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Sunday, October 13, 2013
Congratulations to the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra on its 60th anniversary. I agree with the announcer of a recent National Public Radio segment in which its annual fundraiser included remarks about the wonders of classical music.
To paraphrase, classical music soothes the soul, augments the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, and provides moments when we can slow down the “staccatoed” times of our lives when the clock races and we go breathlessly from task to task. For it to be performed at its best requires a commitment that usually begins at a young age for musicians who either become professional performers or who put that instrument down, often found years later in one’s attic.
Nevertheless, the benefits of being a part of the orchestral experience last a lifetime.
Classical music allows youngsters to add a dimension to their experiences in the classroom. Like athletics, music study provides an outlet that often keeps young people focused in life and in their studies, and of course, eliminates idle time that might be spent on unhealthy and unwise choices.
From third grade through college, the study of music, in my case the violin, enhanced my self-esteem, not to mention that of my parents. It wouldn’t have happened without Gibson Morrissey, founder of our Roanoke Symphony Orchestra.
Morrissey was the consummate musician. His work behind the podium and out of the glare of the spotlights allowed the Roanoke Symphony to evolve into what it is now. My memories of him go back to elementary school at Huff Lane, summer camp at Hollins College and playing in “my” own orchestra, the Roanoke Youth Symphony.
As a child, I was both in awe of him and terrified of him. My father got to know him through business circles and asked if I could try out for the youth symphony, then in its early stages in the 1960s. My parents, who were average middle-class folks, found ways to pay for the lessons, free up the time to take me to them, and once I became a member of the Youth Symphony, to wake me up early on a Saturday morning and drive me to a downtown church where the orchestra rehearsed. I gave up three hours of Saturday morning free time for 10 years while my parents offered their time and funding.
Morrissey was a stickler in every way possible. He pressed, yelled and even embarrassed young people until the sound coming from their stringed, percussion or wind instrument was as close to perfection as it could be. His wand went up at precisely 9 a.m., and on most Saturdays, the wand took its resting place on his wide stand at noon. I can still picture his hands slightly twirling the worn end of the wand — wooden, somewhat like his serious demeanor — as we began weekly rehearsal.
Morrissey also worked behind the scenes to provide a musical enrichment opportunity for young musicians with the week-long stay at Hollins University (then College). For approximately $100, young musicians like me packed our bags for dormitory overnight stays, ate three daily meals in the dining hall, learned music theory and appreciation in classes taught by Roanoke Symphony musicians, and rehearsed faithfully two times per day, all in preparation for a formal concert held on Saturday evening, marking the end of the experience. And what an experience it was. I can recall at least one year when my parents teamed with the school principal to allow me to miss the last days of school so that I could start the session on time. We learned much more than music: We were exposed to the college life; we adjusted to a strict routine that included recreation time in which we were expected to participate.
Lastly, I was probably not the only teenager whose parents needed financial help in order to pay the tuition required to run the music camp. I appreciate those who made contributions to not only help us individual musicians, but also to provide additional funding, since tuition money alone would not have been sufficient to run the camp.
During one of the 10 Hollins camps I attended, I came down with the flu and needed to go home. My dad, who was sorely disappointed that he would not be able to see me onstage during that formal concert, attributed some of the symptoms to stress. The truth is, he was right. I had been moved to the first violin section, and while I was proud, I also had to work harder because I wanted to please my parents, but most of all, I had to both satisfy and gain the respect of Morrisey. Guess who drove me from Hollins to my home in Vinton? Yes, Gibson Morrissey. I remember thinking, “I wonder if he can really drive a car?” Our idle chit-chat enabled me to see him as a person who cared about what he knew was the future of what he loved best: Music. Young musicians. Quality orchestral music.
Then one Saturday morning the wand did not rise at precisely 9 a.m. I remember beginning to worry toward 9:30, joining those who shared concerns and deciding to make some telephone calls. This action led to what would become for me my first experience with grief.
When we learned that Morrissey lay dead in his apartment, my mother attempted to console me. The memorial service held where we rehearsed at St. John’s Episcopal Church was the first funeral I attended. I now understand how fortunate I was not to have had to experience the loss of a loved one prior to 1975. And I both respected and loved Mr. Morrissey.
I was fortunate to have had parents who allowed me to grow up with an appreciation of all of the arts. I was fortunate to have had a mentor who taught me respect, appreciation for precision and personal best.
Thank you, Gibson Morrissey, wherever you lie in rest. Both Roanoke and I owe you a lot.
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