Laura Ross
Second Violin

Hometown: Royal Oak, MI
Joined the Nashville Symphony in 1984

How did you end up becoming a violinist?
When I first started the violin, the Suzuki program had not yet come to the United States, but Carl Picklo, the string teacher in my school, was interested in seeing what it would be like to start a student on the instrument before fourth grade, which was when everyone traditionally started learning how to play string instruments in school programs. He approached the school music teacher to see if there were any promising students, and she suggested me. He asked my mom, who then asked me if I wanted to learn to play the violin, and I said, “Sure, it sounds like fun!” I was 7 years old, so what did I know!

Two years later, Mr. Picklo said he had taught me as much as he could and I needed a new teacher who could take me to the next level. He recommended Emily Mutter Austin, who was the first woman to join the Detroit Symphony, and she was my teacher for the next seven years.

When I was in seventh grade I began spending summers attending Interlochen National Music Camp in Michigan, and it was that first summer that I decided I wanted to be a professional symphony violinist. A few summers later, when I was in high school, I also remember hearing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony for the first time and fell in love with the French horn, but I’d already been playing the violin for so long that it was pointless to change instruments. And besides, I was doing pretty well with the violin! 

How do you feel right before you’re about to perform a concert?
It really depends on the day and the type of concert. I say that because I’m the orchestra’s union steward, which means there may be issues that are specific to the type of concert, or if a last-minute situation arises. If it’s a pops concert, I’m usually more focused on what the decibel level will be; if we’re outside, I’m watching the temperature and wind. I’ve been in the orchestra for 33 years — and playing the violin for 50 years — so there really aren’t many surprises for me anymore. There are times, of course, like when we’re playing Mozart or Haydn, when we all may be a little more on edge in our section because our parts are so exposed. If you hold a note over or miss something, everyone is going to hear it, so in those cases the nerves are a bit more on edge. 

What’s been the highlight of your time performing with the Nashville Symphony?
Playing Der Rosenkavalier with Kenneth Schermerhorn was really special. He didn’t usually conduct for Nashville Opera, and that’s always been one of my favorite operas. The orchestra has only toured a few times, but those stand out as well — certainly, the East Coast tour and playing Carnegie Hall, and the tours with Amy Grant. This really is a family in many ways because we are together in a different way than other jobs, and there can be great camaraderie on tour. When you’re sleeping on buses together, hanging out backstage and things like that, it’s a really nice chance to get to know your colleagues in a different way.

What makes the Nashville Symphony unique?
We have so many orchestra musicians who have done session work here, so we have the ability to play classical music one night and pop music the next, both with equal excellence. Time after time, an artist will walk in here and be blown away by our orchestra. We receive so many glowing compliments about how fun it is to work with us, and when an artist like Sheryl Crow says she wants to take the Nashville Symphony out on the road, I believe it! Plus, we already have “road chops”!

Why does classical music matter?
For more than 20 years, we’ve had to face some really challenging times. September 11 comes to mind, as well as other times of crisis or great sadness, and it seems to me that those are the times when classical music can do something for the soul that nothing else really can. People find solace in music, and I’ve seen it demonstrated all around the world when horrific things occur.

Are you involved with other ensembles outside of the orchestra?
I play in Music City Baroque, and I have also been singing in the St. George’s Episcopal Church Choir for more than 30 years. 

Have you always been a singer? How does that fit with playing the violin?
I grew up in the Episcopal Church, where music is VERY important, so I was singing hymns and church music from my very earliest days. I started singing in a choir around the third grade, a few months after I began studying the violin. I’ve always felt that singing and playing the violin are complementary — they’re both linear, with a lot of common phrasing, so they work hand in hand, really. 

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not rehearsing or performing?
I don’t really have much free time! In addition to playing in the orchestra, I am the secretary of ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Orchestra Musicians), which represents the top 52 orchestras in the US and Puerto Rico, and I’ve been the Nashville Symphony’s union steward for 25 years and serve on a number of committees in the orchestra; plus, I’ve negotiated every Nashville Symphony contract since 1990. I’m also a union trustee for the American Federation of Musicians and Employers Pension Fund, and I serve on the national negotiating team that deals with all AFM recording contracts that U.S. orchestras use.

I have a passion for photography. Color and shape really attract me, so I like to shoot architecture and flowers, but scenery as well. When my mom and I traveled to China, I took over 5,000 pictures on that trip!

What part of town do you live in?
I’ve lived in East Nashville for more than 25 years. The first few years I was in Nashville, I lived out by the airport and then in Hermitage. I moved to East Nashville and had two former Nashville Symphony colleagues as my landlords for six years before I bought my house. I will say, East Nashville changed a lot after the tornado in 1998. A lot of thought was put into how to fix things up, and that’s when neighborhood restaurants and the like started appearing. 

What music do you listen to in your free time?
I actually listen to a lot of movie scores. I love John Williams, as well as John Barry and Randy Newman. It’s really great music.

I also like Phil Collins and Sting. I always thought it would be so cool if we could work with Sting…especially after he recorded his Symphonicities album a few years ago. He’s an artist who really recognizes and respects the importance of good charts because they were first performed (and written for) the Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra.

Do you own anything that you consider a “prized possession”?
No question about it, it’s my violin. When you join an orchestra, many times you have to make a significant investment to upgrade your instrument(s). I got it the first year I was in the orchestra, during the strike, and I’ve played it ever since. When I moved to Nashville, my dad’s sister Ann had cancer and died in January 1985, but before she died, she told my grandma that she wanted to give me the money to buy a good violin. A couple months after she died, I was in Detroit playing the opera during the Nashville Symphony musicians’ strike, so I drove to a violin shop in Grand Rapids to try some violins. I asked a friend I’d known for years from youth orchestra, and who had also studied with my teacher, to come with me. I gave them a price range of instruments to show me, but they hid the prices so that wouldn’t influence my decision; as soon as I started playing my violin, I knew it was the one. It reminded me of a violin my teacher Mrs. Austin had loaned me when I was in high school and playing concertos with a couple of orchestras.

I’m not a big person, but it was a perfect fit, and I found my voice 33 years ago. Quite honestly, I could not have afforded to buy the violin if my aunt hadn’t made such an incredibly generous commitment; she knew how important it was to have a really good violin for a professional career.

What career do you think you'd have if you weren't a professional musician?
I do a lot of writing, so I think maybe a writer. I love books and even worked in a bookstore when I moved to Nashville. My favorite is historical fiction — I read a lot about the Tudor period and the Plantagenets.