Behind the Curtain with Concertmaster Jeff Thayer
We caught up with concertmaster and violinist Jeff Thayer after rehearsal, where he absent-mindedly plucked strings on his violin while we chatted backstage. Jeff discussed his pre-concert rituals and the challenges of being a concertmaster in this latest installment of In the Musicians' Lounge.
SDSO: What is a typical day like for you?
JT: A work day typically starts by wondering when my child is going to wake up – now that’s my new reality. Then I actually walk to work, I walk two miles through Balboa Park. I live just north of the zoo and then I walk through the Balboa Park – it’s a beautiful way to start the day. I’ll usually take a Lyft or Uber home. I’m the cook in my house so I’ll start thinking about what to do for dinner – which is one of my favorite things to do.
I love going to the farmers markets – my weekends usually involve some good food and wine.
SDSO: What kind of things do you like to cook?
JT: Oh I like to cook whatever I’m hungry for. I don’t have any specialty or anything – I just like to cook. (I’m drawn to) French cuisine, but I like seasonal things which is why I like going to the markets. Even though we don’t really have winter here, I like pretending. I’m from Pennsylvania so I still like pretending we have cold seasons here.
SDSO: Do you have any specific pre-concert rituals?
JT: I usually start by trying to get in a little nap or at least to lie down and shut my eyes for a few minutes. I don’t get to the hall late; I aim for thirty minutes before the concert. I don’t like feeling rushed. There’s warmup and some practice depending on what I’m doing. This week I’ll be here even earlier and a little more diligent about what I do as the soloist this week. And again right before I come up before I go out on stage – I’m the last person to go out on stage – I still try to sit down or lay down in my room for at least a couple minutes just to get my brain and frame of mind ready to come out on stage. That’s generally my routine. Then I come out and everyone turns around when the door opens because they’re worried whether I’m going to be out here on time.
At this point, Assistant Orchestra Personnel Manager Victoria Moore calls from her desk backstage: “I trust you!”
I try to be out here no later than 8 p.m. Then I wander around, get a sip of water and then after the announcements I go out and get things going.
SDSO: Can you describe your rehearsal process and how the process has been different as a soloist?
JT: Well I’m doing double duty this week. I’m wearing two different hats this week – part of the rehearsal process this week is doing my concertmaster duties and that takes one set of skills and kind of energy. Standing up (as a soloist) is a slightly different mindset to be the just focus instead of the leader.
When I’m the soloist, I’m the soloist. I’m thinking more about me. I’m thinking more about every note that I’m doing individually. When I’m sitting down as the concertmaster, really I’m the captain of the team. I’m much more of a team player and I’m trying to coordinate what the conductor is asking of us because I am really the connection – or the right-hand man – between the conductor and the orchestra. I’m trying to help him or her translate to everyone in the orchestra, especially in the violin section, convey what I see him wanting us to do. It’s really like being a captain of a team.
SDSO: How did you get into playing the violin as opposed to other instruments? How did you start pursuing your music career?
JT: Well, that was my mother’s fault. My mother was a Suzuki violin teacher. I have an older brother and she started him on violin and then it was just natural for me to be the next victim. That was when I was 3 and for about 12 years I fought her like any kid would do – I wanted to go out and play sports with my friends – and finally when I was about 15, I started having a couple opportunities that let me do this sort of thing: play with an orchestra. I started to think, “Maybe I’m actually not bad.” Then I started to like it. I gave up soccer in high school – that made me sad at the time, but this just requires too much time. Then it’s just a domino effect of different decisions I made.
SDSO: Is there something you wish people knew or understood more about the violin?
JT: People don’t know you can actually make a living as a musician. They think the San Diego Symphony is a volunteer organization and they ask, “What else do you do? What do you do for work?” People just don’t know. And half the people don’t even know where Symphony Hall is. Some people don’t know there’s a symphony here.
SDSO: What is the most challenging and rewarding part of your job?
JT: There are many challenges and many rewards, I have to say. Sometimes it’s challenging to think about playing my own part, because I have so many other responsibilities and things on my mind as concertmaster. I’m just trying to accommodate people and help the conductor, help the stage crew – there are a million different distractions – from just playing the violin. So sometimes that’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge I like. I really do like that challenge because it’s a big organization and I like trying to smooth little bumps out and make things run as easily as possible. But yeah, it takes away some attention and time from just playing my violin part.
As far as the most rewarding part of my job, I’ll steal what Edo (de Waart, a guest conductor) said during a rehearsal, he said something like, “Aren’t we lucky? We could have a real job.” It’s hard work, but at the end of the day, we’re playing some of the most beautiful music. I look at it all as a beautiful form of art and I feel lucky every day to be part of it. That’s sort of a generic answer, but underneath all of the pressure and time and energy and concentration, at the end of a concert you can sit there and think “Wow, we just played a Mahler Symphony or a Bach concerto” and that’s pretty rewarding.
I’ve only been here for 13 years – only, I mean that’s a good amount of time – but I really believe, genuinely, that this is the best point of time, the most exciting time, the best point of opportunity for continuing growth that this orchestra has ever had. Now having a new music director, we can grab onto that moment and I’m very proud to be part of this organization. I honestly believe this is a golden opportunity in the history of this orchestra."
Concertmaster Jeff Thayer performs the violin with the San Diego Symphony. You can catch him as a soloist on November 30 and December 2 playing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This post was written by Marketing Content Editor Kelly Hillock and photos by Digital Media Coordinator Stephanie Zumwalt.
This interview was originally published on March 8, 2018 and has been edited for length and clarity.Share Article
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