“My family couldn’t afford violin lessons or a violin,” recalls Zeneba Bowers. “My elementary school gave me a free violin and my first year of lessons. But this was back when we actually had music education in public schools.”
Now the assistant principal second violin of the Nashville Symphony, and a founding member of the ALIAS ensemble, Bowers knows she is a living example of the importance of public music education. It’s no surprise that Bowers has become a vocal proponent of music in the schools, and she—along with other members of ALIAS—puts her music where her mouth is.
Members of the chamber ensemble regularly visit public schools to educate and inspire students who otherwise might not be exposed to classical music. Given the right resources, you never know what child might become the next Zeneba Bowers.
What age were you when you started playing violin?
I was 8. I went to a school assembly, and the teacher got up in front of the whole school and played almost every instrument— just a little bit, to show us what each instrument did. I heard the violin, and I thought, “I have to do that. “
The teacher started us on a version of Suzuki. During that first year, I won a local competition where the prize was an opportunity to study with David Madison, the assistant concert master with the Philadelphia Orchestra, for six weeks. It was a big deal to me because we were in the newspaper, and we got to play in a local theater. I also remember that David Madison got mad at me when he asked me to play a C major scale and I didn’t know what that was. Everything I had learned was imitating what I heard. Then I got into a local youth orchestra, and the conductor told my parents it was time for me to get real lessons. My first real teacher was Nancy Bargerstock who now teaches at Appalachian State University. Back then, she taught at Moravian in Bethlehem. While I was studying with her, she moved to New York, so we would carpool from Allentown to New York City with another student. It was devotion, I guess.
It sounds like, resources or not, your parents were extremely supportive.
My dad was a public-school teacher and my mom was a battered women’s counselor. Those professions don’t pay very well, and studying violin is not a small investment for a family. Without music in the schools, there’s a danger of our field being limited to people of means. And that’s a shame because musical talent is not distributed according to income bracket. Think about it: the most famous musicians in every genre came from poor families, and we all enjoy the labors of those people. Everybody loves the arts, but that love has to be matched with support.
What was your involvement in music during high school?
That was a rocky time. We moved to Minneapolis for two years, and I went to a really rough school. A student got kicked to death in a gang fight my second week there. So, I kind of went down the drain for a while; I had seven violin teachers in two years — that’s bad! Then we moved to Philadelphia for my junior and senior year, and I went to Central High School, the second oldest public high school in the U.S., where they can give you a Bachelor of Arts degree if you graduate with a certain GPA. It was night and day.
While I was there, I played at Temple University Prep, a small chamber orchestra conducted by Luis Biava, who was the principal second violin in the Philadelphia Orchestra. I also played in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, which was conducted by Joseph Primavera. He was a big proponent of youth, but he kicked our asses up and down the block!
When I got to the Eastman School of Music for college, I was in the studio of Lynn Blakeslee, and she was really old-school tough also. I needed a lot of help when I started with her, and by the time I left I was her teaching assistant.
Looking back, was “old-school tough” the right teaching style for you?
When I was in college, I knew I was lazy, and I feared that laziness would win the day. That’s why I chose Eastman, even though other schools offered me bigger scholarships. I knew I had to go to a place where I couldn’t just skate. I needed somebody who I was going to be in mortal fear of before each lesson, and I was definitely afraid of Lynn!
How did you end up in Nashville?
From Eastman I went to New World Symphony for three years, and then I won a job here in Nashville in the second violin section. Then I took an audition and moved over to the first violin section, and then I took another audition and moved into the job I hold currently. Auditions are challenging, especially in the place where you’re already working. That also that meant I was under tenure review for more than four years, because every time I won a new job I started over.
Then, after a year or two, I founded ALIAS, which is now in its 17th season. I wanted to have some say over musical things that I was doing, and that is not the job of an orchestral musician. But in ALIAS, we play lesser known works and new music; we get to choose who we perform with and have control of our rehearsals, so we have an outlet for our artistic ideas.
Tell us about ALIAS’s involvement in education outreach.
Rather than doing the typical one-off visit, where you say, “Here’s what a violin sounds like,” and then you leave, we go into the same school multiple times. For example, I did a program last week with young children where the theme is Sounds you Hear in Nature.
First, we played a few different pieces that were inspired by nature, and we showed different ways you can make your instrument sound like it’s imitating nature. Then we’d say, “Can you think of some sounds in nature? A student would say, “What about a rabbit?” We would then make a hopping sound with our instruments, and the kids would make hopping sounds with their hands or mouth, and we would record it. All of that will be put together into a piece that the kids helped to write with us, and we will go back and share it with them.
The kids become composers, and they realize that being a composer isn’t an elite thing, or such a different thing. We humanize this idea, so maybe they’ll be more interested to pursue that.
Our programs for schools are free. The musicians are paid to work, but we write grants and get donations, and that allows us to help compensate for the lack of music in schools. We only go into schools in underserved communities. If you want to make an impact, you have to go where you’re needed and keep going back.
Do you feel a responsibility, as a professional musician, to give back?
I want to point out that what we owe to musicians is different and separate from what we owe the public at large. I think if we want this field to continue, then we need to give freely of our time to help other musicians, particularly if you’re fortunate enough to work in this field and be paid for it.
But when we’re talking about the public, I think it’s incumbent upon us to try to get across why art is important, even when it isn’t pleasing to every person. Here’s an example: We had a board member on ALIAS who only liked music from a 100-year time period. We play a lot of music that is well outside of that, and she did not like it, yet she stayed with us for years. Even after she left the board, she continued to be one of our largest donors, and I think that was because she knew that some of the music that she loved was hated when it was created, but there’s always virtue in fostering a creative environment.
Can you offer any advice for aspiring classical musicians?
One of my teachers told me only to go into this field if I was desperate to do it. I was, and I’m happy that I’ve done it, but it’s very hard—physically, financially, and emotionally. So, remember that you can always play music nonprofessionally; only take this on if you can’t imagine living without it.
Second, be aware this is a small business and your reputation will follow you. It’s not like being an accountant where you can just move to another town. When people don’t like you, they will remember you for 40 flippin’ years. I remember one composer who wanted me to play his recital, and he woke me up at 3 a.m. to ask me to do it. This guy still asks me to play his pieces, and every time, I think, that’s the guy who called me at 3 a.m.
The last thing is, bring your A game every time. Even if you think a conductor won’t notice or nobody cares, don’t skate. Think of it like putting a drop of food coloring into a glass of water. That attitude will spread. Sometimes it’s hard; you’ll feel discouraged that you spent six hours practicing a one-second section of music. Only go into this business if you can see there’s value in that.
Veteran journalist Barbara Schultz has been writing about music production and performance for 25 years.