Changing Lives with Music

  • By:  Jamie McAllister
Photo by David A. Beloff Photo by David A. Beloff

Barbara Chapman has four harps in the sitting room of her Norfolk home, including two concert harps. These majestic instruments, the tallest of which is about six feet high, bear intricate carvings worthy of display in any art museum. Barbara offers to play, and her fingers glide across the strings, the sweet, pure notes shimmering like crystals. For a few moments, we leave the rainy Monday morning behind and get lost in the music.

Over the centuries young women were taught to play instruments and make music, but were not expected to use their talents outside of the home or to perform. Attitudes have changed, and these days many young women are embracing classical music as a career. Orchestras around the country, once open only to male musicians, now include numerous female performers, thanks in part to blind auditions that promise anonymity by having candidates perform behind a screen.

Hampton Roads is home to the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, now in its 95th season. Every year the eighty or so passionate, dedicated musicians of the VSO delight more than 100,000 residents through concerts, educational opportunities, and outreach programs. It takes massive amounts of skill, knowledge, and dedication to have a successful career in classical music, but the rewards are well worth it.

Barbara learned to play the piano while sitting on her father’s knee back in her home state of Minnesota. When she went to college, she knew she wanted to study music, but it was a chance encounter in a cafeteria with one of her brother’s friends that led her to the harp.

“My brother’s friend was a harpist, and she was looking for someone to practice her teaching skills on,” Barbara explained. “I volunteered, and after a few lessons, I was hooked.” With a laugh, she added, “I didn’t pick the harp, the harp picked me.”

After graduation Barbara spent her 20s living and performing in New York City. She also did freelance work with the Virginia Opera, so when she heard about an open position for a harpist with the VSO, she decided to audition. She has been with the VSO since 1988.

“Performing with an orchestra is a thrilling experience,” she said. “We are sending music into the cosmos in the hope that it will be received by someone who needs it. Music truly is a gift, and I can’t imagine life without it.”

Fifteen years ago Barbara agreed to teach a few harp students for a friend whose mother was ill and found joy in sharing her talent with others. She taught at William and Mary for several years and now works with a handful of students in her home.

“The musical landscape is changing,” Barbara said. “Music schools and conservatories are teaching students how to do so much beyond playing an instrument, including how to put on programs for schools, interact with kids, how to run a private studio, and how to use social media to market and get gigs. Young players have the option to take their careers in exciting new directions.”

One relatively new area of particular interest to Barbara is music therapy. Her father, Bill, recently passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. During his illness she experienced firsthand the influence music can have on someone’s health. When her dad was agitated during doctor’s appointments, the strains of classical music or the soothing lyrics of familiar old hymns helped to quiet and relax him. Eventually her father lost the ability to talk, but he could still sing.

“When I was little my dad taught me how to recognize birds from the sounds of their songs,” Barbara said, her face alight with the memory. “One day I decided to take a chance and asked him what his song would be if he were a bird. He was so ill by then that he kept his eyes closed most of the time and couldn’t put two words together. He didn’t respond, so I put my hand on his arm and asked again, ‘Dad, if you were a bird, what would your song be?’”

Just when she was about to give up, Barbara was shocked when her father answered her question by sitting up straight and singing the first line from an old hymn, “Bless This House.”

Often while she is practicing or performing, Barbara’s thoughts drift to her father and their shared love of music. “Even though he was very ill, music continued to touch his soul,” she said. “Music is that powerful.”

Kirsty Green grew up in Switzerland and fell in love with the violin at age six. The moment her mother purchased a violin for her, Kirsty ached to touch it. Left alone in the car for a few minutes while her mother ran an errand, she gazed longingly at the shiny new instrument case on the seat next to her.

“I couldn’t stand not being able to touch it,” Kirsty said, laughing. “I opened the case, pulled out the rosin, and rubbed a little bit on the strings. I was scared to death my mother would come back and catch me, so I quickly tucked everything back into the case.”

Kirsty’s first violin teacher, Judith Berenson, inspired her to teach. “Judy was so beautiful and glamorous,” Kirsty explained “She was everything I wanted to be. Teaching was my first love, and my desire to play in an orchestra came later.”

Prior to joining the VSO in 1996, Kirsty freelanced and also ran her own studio. She can still recall the stress and anxiety that accompanied her audition for the orchestra. “When you audition you have two minutes to prove your entire life’s work,” she said. “You have to immaculately play a piece you haven’t seen before in unfamiliar acoustics. It takes a great deal of confidence, and it’s an incredibly stressful experience.”

In 2005 Kirsty gave birth to her son, Jake. She performed with the orchestra throughout her pregnancy. Playing with an ever-expanding belly wasn’t always easy, but the baby seemed to enjoy music just as much as his mother. “During my pregnancy there were certain pieces he really seemed to like that would make him wake up and kick as if he were dancing to the music,” Kirsty said with a laugh.                 

Balancing a career and family isn’t always easy, but Kirsty and her husband, John, make it work. “It’s important to me that my son is exposed to the artistry of music,” Kirsty said. “He sees me practicing, and he knows the level of focus and commitment my job requires. Jake knows being part of an orchestra is not something everyone gets to do.”

In addition to performing with the VSO, Kirsty also teaches at Virginia Wesleyan College, as well as her own studio. Her first piece of advice for students is to be advocates for classical music.

“We need to make sure there will continue to be orchestras,” she said. “Students need to understand the role of philanthropy and sponsorship and have a handle on the administrative aspect. They also need to learn how to draw people in and keep them coming back to concerts.”

Kirsty feels the trend toward a more wholesome, organic way of life is beneficial for the future of classical music. “An orchestra performance is all-encompassing,” she said. “It is a mental as well as a physical experience. There is something about the vibrations of live music going through your body, and there is nothing like being swept away by the music.”

Many of the performances the VSO puts on each year are educational programs for young students, and Kirsty enjoys giving them their first taste of classical music. “Many children are resistant,” she said. “They aren’t looking at the musicians but are talking with their friends instead. It’s a tough crowd, but inevitably there is a piece that wakes them up. I see them moving to the music and smiling, and I know we have made a connection.”

Kirsty is grateful for the gift of music and strives to pass that gift on to others. “If you love music with every fiber of your being,” she said, “it’s an amazing way to make a living.” 

JoAnn Falletta is beginning her 25th year as conductor of the VSO. Her career has spanned continents, and she has made history as one of only a handful of female conductors in the world. Her impressive resumé includes guest conducting for orchestras in Europe, Asia, and Africa, just to name a few; serving on the National Council of the Arts following an appointment by President George W. Bush; and being named one of the “Virginia Women in History” by the Library of Virginia in 2013. She also won two Grammy awards and has been nominated for several others. She is proud of her many accomplishments, but nothing compares to her passion for music.

“I have been consumed by music since I was a little girl,” JoAnn said. “I received a classical guitar for my seventh birthday, and my parents knew how much I loved to play it so they took me to an orchestra concert. When I saw that extraordinary, larger-than-life instrument, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.”

JoAnn’s soft, melodious voice, coming over the phone from Buffalo, New York, where she conducts the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra part of the year, retains the excitement of a young woman who knew no bounds. “When I entered the conservatory at 18, there were no female orchestra conductors,” she said. “The faculty thought it was unusual for a woman to want to conduct, and they were skeptical that I would ever have an active career, but they were willing to let me try and were very supportive. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to study conducting.”

Despite being a rarity as a female in the conducting world, JoAnn never thought of herself as a trailblazer. “I was so passionate, so in love with the music,” she said. “I knew it was what I wanted to do, what I had to do. I didn’t look for prejudice, but it was always under the surface. The men who ran companies and supported orchestras weren’t completely comfortable with a woman at the podium, and perceptions were slow to change.”

JoAnn seeks to connect people directly to the music and often speaks with audience members before concerts. “I ask them to remember how they feel when they sit down for the concert at 8 p.m. and then compare that to how they feel when they leave a few hours later,” she said. “Our bodies are hardwired to receive music, and being in the middle of all that sound has a physical as well as a mental and spiritual impact.”

Music education is an important part of JoAnn’s life, and she is active with educational initiatives that work with and encourage young musicians. During a session with the Bay Youth Orchestra in Norfolk, she asked high school students why they thought a screen is used during orchestra auditions, but none of the students could think of a reason why that would be. “I was so happy none of them were thinking about gender and why that would even matter during auditions,” she said. “When I told them part of the reason was to prevent gender discrimination, they said that didn’t make sense to them. If that idea isn’t even in their realm of consciousness, then we are truly accomplishing something.”

JoAnn wants the VSO to do great things for the local community. “Music has given me the most deeply satisfying life and career I could ever imagine,” she said. “I want our orchestra to continue to provide an environment where musicians can flourish, where audiences can experience new works, and where music can change lives.”

Jamie McAllister is a freelance writer in Virginia Beach. She writes for businesses, nonprofits, and publications. For more information, visit

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