Sharing Notes with Allegra Montanari

Part of the mission of the Citizen Musician Fellowship (a part that got me hugely interested in the first place, actually) is to expand our career path horizons. Conservatory students generally assume that they’ll go from school to the audition circuit, win an orchestral job, and go from there. Maybe they’ll teach on the side, privately or at the college level, and maybe they’ll do some chamber music in their spare time. But the orchestral job market is brutal, and many of us have to freelance in the meantime, leaving us to wonder if this is really the path we want to take. I myself have always wanted a kind of omnivorous career, but I had only a vague idea how to go about getting it. That’s why one of the most valuable parts of the Fellowship so far has been, in my opinion, our seminars with the fascinating, diverse musicians of Chicago. We’ve encountered brilliant people like Scott Tegge, Myron Silberstein, Michael Lewanski, and many others besides. These seminars have been incredibly enlightening, but on the whole, they haven’t changed my path so much as revealing other branches I might follow if I like.

On the surface, Allegra Montanari’s seminar on her non-profit venture, Sharing Notes, seemed like it might be more of the same—interesting information on a possible facet of a music career that I had personally never considered. I did have an inkling that it might be different, though. Allegra is our age, for one thing. She and Lindsay went to Indiana University together, and she and I both attended the Brevard Music Center in 2008. So she felt much more like a peer than our other seminar speakers, and I was excited to see what she had done to become so successful running her own non-profit in such a short time.

Sharing Notes is an organization that Allegra started in 2012 with the mission of bringing the healing power of music to those who need it, while also providing unique performing opportunities for young musicians like herself. While she originally intended for “those who need it” to be wide-ranging—she talked about hoping to play in women’s shelters—Sharing Notes soon found its home in an oncology ward at Northwestern Memorial’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. Now in its third year, Sharing Notes has added partnerships with two other hospitals, Lurie Children’s Hospital and La Rabida Children’s Hospital, which awarded them the Friends of La Rabida Award for Community Partnership in 2013.

Allegra’s path to starting Sharing Notes began a lot like the rest of ours. She graduated from Indiana University with a degree in cello performance, wondered what to do next, and ended up pursuing a master’s degree at Roosevelt University. She started taking orchestral auditions, practicing way too much, burning herself out and giving herself tendonitis, and making far less progress toward an orchestral job than she’d hoped. After a while, she realized that maybe being driven and ambitious didn’t have to mean pursuing this one single-minded goal. There had to be more to a life in music than the orchestra job she had always assumed she would get. She had to ask herself—is this what’s going to make me happy?

She then asked us to think of a verb to describe what we wanted our lives in music to be. Hers was “to serve.” Simon suggested “to share.” There was “inspire,” “meet,” “enjoy.”

This is where the seminar really came into its own. Our verbs all implied a personal connection between the musicians and the audience, we realized. That’s where the traditional concert hall often fails—conductors and soloists tend to be magnetic personalities that audiences can get to know, but individual orchestral musicians so easily fade into a nameless mass. Allegra made a great point: as musicians play together, we’re constantly communicating with one another, but we’re often not as aware of our communication with the audience. It can be hard for audiences to connect, especially on such a deep level as much of the orchestral repertoire demands, with people they can’t even see as individuals. While all of us have come to music at least partially because we loved the experience of seeing and playing in an orchestra, it is important for us to try to understand its limitations if we want to move it into the future.

Fellows with Allegra at seminar_enhanced 3

As it turns out, though, personal connection is where Sharing Notes shines. Allegra told us a beautiful story about one patient she met earlier in the year. She and a friend were playing in a cardiac ward, and they got a request to play for a patient and his family. They walked in, and realized the man was unconscious—probably not a great sign. The feeling in the room was serious, pensive. They introduced themselves to the family and began playing. Allegra says they chose The Swan, since it’s beautiful and soothing. As they played, they noticed the man start to stir. They continued to play, and his eyes opened. The family rushed to his side; the musicians didn’t know exactly what to make of it. They played one more, the family thanked them, and they left. Several days later, though, Allegra says the man’s wife got in touch with her. That was the first time he’d woken up in a long time, she said, and it was the last. He had apparently died later that day, only a few hours after Sharing Notes played in his room. The man’s wife thanked Allegra for bringing him back, even for a little while, and for easing his transition out of this world.

At this point, we were all bawling.

We musicians often believe that we’re doing enough if we go to the concert and perform the music well, but Allegra’s story proves that we can do so much more. Allegra warned us that performing in hospitals, for people who are often very ill, and sometimes even sick children, can be emotionally draining. But that kind of musical connection is invaluable, so rare and precious, that the other Fellows and I came out of the seminar inspired, eager to do more. Working with people in difficult situations is raw, but we are artists, after all. We should be trying to reach every facet of human experience with our performances, and that kind of deep emotion sometimes gets lost in our quest for technical perfection. Allegra’s story reminded us that it’s the honest feelings in a performance that create human connection—that’s what we should be striving for, every day.

We’re performing with Sharing Notes in a few months, and I’m still a little scared. That level of openness feels risky, but that’s what makes it so exciting. It’s an opportunity to really use our art for good, even if it puts us out on a limb. This Fellowship is about taking risks, stretching our boundaries, and bringing our art to people who need it. Personally, I can’t wait to get started.

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