Violinist Belinda Whitney of Local 802 (New York City) has forged an exciting and diverse career. She’s currently concertmaster and personnel manager for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, concertmaster for the Broadway show My Fair Lady, performs with the Harlem Chamber Players, plus does a wide range of commercial gigs. She credits her success to all the people that believed in her and helped her along the way.
Whitney’s journey in music began at school. “No one is more a product of music in the public schools than I am,” she says, recalling the first time she heard a string quartet in second grade in Philadelphia. Later, she was one of two students from each classroom selected to take violin lessons.
Her remarkably dedicated violin teacher, John Hamilton, invested heavily in his students, traveling to their homes once a week for free, private lessons. “He would give me lessons until I couldn’t concentrate anymore and then he would stay for dinner,” she recalls. It was the only payment he would accept. “He also took us to free concerts, found performance opportunities for us, and he introduced us to a summer camp.” Still teaching and performing, Hamilton is now a member of Local 294 (Lancaster, PA).
Already gigging in college, Whitney joined Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) as a student. “It was very formal. I had an interview and I dressed up and brought my violin. The interviewer asked a lot of questions. I played some scales and a little solo,” she says. “It really drove home the fact that I was becoming part of something. We had pride in what we were doing and I valued that.” However, she had no idea how important her union would be later.
Whitney received a Bachelor of Music from Temple University and a Master of Music from The Juilliard School, where she was a scholarship student of Ivan Galamian. Though her studies were classical, the music she wished to play was more commercial. “I always loved old movies and the sound of old TV show orchestras,” she says. “When I started doing freelance gigs in college, my professor said, ‘Now, don’t you enjoy these gigs too much.’ But, I loved doing commercial work.”
Before graduation, she was already hired to play in Philadelphia that summer for The King and I with Yul Brynner. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not out of school and I already have a job,’” says Whitney who was 23 at the time. “I loved it. I got to work with a lot of seasoned pros; it was a great introduction.”
“At the time, big stars would go on the road,” she says. Following The King and I, she worked on several other shows—Sugar Babies with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney and Mame with Angela Lansbury—and other acts that came through Philadelphia and Atlantic City. “I recorded with Sigma Sounds and Philadelphia International Records and did symphonic work as well. I felt like I had it all.”
Her first full-time symphony position was as associate concertmaster for Savannah Symphony. “They sort of took a chance on me because I had no experience [as concertmaster],” she says. When the former concertmaster left, Whitney became one of the first black concertmasters for a large symphony. “That was a big feather in my cap that led to a lot of other things.”
After a few years, she wanted a change of pace and moved back to Philadelphia. A short time later she had her first gig on Broadway. The concertmaster for City of Angels dropped out just weeks before the show’s opening and John Miller, a Local 802 contractor, hired her. “It was a little odd to start in New York as concertmaster for a Broadway show, but I’d already paid my dues elsewhere,” says Whitney who went on to have a long and rewarding association with Miller. “I feel really lucky for that,” she says.
According to Whitney, one of the most important duties of a Broadway concertmaster is to maintain high standards. Not everyone is cut out for Broadway, she says. “In a symphony, you prepare a different concert every week or so. With a Broadway show, you play the same thing over and over—for years, if you are lucky. Being a concertmaster for a Broadway show is a matter of maintenance: keeping standards up, while keeping the work atmosphere inclusive, light, and pleasant. New York is full of incredibly fantastic musicians and it’s important to foster an atmosphere of respect in the pit.”
“I don’t mind playing the same thing over and over,” she says. “I feel when you play Broadway you are either building up or tearing down. You are either playing your best and thinking ‘tonight I’m going to make my sound a little better’ or just phoning it in, which is tearing down. As a concertmaster, it is my challenge to keep the standards high in the face of repetition.”
Whitney has now served as concertmaster for many Broadway shows. When asked for her personal favorite, she replies, “I could tell you why they are all my favorites. I’ve always loved old musicals. At Lincoln Center, I was concertmaster, as well as in-house contractor, for South Pacific, The King and I (which I did for a second time), and currently My Fair Lady.”
Music Coordinator David Lai of Local 802 first asked her to contract for South Pacific. “I tend to take on challenges,” she says. “He led me through it. It was a big orchestra—30 people—and by the time everyone was allotted five subs, we were talking 180 people. That was a pretty big payroll and a lot of people to get to know.”
That’s when she first realized all the little things her union does behind the scenes to make sure musicians are compensated and treated fairly. “I really can’t imagine navigating the musical freelance business without the union,” she says, describing how she acts as a bridge to the union. “I enjoy people—facilitating work situations and making them run as smoothly and painlessly as possible.”
Today, Whitney is also contractor and personnel director for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which she’s been involved with from its inception. When she first met with founder and Local 802 member Gary Fagin about his ideas, Whitney discovered they had similar approaches to music. “We both value musicians who are experienced in a variety of styles,” she says. “He said he felt New York freelance musicians are among the most well-rounded musicians in the world today, and have extensive playing experience, at the highest level, in many different styles. This was exactly what he wanted for Knickerbocker.”
Whitney also told him she would not contract an orchestra that didn’t provide fair wages and benefits for its musicians. “We agreed on this from day one,” she says. “We’ve had some unusual requests and Gary always says, ‘We do it the right way or we don’t do it.’ It’s been wonderful to be the bridge between this orchestra, this man who has this fantastic vision, and the union whose priority is getting people the benefits to which they are entitled. These musicians are absolutely valued.”
The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra is Lower Manhattan’s orchestra, she says. “It started 10 years ago, not long after 9/11, at a time when so many orchestras were folding. It’s been wonderful to be a part of building it and I feel lucky to have done that.”
Whitney thrives in the diverse work of a freelance musician, which for her has also included film scores, records, and working with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Barbra Streisand, and Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI). She can also be heard, along with violinist Cenovia Cummins of Local 802, in the recording of the tango introduction to the show Mystery Masterpiece Theatre.
As an old movie buff, Whitney felt particularly blessed when she met Donald O’Connor during an MGM special at Carnegie Hall. “I went to his dressing room and we had a great time talking. At the concert, he spoke about his experiences with MGM. As they dimmed the lights to play a video of his routine ‘Make ’Em Laugh.’ I saw him walking over to me. He says, ‘Now let’s watch,’ and puts his arm around me and we watched it together. I was on stage at Carnegie Hall, watching ‘Make ’Em Laugh’ with Donald O’Connor’s arm around me! That really tickled me.”
Among the necessities for a successful freelance career, according to Whitney, are union membership, networking, affability, and professionalism. Earning livable wages as a freelance musician would not be feasible without the union, she contends. “The union really pulls it all together. I think we take our union for granted, but the way the freelance world works is really a product of our union’s hard work.”
“Respect, pleasantness, networking, and being on time and ready to play are huge for musicians,” she continues. “In a big group of musicians, you may not stand out. But, if you are early, ready to play, dependable, and friendly, people will want you around. The music world today is very competitive and there are a lot of people who can do a job pretty well. Sometimes networking skills can give you a slight edge. People will forgive a lot of missteps if they realize you are eager to learn and pleasant to be around. We all remember when we were young.”
It’s also critical to be a well-rounded musician, she says. “My experiences in Broadway, the recording business, and the classical business keep looping around for me. One takes me to the other, then back to the first. It’s been a rich experience learning different styles.”
Looking back on her career Whitney is thankful to everyone who helped her succeed. “God has blessed me more than I ever thought and I feel humbled that so many people took a chance on me. When I take inventory of my journey I realize that my career is like a tapestry of all the people who invested in me—from my family who encouraged and believed in me, to my parents driving me all over the country to music camps, to that very first teacher,” she says. “I love that I’m involved with the Harlem Chamber Players and Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which put on children’s concerts. Investing in others is really important because that’s what brought me here.”
Whitney feels that working with young children is key to bringing more racial diversity to symphony orchestras. “By the time musicians are out of college, I feel like it should be a level playing field,” she says. “I think the reason I did as well as I did was because people invested so heavily in me before I got to college.”
“When I talk to my colleagues, many of them had parents who played an instrument so they started at a very early age and music was a part of the home. But about 90% of the black professional musicians I know started music in the public schools. So that means they are starting later. I think we should invest in programs targeting younger people so when they get to college they are already competitive,” she says.