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December 1, 2022IM -
Ask an orchestral musician to list what qualities they believe are necessary to be a good colleague, and the answers will typically include being prepared, being consistent, and having good rhythm and intonation. Violinist Mary Corbett believes another prime requirement is a positive attitude, backed by good energy.
“It’s a remarkable thing that we get to do this for a living,” says Corbett, a violinist in The Florida Orchestra (TFO) since 1989 and member of Local 427-721 (Tampa Bay, FL). Her warmth and enthusiasm are infectious as she speaks about her good fortune. “Even after all these years, I know how tremendous it is that I am able to make my living doing this, and I never stop appreciating it.”
Corbett got her start on the violin at the age of eight, growing up in Buffalo, New York, but she says her classical roots go back to hearing her first concert at six months old. “I got a perfect score on a music aptitude test in elementary school,” she recalls. “I was hooked on the violin pretty early and fell in love with it immediately. I practiced six hours a day.” All with the approval of her parents. “My mom was a music and language major, and my dad was a member of a barbershop quartet that recorded for CBS. So, I grew up listening to good music.”
Steady progress, intensive summer studies at the Meadowmount School of Music in Upstate New York while in high school, and winning a competition to play with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra ultimately led to undergraduate studies at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. “I wanted to be a violin soloist, and Eastman didn’t need good SAT scores,” she laughs.
But it was an internship with the New York Philharmonic that she says changed her life. Following a bachelor’s degree in violin performance in 1984, Corbett applied to the Music Assistance Fund, a program that at the time placed Black orchestral musicians with orchestras around the country. As part of the program through the Charles Revson Fellowship, Corbett was treated as a regular member of the Philharmonic.
“I spent two years with the NY Phil, receiving a salary and health insurance just like everyone else—and I totally fell in love with orchestral playing,” she says. “It was an incredible experience, playing and recording with Leonard Bernstein, and performing at Carnegie Hall.”
Another incredible experience: in the reopening concert for Carnegie Hall following its refurbishment in 1986, famed Black contralto Marian Anderson was in attendance, seated in the box directly behind Corbett. It’s a memory she treasures. “I couldn’t believe I was in the same room with this woman, just being in her presence,” she says.
As a role model for a young Black musician, it’s tough to top Anderson. Corbett says those kinds of examples are important not just for Black children, but for every young person who aspires to excel at something. She recalls growing up in Buffalo as the only Black girl in her neighborhood, her school, and her music program. While she says she never felt “othered” or made to feel like an outsider, it was challenging not being able to see anyone in music who looked like her that she could emulate. At the same time, she observes that the orchestral landscape hasn’t changed for people of color as much as she might have hoped over her long career—and indeed, she remains the only Black musician in TFO’s ranks.
Corbett has tried to uphold the idea of being an example in The Florida Orchestra. In addition to her love of mentoring young men and women, she likes to dress as movie heroines for pops concerts: Princess Leia at TFO’s performance of Star Wars, and, for this year’s Halloween concert, she was Lt. Uhura, the celebrated Star Trek character portrayed by Nichelle Nichols, who broke racial barriers on American television and became a role model for Black female actors.
“TFO musicians were asked to hand out candy to kids after the Halloween concert,” she says. “I was hoping they would see a Black woman playing the violin, in the guise of Uhura. It’s crucial for people of color to see what I do in the orchestra. If kids don’t see anyone who looks like them, they have no example or proof that they can get there themselves.”
Corbett is quick to share that her sense of being fortunate to do what she does every day has never left her, even after 30 years with TFO. She says it’s important to direct those feelings toward making a positive difference for those around her. One way she does this is through playing regularly for palliative care and hospice patients—playing music for those in the process of dying.
The idea came during an experience at a hospital. “I had a dear friend who suffered a sudden brain bleed. I came to the hospital to play some music for her, and at the same time, the man across the hall from her was transitioning.” The experience changed her. “You gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of music, how transformative it can be, both for those who are dying and for their family members. It carries tremendous weight and heft for me to be able to ease people’s passing.”
Maintaining and sharing all that good energy—and keeping a positive outlook—can require ongoing work. Corbett remembered her mom practicing yoga in the ’70s, and she started practicing it herself in 2002. “Yoga practice lifts the spirit and relaxes the central nervous system,” she says. “The mind, body, and breath are all interconnected.” Yoga also shares similarities with music. “Our breath itself even has a rhythm. Focusing on the breath, and coordinating breath with movement, helps me feel balanced and centered. As a violinist, the mere act of holding the instrument for hours at a time is counterintuitive. Anything that promotes balance and harmony—sign me up! Focusing on practicing my violin comes so much more easily now.”
Corbett is also dedicated to the idea of meditation: “settling the mind and approaching things with intention.” Consistency with daily gym workouts helps her to balance her mental state with the physical. As an added bonus, staying in good physical shape also makes it possible for her to undertake sometimes tough hikes in the mountains. These days, Corbett is addicted to solo backpacking during her summers in Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. “Hiking on my own was a remarkable discovery for me,” she enthuses. “You’re miles away from everyone, alone. I was surprised to find that I felt tremendously comfortable, even with grizzlies and mountain lions around.”
Corbett’s abundance of positive energy is also channeled for the benefit of her TFO colleagues. She became an AFM member before college, then a member of Local 802 (New York City) during her NY Phil fellowship. “I was raised on the idea that we had to be unionized to guarantee our own rights and protections as performers,” she says.
To that end, she has served three terms on TFO’s orchestra committee, with two of those terms negotiating contracts, striving to help ensure good working conditions and a healthy standard of living. “That kind of work is blood, sweat, and tears,” she admits. “But as a section string player, I get that I should treat my colleagues the way I want to be treated. So you do the work on behalf of your colleagues because we are all in this together. The idea of solidarity—of unity—and of demonstrating what that really means, and living it—is so important.”
She adds that, while the union can be a useful ally in protecting orchestra members from the sometimes-unpredictable whims of conductors or management, even more crucially it helps guarantee fair compensation. “We love what we do, and our jobs as orchestral musicians are obviously highly specialized. But some of us also need to buy cat food,” she laughs.
Both at work and outside of it, Corbett says it’s important to treat each day as an adventure. “One of my career highlights was playing with TFO in Whitney Houston’s famous delivery of the National Anthem at the 1991 Superbowl,” she says. “Of all the performances over the years—in legendary venues, with legendary artists—that performance with Whitney tops them all.”
The Gulf War had just begun, and The Florida Orchestra was approached to accompany her since the Super Bowl was to be held in Tampa Stadium. “Whitney was already a superstar,” Corbett recalls. “We were presented with an arrangement of the anthem that was written in 4/4 time, rather than the traditional 3/4. That hadn’t been done before.” As an added bonus, Corbett’s hometown team, the Buffalo Bills, were playing in their very first Superbowl. “The game was broadcast worldwide, and our troops watched from near and far.”
Finding joy in all things, it would seem, is Corbett’s ultimate secret weapon. From excited reminiscing about Whitney Houston, she instantly changes gears to how she has recently started raising Monarch butterflies. “The transformation between their life stages is incredible. It’s always something new,” she says. “Life is a constant path to becoming self-actualized. The challenge is to be happy and grateful every day for what we’re offered.”