By Val Schoger, Photography by Nick Trail
Cathy Stevens plays in the second violin section of the Panama City POPS Orchestra and is the founder of the Panama City Youth Orchestra. Music has influenced her entire life. She has been teaching violin and viola for 25 years. This year, Alison Strunk (13) has been accepted into Panama City POPS Orchestra’s mentoring program and Cathy is her mentor.
How can I imagine the mentoring in the POPS orchestra?
Cathy: We sit together in the orchestra. A typical question from Alison would be, “What’s that note?” It could be an extremely high note that we have never played before. Or an Italian word for putting on your mutes. Or a marking in the music she might have not encountered before. There are a lot of techniques in an orchestra that you usually do not play as a soloist. When you see those markings, it could be intimidating if you have not seen it before. It helps if you have someone who is familiar with the music. Mostly, we encourage each other. She is learning not to look at me when I mess up. (laughs) On the other hand, I will absolutely look at her if she is not getting something right. (Both look at each other and laugh)
Do you get slowed down as a musician when you are mentoring a young musician?
Cathy: No, it does not feel that way, we are working as a team. We help each other through it. Not everyone has the desire to teach. I am enjoying it but I do think that a student is not going to excel unless he or she can learn from someone with more experience.
I have just started working with Alison but, from experience with another mentee, Jenna Zimmerman, it is exciting to see her skill develop. The whole goal is to have the students sit with someone who is more experienced.
Alison: I learned to practice harder.
Cathy: While Alison practices three hours a day, I avoid practicing for three hours a day.
I imagine every person is different in how they play an instrument.
Describe your style.
Cathy: Alison is technically very precise. She prefers the classical style. I like to play in a gypsy “go for it” style. There are different facets even within classical style and bring in emotions. I think in an orchestra it takes the different styles to make music together.
How does is affect your playing if someone is so close, right in your ear?
Cathy: If someone sits right next to you and is playing the right notes, then that encourages you. It is good to have a strong player next to you and Alison is a strong player. If I miss a note and Alison plays it right and the next time it happens the other way around, then together we have played the entire passage well.
What are the chances for young musicians to succeed and pursue a career as a professional musician?
Cathy: You must have passion to be a musician. There are very few openings. The competition is very stiff. I was a mentored student in a local symphony and played through college, and decided to major in engineering instead. My children all played at a very high level. Yet, all decided to major in other careers.
Do you compare yourself to other better or worse players?
Alison: I try not to. I think we are all equal. We all have a gift.
What does it mean to play classical music and to play with an orchestra and different
Cathy: It’s an excellent avocation as well as a vocation. When I think of our work with the Youth Orchestra, it has little to do with music but more with presence, teamwork, dedication. You look at a piece of music and it’s an overwhelming challenge. But when a more experienced musician tells you “you can do this,” then that provides the support to get started. And that’s a benefit when facing an insurmountable task.
This experience translates well into different life challenges. If, in the future, you are handed an insurmountable task, knowing that “you can do this” is a huge career benefit.
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