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Amateur Hour

The semiprofessionals don't need permission to keep playing.

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Arnie Wexler played the bassoon all through high school and college, but medical school put a halt to his musical aspirations. When he attended concerts, his ear was drawn to that low, reedy tone. Now retired, Wexler has devoted this later portion of his life to music, and the bassoon is more than a hobby. “I'll never play in a professional orchestra,” he says — “the fates are against it. But this is not just sitting still. I practice every day.” As with many highly skilled Richmond-area performers, music is not how Wexler pays the rent, but how he tends to his spirit.

 

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“I didn't have any teacher, still don't.” Arnie Wexler and his bassoon were apart for nearly two decades before they found each other again. Photo by Scott Elmquist.

Some of the best musicians in Richmond spend their days administering potassium drips, applying cardiac defibrillator paddles or taking your temperature in scary places. But on Monday nights, lawyers, information-technology workers — and several nurses — rosin up their bows, empty spit valves and polish the masterworks of Western music with the Richmond Philharmonic.

Christina Cassie, a nurse at Johnston-Willis Hospital who's presided over operating rooms, seems to exude that same intensity when she ploughs her cello into the scherzo of a Schubert symphony.

Ben Warner claims he was suckered into becoming principal viola of “the Phil,” but leadership isn't foreign territory for the reserved string player. As chief nursing officer of Henrico Doctors Hospital, Warner's spent years supervising people who make life and death decisions. To be an effective nurse, he says, “You have to deal with controlled chaos.” And like nursing, “music is never the same — you have to be flexible in unpredictable situations.” Warner started playing in the public schools of Northern Virginia when he was 7; years of practice earned him a spot in the All-Virginia Orchestra. 

Warner considered going pro, but his parents cautioned him, he says: “You may think of music differently if that is what's putting the bread and butter on the table.” Warner instead chose to save lives. But, he says: “Regardless of whatever else people do for a living, music is a way to bond with people from all different backgrounds. You meet the coolest people playing music.”

While editing the galleys of his latest book, Thad Williamson follows soccer scores and prepares for a busy week of lecturing undergraduates. Somewhere in this academic marathon, the University of Richmond professor will grab a trombone and sit in with either the University Orchestra or Wind Ensemble, in which several adult community members get their musical kicks.

 

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Professor Thad Williamson puts his Jepson School studies on hold to play his trombone. “Music connects to another part of my soul that would lie dormant otherwise.” Photo by Scott Elmquist.

As a child, Williamson studied privately for six years, but realized — with the pragmatism of a future government professor — that the likelihood of his becoming a professional orchestral player was low. “I was good in high school,” Williamson recalls, “but I was exposed to people who were much better, people with off-the-chart talent. I could play for eight hours a day, but I was not going to reach the level of those guys.” Why then the summer music camps, the hours spent alone on technical drills? “It was something I was good at and I enjoyed,” he says, laughing. “I was competitive and wanted to get better; it's not like my parents made me.”  

The importance of music became more obvious when he and his wife, Adria Scharf, welcomed their daughter Sahara in 2007. Every night Williamson pulls out a guitar and embellishes an ever-evolving lullaby with “a rotating cast of characters, including but not limited to Dora the Explorer, Sahara's friends and Frosty.”

Williamson's ability to compose songs for his toddler would please David Greennagel, assistant professor of music education at Virginia Commonwealth University. Greennagel's become an influential advocate for lifelong musical engagement, spreading the gospel of “comprehensive musicianship” — an intimate relationship with music that does not stop when you are handed your high-school diploma.

But are there enough opportunities for adults to remain involved with music? Greennagel reframes the question: “It's not that the community needs to set up opportunities,” he says. “The venues are in place. Richmond has community bands, choral arts societies, orchestras.” Greennagel laments a broader trend that permeates all aspects of culture. “There is this notion that if I haven't been [institutionally] qualified to do something,” he says, “then I shouldn't do it, and I need to go out and find someone qualified to do it for me.”  

But “music resides at the most basic level of the anthropological structure of human behavior,” Greennagel says. “To deny that is a tragic thing. To be active in your music, not just as a listener, but in the creation and re-creation of music is a basic human function. It is detrimental to our society that people feel they need permission to pursue that.”

Greennagel waxes nostalgic for a time when people gathered impromptu “living-room orchestras” — neighbors, friends and family played whatever instruments were on hand. “Get yourself a keyboard and just plunk away; get a choir going. It's about what makes you happy and what speaks to you in whatever way it speaks to you. If you love playing the trombone, play it. Don't buy into some notion that makes you stop doing music.”

To Williamson, the idea of not playing music seems inconceivable. “Music connects to another part of my soul that would lie dormant otherwise,” he says. “I can still do it reasonably proficiently and at a level that doesn't put stress on me. It's another way to contribute the community.”

Wexler went 38ƒ?%A« years without touching the bassoon. “I had the burning desire to start,” he says, “but I had to literally start from scratch.” In Wexler's journey back to music, he didn't wait for permission. “I didn't have any teacher, still don't. But I didn't want to go under the earth without fulfilling my real love, to play again,” the retired doctor says, sighing. For him the sound of the bassoon was a siren call. “That's the instrument I remember from childhood; it was beneath my skin for so many years.” He now plays his bassoon in the Petersburg Symphony, the University of Richmond Orchestra and the wind quintet Windshear. “It is a love of my life,” he says. “It truly is.”

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