Cassie Lee

Cassandra Lee

Assistant Principal Clarinet

Hometown: Knoxville, Tennessee
Member of the Nashville Symphony since 1979
How did you start playing music?
I started in the fifth grade, and I picked the clarinet because my older brother played it. He was in the eighth grade at the time, so I had picked up his instrument and taught myself some songs. I went to the first day of band class, and the band director said, “You need to play the flute because you’re too small to play the clarinet.” I said, “I’m playing the clarinet.”
What led you to become a professional musician?
I started studying privately in the sixth grade at the local music store. My teacher was a left-handed violinist and a jazz trumpeter, and I studied with him for three years before going on to study with a teacher from the University of Tennessee. Music was what I did best in high school, so I decided I’d play the clarinet and see what happens. I went into music education in college, and I became a band director for two years in order to earn the money to go to graduate school in clarinet performance. So I did that, and then I auditioned for the Nashville Symphony.
What was the Nashville Symphony like when you started?
I remember what my salary was that first year: $3,800. Anything $5,000 or below was considered poverty level for a single person, but it didn’t bother me because I was so happy to have a job. It was a nighttime orchestra, so the musicians had to have other jobs. I worked at the mall serving frozen yogurt and taught private lessons. There was a horn player who worked in a bank, and there were people who worked bagging groceries.
My first year was the orchestra’s last season at War Memorial, and then we moved to TPAC. Things began to get a little better when Kenneth Schermerhorn came, and they continued to evolve…and here we are!
You’re retiring at the end of this season. When you look back over your experience with the orchestra, what are you proudest of?
I’m proud of the fact that I got to sign my name on the last beam that went on the roof of this building. I hope that 100 years from now, some of my relatives will go up there and see it. I was proud to go to Carnegie Hall, especially the first time — that was really something special, and it was so important to Kenneth. That will be a memory with me forever.
I had been performing with the orchestra for two years when the clarinet position at Blair School of Music came open. I’m still there 36 years later. So I’m proud of the fact that I managed to do what I wanted to do in life, although it was a little bit turned around: I had always wanted the university job first, and then maybe a little orchestra playing second. I’ve made a career of it, so I guess that’s pretty good!
Do you have any favorite pieces you’ve performed?
The E-flat clarinet parts in Symphonie Fantastique and Boléro. The E-flat clarinet is similar to the piccolo in range, so if there’s a part written for it, you’re going to be heard! But I don’t think of myself as a soloist; I like being part of a group, and I pride myself on being a good second player to whoever’s playing principal clarinet.
What would you want people in the audience to know about being a musician?
Years ago, when I was teaching at Blair School of Music, a woman called me because she wanted me to teach her daughter. After we were all set, she said, “I have to tell you, I’m so relieved, because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to talk to you. You’re so important!” And I just thought, “What?!?!” People don’t understand that we’re just regular, normal people.
Why does classical music matter?
Because it can evoke every emotion that you can have as a human being. It’s the only musical genre that can do that, and if we lose it, we lose great things. Classical music enters every facet of our lives, whether we know it or not. If you go to a movie, and you’re just looking at a picture without any music, it doesn’t evoke any emotion. When you put the music to it, you’re going to laugh, or cry, or be terrified. Music is essential to everything.