Civic Orchestra of Chicago cellist Najette Abouelhadi and clarinetist Nico Chona are, like me, second-year members in the ensemble. Before our reading session with David Afkham on October 27th, I met them at a coffee shop near Symphony Center. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
Philip Bergman: Thank y’all for doing this. You are both really talented, and also really thoughtful, so I think it’ll be good for people to hear from you.
Najette Abouelhadi: That’s a lot of pressure, actually…
Nico Chona: So much pressure. [laughs]
PB: First of all, how or why did you start playing your instruments?
NC: My family moved around a bit before I started high school. My dad works for oil companies so we actually, for a time, lived in Kuwait and that’s where I started learning clarinet. Pretty much the biggest reason I chose the clarinet was because my oldest sister had started learning it the year before… I love my sister to death and I’ve always admired her, so I was just like, “I’ll just do what my sister does,” so that’s how I started… and I’m going on 17 years.
NA: So, my mom worked in music, and I would go to concerts with her weekly. At the age of 3 I loved watching the violin bows go up and down in orchestra and she worked for a conservatory, so I would watch all the bows that didn’t match everybody else’s [all laugh], and so I said, “I want to play the violin,” and they gave me one. I tried it and it was the most uncomfortable thing that had ever happened to me. So they handed me a little 1/8th-size cello, and I had my first lesson on my 4th birthday and I’m going on 21 years.
PB: I know you guys are both hustling pretty hard. What are the other projects you have going on in the city, for example, Najette, for folks who don’t know, can you describe Chicago Sinfonietta?
NA: Yeah, the Chicago Sinfonietta is the most diverse orchestra in the United States. Everything about the orchestra, the pieces that we play, the musicians in the orchestra, the administration, is all held to the highest standard of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is great. The whole environment is so happy and inclusive which is a special thing that we really don’t see anywhere else… I’m a fellow [in Sinfonietta], so I do a lot of going into the communities to visit major corporations and schools. And then I freelance and hustle as much as possible, whenever I get asked to do anything [all laugh]
NC: So, my other life is as the operations assistant with Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras. I previously worked for my own youth orchestra, Houston Youth Symphony, which was absolutely not at all what my undergrad had prepared me for…but it was great. After I decided that I was definitely going to move [to Chicago], I got super lucky that, right at the time, the CYSO was hiring for basically an identical position to the one I held in Houston. They do a lot – I love working for them and my coworkers are great… I’m also in a reed quintet […]which, in case you don’t know, is comprised of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon, and I’m the bass clarinetist. We’re the Vanguard Reed Quintet. I joined them right after they won silver at Fischoff. They’re all excellent musicians, really good to work with, they’ve really expanded my ideas of what you can do as a musician. We are in the process of finishing our first album.
PB: This is going to go up on the Civic Fellows Blog. On that blog, each of the fellows writes a long-form article about something they’re passionate about. If you had the opportunity, do you have a soap-box issue in our industry that you would want to write about?
NC: Mental health. I feel like, particularly in my undergrad, that was something that at the time was not addressed at all, and it was a very stressful situation. Nobody talked about it in a compassionate and understanding way, and I have […] a couple friends who’ve gotten very close to rock-bottom as a result of improper awareness and discussion and access to treatment that I feel like, in our profession, is so important. That’s the biggest thing for me: speaking openly about [mental health], especially to students.
NA: I work with the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative which is a new program focused on gaining support for under-represented communities in Chicago and getting those young adults into major conservatories and major musical programs. I was very lucky in my upbringing, essentially being surrounded by music since my birth. I also went to a public high school that cared about music just as much as anything else. If ever there was a budget cut, parents would come forward with a check to keep alive the program…and that’s utter privilege, but I think it’s so important that there are people speaking to all parents about the importance of music and that we get the people who can afford to pay for it, making sure that they’re doing it. It’s as much about the parents as it is about the children.
PB: Yeah, CMPI’s a cool thing. The CSO is a partner organization.
NC: CYSO is a partner, too.
NA: I love my kids, they’re all so cute.
PB: That’s great. So, is there anything else you want to make sure people know about you?
NC: Follow me on Instagram. It’s mostly just food and things that I find interesting about the changing seasons, which I’m not used to, being from Texas.
NA: That brings up another point: that we’re people beyond being musicians. That’s something I’m struggling with… I just practice all day and if I’m not practicing I’m driving somewhere to go play a gig, and I don’t think that we remember that we are people beyond what our musical accomplishments are at any given moment. Because you can’t even think about the accomplishments you had in the past, they just, like, don’t matter, apparently [all laugh]
PB: That’s real.
NA: So I like that.
All: Food and seasons!
NC: Oh, yeah, if I do want people to know one thing about me, my parents’ dog, hold on. This is a dog that my parents adopted when I moved out of the house.
PB: The puppy! You guys need to send me puppy pics. That’s what needs to happen. Who’s this puppy?
NA: It’s my boyfriend’s puppy that I picked out and I adopted, but she’s the best.
PB: I’m hyped to end this with puppy pics.
NC: …I’m like that eHarmony cat lady video, but with dogs. I feel like all of us are kinda there. Dogs and food, that’s my Instagram.
NA: That’s all you need.
PB: Well, thanks y’all. This was great.
Both: For sure!
You can follow Nico on Instagram at @babbages, Vanguard Reed Quintet at @vanguardrq, and Najette at @najtrynaplayexcerpts
By Civic Fellow and cello Philip Bergman
TOP: Civic Orchestra of Chicago members of Najette and Nico (photo by Curtis Noborikawa).