In this ongoing series, Leesburg Today gets up close and personal with several of the 65 members of the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra. In our second installment, Venezuelan-born violinist Maryory Serrano let us in on her secrets to musical success.
Leesburg Today: Talk a bit about your background and training.
Maryory Serrano: I’m from Venezuela—I started taking private piano lessons at four years old. When I was seven, my parents thought it would be a good idea…to take me to violin lessons. I remember my dad arriving with my little tiny violin case and me looking out the window like, is that my violin? [laughs] It was really nice.
So that’s how I started when I was 7 years old...in my hometown, which is Maracay, in the north central area of Venezuela. I moved here March 5, 2001. I came [to the United States] before in Florida and California, but 2001 was my first time in Virginia. Now I live in Winchester—I went to Shenandoah University.
LT: When did you know you wanted to stick with the violin for the long term?
MS: Funny enough, when I started to play the violin and go to the music school [that’s when] I realized there were other instruments. Maybe I thought the violin and piano were the only instruments in the world, even though my parents took me to concerts.
But I think I just liked it. I liked the violin. I had a great teacher—my first teacher was amazing and we still keep in touch. I remember my reward for giving her a good lesson was to take me to eat an ice cream. She’d say let’s get two, one for you, one for me! So that was a good motivation, but I actually liked playing the violin a lot and I had no intention of switching to another instrument
LT: Were your parents musicians?
MS: My parents were not musicians, but my aunts used to sing. My grandfather played the violin—he lived in the Andes, in the area in the west of Venezuela, so he was an Andean violinist. He [also] played the mandolin and other instruments. I never saw him play so maybe that’s why I didn’t know…
LT: Talk about teaching—why you do it, why it’s important and how it fits into your life as a full-time musician.
MS: Actually [teaching] was kind of a necessity. I have never taught before, but I started to teach when I came [to the United States]. In Venezuela I just played in orchestras. I got my first job when I was 16 years old. [In Venezuela] we usually finish high school at age 15 or 16, and I auditioned for the orchestra of the State of Aragua—which is the state of my city—and I got in when I was 16 years old. I used to play chamber music too, but I didn’t need to teach at the time.
When I came here I had to start [teaching] and I actually liked it. I teach children who are eight years old, or starting from that age better, maybe because I don’t have children yet, so I don’t know how to teach little tiny children. And you need more energy for that and more education. And I also enjoy teaching adults.
…I don’t remember exactly which method I learned with in Venezuela…we started with scales, how to hold the violin, and [students] are introduced to the orchestra right away. That’s why [El] Sistema—which is now a famous [music education system] in Venezuela—works out really well because once you [begin learning to play] the violin, after a year they put you in an orchestra and you start to play. So even if you’re only playing whole notes, or whatever notes, you’re still playing in an orchestra, so it inspires you to actually practice more.
LT: What was it like being so young and being surrounded and supported by older professional musicians?
MS: It was different—I remember they used to combine the youth orchestra with the symphony orchestra for some concerts. We loved traveling to other towns and playing for different events. With the symphony orchestra that was actually really cool. We’d [also] play at churches—I had a really great experience learning with my musical studies.
I have some friends form Mexico who kind of teach [music] that way—it’s the way we learn in Latin America. You travel, you go to other places—it’s fun to be in a school bus and go to another place to have a concert.
Sometimes it was like, oh well I have a concert every week…that’s pressure, and that’s actually when you realize that’s what you have to do. You learn to deal with that pressure [of performance].
LT: What’s your position with the Loudoun Symphony Orchestra like?
MS: I’m Principal Second [violin], so in some ways I have to help, not to teach, but to help my section. Most of the members on the strings are amateur, so they took violin a long time ago and they want to keep playing the instrument. So when they have a question about how to play a passage or how to play certain things, I tell them how to do that.
[At Catholic University] I’m the concertmaster and we have to do what we call sectionals. I get all the violins and the violas together and we’ll work one piece. I have to check that we are all doing the same bowing, the same fingering and we are all playing together. It’s sort of like teaching in certain way…it’s training them to play together as an ensemble.
And that’s something of a skill. [If those musicians go on to play] in other orchestras, they’ll know how to react with other conductor and other ensembles. With Loudoun [Symphony Orchestra] we only have one conductor, which is Mark [Allen McCoy], but sometimes we get an assistant when Mark has to travel, so it’s good to learn how to react to a different conductor.
LT: Talk about the difference between the concertmaster position and that of Principal Second Violin at LSO.
MS: Concertmaster is the role usually right after the conductor. If there is a problem, the first person you contact is the concertmaster regarding bowings, articulation, anything. Well, the first person actually should be your section leader, if the section leader doesn’t know the answer you ask the concertmaster, if he doesn’t know you ask the conductor.
I was concertmaster at Shenandoah University and somebody [once] asked me what is the role of the concertmaster, and I said, well, if the conductor is doing his job and suddenly he has a heart attack, it’s the concertmaster who leads! You have to keep playing until the end and the concertmaster is now in charge! [laughs]
LT: You play in both large symphonies and smaller chamber groups—talk about the pros and cons of both.
MS: With chamber music the only difficulty is to find a group of people that you click with. That’s the hardest part. Some people are your best friends and when you play it’s a different thing—you end up killing each other.
Playing chamber music is like a family, so there needs to be a really good relationship. You should be able to fight, insult each other, to dislike things and then at the end you go out and have lunch! It should be like that.
With the symphony I take it differently. I like music and I enjoy my job whatever I do…I kind of like chamber music more, but I also enjoy the symphonic repertoire…
LT: What do you feel are the most important elements of performance?
MS: It depends. If you’re a soloist it’s how you perform [the music]—what’s your personal touch…Chamber music could also be like that, since there are four or five people who share ideas, it’s a chemistry. It’s like, five or six people or four or three or even two create this one person, and that’s the personality of the performance.
In an orchestra, it depends on the conductor. However, now conductors really ask for more passionate ways to play and give everything. You have to play passionately but at the same time be in control.
LT: Do you enjoy working under Maestro McCoy?
MS: I like the way he conducts. He kind of dances on the podium, and he makes you dance too, so that’s really, really nice. It’s also up to the [section] leader to move with him…then the rest of the section kind of feels that vibe too.
Something I like to do is kind of move [to the rhythm] and at the same time turn and check what [the other violinists are] doing. Because if they are just sitting and playing I’ll kind of [gestures] get into it, dance with me, let’s dance together—they make fun of it! But it actually helps us to keep together.
And Mark is actually really good at showing what he wants. He’ll stop the orchestra and say sing, sing, play louder, dance, enjoy the moment!
But I think people are not used to that. It’s not that easy to actually [physically] show that [performance. Some musicians] are a little bit shy, but sometimes there’s a good vibe and that’s when the music gets really good. Then the entire orchestra becomes one person reaching out to the audience. We’re working to reach the audience and [create] this like, “wow,” this amazing [music] monster! [laughs]
LT: Do you listen to recordings of pieces you’re about to perform? And talk a bit about how you learn a new piece of music.
MS: I like to listen to the recording so I have a feeling of how to put [the music] together. Sometimes in the orchestra there is a section where you are playing with another instrument… so I like to be aware of those details and when to listen to who has the melody.
I get my [new] music, then I practice on their tempo and I mark the sections that are difficult, because sometimes there is not time to practice 15 pages. [Within] those 15 pages, there are maybe seven or eight sections that are the most difficult. I mark them and those are the ones I review the most.
During the rehearsals, if I feel that section gets easier, I erase the mark and I don’t need to look at it. But I usually leave it just in case—you never know, I could add even more marks. That’s the good thing about listening to the piece—you don’t know exactly what’s the tempo, how it goes, the counting…
And I practice a lot with a metronome when there are sections that have to be really steady. There are sections that are more rhythmical—those are the ones I practice a lot with the metronome, because everyone has a different pulse, internal pulse.
LT: What are the hardest pieces of music to play?
MS: Usually the second violin part is easier than the first violin…but when we have something an octave higher, that’s when you’re like, oh no! Because you’re used to the easier positions and then suddenly you have something really high to play, you have to pause and look at this.
Or when we are in unison, playing 16th notes, faster music or ones with a lot of sharps and flats—those are the ones where you have to be really aware.
Brahms is really hard, especially the first violin [parts]. There’s lots of jumping around all over the violin—that’s really challenging because you need to know where to land when you change your positions.
LT: What are easier pieces of music to play?
MS: The easiest movements are usually the second movements, the slow movements of the symphony—also it is easy to play music [that serves as accompaniment to] a soloist, however, there are some repertoire [pieces] that are tricky. Besides paying attention to your own music and to the conductor, then there is a soloist, so that is an extra element we have to be aware of.
There is some repertoire that is really easy, like [Samuel] Barber’s Adagio [for Strings]. It is easy it doesn’t have that many notes, but the counting can be really tricky.
So, I guess there is no easy music! [laughs] There could be some easy music, but if you relax too much you can miss the tempo or something and then, poof, you get lost.
LT: What is some essential repertoire for any professional violinist?
MS: Usually [Johann] Strauss…Mozart, which is really hard…Beethoven. [For auditions they] usually ask for intonation and style that has to be really clean and relaxed.
Then there is Brahms also for intonation and also [to demonstrate] the different positions you have to play, and vibrato.
Little things like vibrato or intonation can [jeopardize] your job in the orchestra. Some violinists feel that because they are on the last section [chair] of the second violin that they are actually bad players, but nowadays it is really lucky to have that last chair. Everything now is through an audition process, so sometimes there is only one chair available. And you have 200 people to fight for it.
Even in Loudoun Symphony we welcome players—amateur, professional or semi-professional—but there are not that many chairs available. Sometimes out of four or five people that audition we can only accept two. So people need to feel lucky that even if they are the last chair of the section, that doesn’t mean they are the worst of the violins, it actually means you are really good and you got the job.
I’m also [Loudoun Symphony’s] personnel manager, so I have to sit in on auditions. With Loudoun Symphony it’s really fun actually…We try to give an opportunity to the player unless we feel that a person needs an extra year to retake the instrument.
LT: Who are some of your favorite composers?
MS: There are so many—that’s the hardest question! Well obviously Beethoven. I like the romantic composers like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff—those are kind of my favorite ones.
LT: What’s in your car stereo/iPod right now?
MS: I don’t have an iPod, but I have a lot of CDs. [laughs] Should I say Latin American music? [laughs] I have to get my roots!
But most of the time, I put on the classical radio station, classical music, because sometimes I feel I just have to relax. Musicians have to drive a lot in this area, so if I have to be awake, I have to put the music that I like so I am awake, but sometimes if I find a good symphony on the radio, that can keep me awake. I feel I could be like the conductor when I drive. That can keep me awake! [laughs]