After a year almost entirely away from the violin, I began to find that I’d missed playing. I decided to apply to graduate schools, and to only apply to schools where I could have a woman teacher. A friend was living in Minneapolis at the time, and raved to me about the Minnesota Orchestra’s concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis. He even sent me a bootleg recording of her premiere of John Adams’ Violin Concerto, which she’d helped the composer craft. She was only teaching some extra classes at the university at that point, but I applied to the school and got in.
Jorja is a force. The first time she entered the room to lead a rehearsal, it felt like a blast of wind rushed through the place, waking us all up. She got us up out of our chairs and moving. She shouted with delight and frustration, and came up with amazing imaginative metaphors to push our creativity (“as light as one nostril hair of a butterfly” remains my favorite). She empowered the students by laying responsibility for our growth squarely on our own shoulders. She challenged us to go out and voraciously acquire knowledge. She was willing to share her own with us, but we all strongly felt how much it mattered that we chase and grab every bit of learning we could. She challenged me to go out and do something about my weaknesses, instead of sitting back and feeling sorry for myself, and to take charge of plugging the holes in my education. This was a total revelation to me. Up until then I’d been a passive learner, full of longing, but not equipped to take action. The teacher-student relationship had been about waiting on someone else, depending on the teacher’s whims and willingness to share. But now, suddenly and terrifyingly, the creation of a self and a future was placed back into my own hands. She didn’t coddle us or tell us it was going to be easy – the opposite, in fact. She informed us about just how much work our hopes and dreams were going to take, and insisted that if we meant business, we’d better get off our asses and pour every bit of energy we had into making ourselves who we wanted to be.
There was this energy that she possessed when she walked into a room, yes. But there was also her actual violin playing, which was supple, gorgeous, strident, outrageous – whatever the story the music was telling required. It’s one thing to have a skill or an artistic idea described to you; it’s another, completely captivating and compelling thing to have a sound like that poured into your ears. It was electrifying, and it opened up new realms of possibility, every bit as much as her admonishing us to take our lives into our own hands.
I remember going to see her lead the orchestra from the concertmaster position. I don’t know if I had any sense yet then that I wanted to do what she was doing. I just felt a fire ignite in me when I saw her unwavering competence and strength. I had never seen a woman model leadership in this way, and it changed my life. I could see that the orchestra was glad to have someone in that position who could vividly show them information they needed to process – it made their jobs easier. They were able to unite together and play as one organism because of the power being in the right place. The men I’d seen in that concertmaster role in the past had certainly been great musicians, but it seemed like there was an inclusivity and humanity in the way she held her power. She was constantly scooping up the musicians around her and pulling them up to her level. To see a human being imbue others with her strength and passion this way was eye opening, and the resulting music was fantastic.
Jorja and her husband invited a horde of violinists to their home every Thanksgiving, and we shared the most delicious feasts. They also hosted us at infamous “Dead Violinists” gatherings, where they would play us old, obscure recordings of violinists we’d never heard of, and tell us about their lives and their contributions to the art form we were all striving to master. We learned we were all part of a long lineage of fellow seekers and creators, and pride and humility stirred in us.
During a group class with Jorja, when we were learning to play the great concertmaster solos of the orchestral repertoire, I’d been assigned to play the solo from “Erbarme dich”, the great aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I gave a perfunctory performance of the solo, and then Jorja talked to me about the
meaning of the text. In this piece, the apostle Peter is weeping out his misery after having denied knowing Jesus as he was being crucified. His utter shame and broken heartedness are heard in his begging desperately and openly for mercy. Jorja cracked open the shell around this music by inviting me to take part in Peter’s vulnerability, and finally I felt it – I felt his agony pouring out of me, instead of just working to solve a series of technical problems in playing the violin. When she could see I had finally woken up, she had me play the solo again. I remember being transported during it; it was my agony now, my desperate sadness that I was crying out through the violin. And it was such a relief to declare it aloud for anyone to hear. I felt overcome, and also saved through the expression of it all. When I finished, Jorja looked me straight in the eyes and said “Yes.” I knew I had created something special, reached a new place in myself, and shared it, and I knew I could do it again, thanks to her uncompromising and demanding love.