony?
Mahler’s Ninth Symphony the last week of February was awesome!
Playing with Ray Charles.
Learning from colleagues over the years in the Nashville Symphony…from the older members and the newer players.
Getting to play every day in the beautiful Schermerhorn Symphony Center since it opened mid-2006 has also been a highlight. It is one of the best halls in the world, both acoustically and aesthetically…right here in Nashville!

What’s the most unusual thing that’s ever happened to you onstage?
I have broken a few strings over the years, dropped my bow a few times. That’s embarrassing.
I did play a Christmas gig one time (NOT with the Nashville Symphony!) that had live sheep and donkeys onstage. They relieved themselves near me onstage, and it stunk!

Any pieces you’ve never gotten to perform, but always wanted to?
I’ve really played about all of the orchestral pieces that I’ve wanted to….and more! Good thing we do lots of premieres at the Nashville Symphony! There are plenty of other pieces that have violin in them but aren’t orchestra pieces, a few of those chamber music and some solo pieces that I still want to play. I’m playing two of my favorite chamber pieces at the March 31 OnStage event: Mozart Clarinet Quintet and Brahms Horn Trio.

Do you perform outside of your work with the Nashville Symphony?
I play in all kinds of other groups, but the Nashville Symphony has been my main job since 1998. I have played in Alias Chamber Ensemble for more than 10 years, recently played in the Sarasota Orchestra, Gateway Chamber Orchestra and some occasional commercial recording sessions. I really enjoy playing in the Sarasota Orchestra. It gives me a week’s reprieve in the winter to get out of Nashville and go to Florida! I’ve been on the substitute list there for years and have some great friends who play there. I also like playing chamber music in Alias Chamber Ensemble. That is especially rewarding because it is a volunteer group of musicians, and all of our proceeds go to local charities!

Who has had the greatest influence on you as a musician?
My greatest influence as a musician was my teacher in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University. Andres Cardenes was my teacher and mentor, to whom I owe all of my success as a musician.
My teacher from eighth to 10th grade, Lois Lyman, was also a great friend and teacher — and helped to clarify many musical concepts for me.

Does your work as a musician influence other aspects of your life?
All aspects of my life are touched by working as a musician. For one thing, my Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights are almost always booked with concerts. The week-to-week schedule is quite irregular, so that takes some getting used to. I also have to be quite careful to keep in decent shape and to avoid hurting my hands or getting cuts on my fingers.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not rehearsing or performing?
Lately, I have been trying to keep in shape and get in better shape. I’ve been riding my bicycle quite a bit. I also got inspired by a colleague to build my own bamboo bicycle from scratch! It is quite a conversation piece! I have volunteered with Nashville Adult Literacy Council as a reading tutor. I have also rehabbed four houses in Nashville over the years.

What do you like about living in Nashville, and what are your favorite things to do here?
Nashville has changed a lot since 1998. I take advantage of Nashville’s Greenways when I get the chance, either running or biking. My three dogs like the greenways and dog parks, although one is now too old to get out anymore. There are also tons of great restaurants. I have tried most of them in East Nashville, where I live, and a few in the other areas of town. Nashville is growing so fast now, I can’t keep up! I’m from upstate New York, and I do appreciate Nashville’s relatively mild winters. Nashville is Music City, and I like to see live music whenever my schedule allows.

Do you enjoy reading?
I’m not currently reading any books, just magazines. The last few books I read were The Hunger Games and a compilation of Isaac Asimov short stories. I have a shelf full of books that I will read when I get the chance.