The work, then the magic of music

Jan. 25, 2014 @ 03:14 PM

Sitting in on a rehearsal of the Durham Symphony Orchestra recently, I wondered how many of them were reliving a scene from their teen years. Rooms where musicians rehearse are functional, not fancy. The rehearsal room at the Durham Arts Council wasn’t too different than a high school band room. Nor should it have been. Chairs that stack. Lockers for instruments. Instrument cases – suitcases of the arts – resting by chairs. Musicians leaning over to each other during breaks, exchanging words and occasional laughter. 

It’s a room where work takes place, but it is also a room that has something in the air that can’t be quantified. A certain life. A certain magic. My photographer colleague and I whispered during rehearsal how we love music but can’t read music. I didn’t have that high school band experience. When I was a freshman, I wanted to play the drums, but I went to a very competitive school where the school band drummers had been drumming since childhood. A novice didn’t have a chance of making it into the marching band. So I chose other school activities. But I have always felt a connection to a marching band or an orchestra. I’m not alone, of course. I’d measure to say that more than half of audiences at concerts have no idea how to read music. We can appreciate it just the same.

The way a journalist spots grammatical errors and typos on everything from menus to government documents, so do musicians hear anything out of place. William Henry Curry, Durham Symphony Orchestra’s conductor and music director, talked to me about rehearsals and how it’s a lot of work and picky details audiences don’t hear. Work that’s done in those vanilla, stacked chair, padded wall music rooms. Where everything gets polished before audiences see the final version in a fancier room. Where everyone is dressed in fancier clothes. Where the work in the musical trenches has been completed and is now ready for display.
I write advance stories, too, about the Broadway shows that come to the Durham Performing Arts Center on tour. I interview cast members and the creative team of tours by phone, when they are still a city or two away from Durham. I talk to them when they are in that rehearsal, music room mode of casual clothes and conversation. Then a week or so later I see them on stage, transformed, in front of thousands of people. They almost seem like different people than I talked to earlier. Same with the times I’ve covered load-in of shows, when I see the same piece of scenery moving along on little wheels with the house lights on that I see a week later in a new light.
What it is, is magic. It’s the combination of that sweat that goes into the performing arts with as much physical effort as a factory worker, but in a different way. It’s taking something you made, that many people made, and adding a dash of something that can’t be quantified. Something that starts in an ordinary room and becomes extraordinary.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at or 919-419-6563. Follow on Twitter: @dawnbvaughan.