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Secrets of an artist’s life: prof/violinist on the benefits, the drawbacks, the mission

Secrets of an artist’s life: prof/violinist on the benefits, the drawbacks, the mission

By Dave Struett
Managing Editor

The life of a young, professional musician is not an easy one, according to adjunct professor and professional violinist Rachel Brown. 

She knows this from experience.

The hard part is finding enough time in the day, said Brown, who stays busy teaching, performing, and traveling between the two.

But she would not trade it for anything else.

“This is a lifestyle I really love,” Brown said. “I love that I have to juggle all these things because it gives me a well-rounded life in music.”

The balancing act of teaching and performing is logistically impressive (she often travels to Rockford and South Bend, Indiana for concerts), but it is the array of caps she wears that gives her a unique perspective--and a mission.

Brown said her “life mission” is to show that music is a gateway to a higher power. People can find deeper emotional truths by intensifying their focus on the music.

“I think there are transcendent truths in art music,” she said. “There is something that elevates us as humans. There’s some record of the past that we can’t recreate verbally or visually.”

Getting her students to discover those truths is “a tough nut to crack,” Brown said. “And I don’t shy away from the challenge that it presents.”

Brown is a co-creator of a chamber music group, the Ursa Ensemble. The group helps laymen listeners increase their focus on classical music by using collaborating artists from different art forms.

Sometimes a painter, other times a poet, guides the audience in making art while the chamber group plays.

“That gives them, without understanding the theory behind the music, a way to relate in their own way,” Brown said.

The goal is to get people to focus. “One of the challenges of the 21st century is standing still,” she said.

Getting deep into the music is really what it’s all about, according to Brown. Condensed versions of Beethoven won’t do.

We can get there either through training, like Brown and other musicians have, or through the innovative methods of her ensemble, she said.

At Harold Washington, Brown was surprised to teach more than just violin. She has taught music history, intro to music, global music, humanities, and group piano. 

“It’s constantly informing how I play,” she said. “I feel so lucky that I get to stay engaged in those things.”

Born in Minneapolis, Brown moved to Connecticut and then St. Louis before studying music at DePaul. She settled in Chicago for its classical music opportunities.

Brown performs for symphonies in Fort Wayne, Rockford, and South Bend, Indiana, where she often travels to practice. Sometimes she has to stay overnight in housing provided by the orchestra society—often in guest rooms of their personal homes.

“It’s really fun. You get to meet actual humans that want to listen to your concerts,” Brown said. “I don’t know many people in South Bend who are not in the orchestra, so it’s nice to know someone there I can connect with.”

Working full time at an orchestra was a letdown because of the quick pace, she said—only getting a week to learn and then perform the music.

“It’s a little too fast for me to get into the music,” Brown said, who considers herself a “brooding” artist. 

“I really like to sink into the music I’m playing,” she said. “Filling in the gaps with teaching and chamber music helped fulfill that need.”

But the multitasking presents its own challenges. With time commitments of several part-time, benefit-less jobs, she struggles to get by.

“I don’t think I can maintain as much balance in my life as I think would be healthy,” she said. “It’s frustrating because I do this much work and I still don’t have healthcare provided by my employer.”

And then there is the instability of each part-time job to worry about.

Brown thinks about things like, “‘Will this orchestra fold?’ Or will I be offered courses next semester?” she said. “That is hard if you’re planning for house buying, or family rearing, or dog adopting.”

In the future, Brown wants to see her chamber group expand. She also wants to record and publish a record.

She would also like to write a book about her discoveries while teaching and performing in a range of concerts.

“I’d like to keep doing what I’m doing but more famously, if that’s a thing I’m allowed to say.”

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