When people really believe in what they’re playing and in the art they’re making, it really comes across to an audience. As an audience member myself, when I hear performances from people who are really engaged in their art with every fibre of their being, it really has an impact on me as a human being.

Classical Music Outside the Box PosterBack in late February (2013), we featured a Q & A with Carol Gimbel, founder and artistic director of classical music ensemble Music in the Barns. For this Q & A, Margaret had the privilege to speak with violinist and music teacher Mary-Elizabeth Brown, who described the amazing synergy that led her to become part of the ensemble. Read about her thoughts on why they’ve been able to attract all kinds of audiences to their concerts.

And be sure to check back here for a chance to win tickets to see Mary perform in “Classical Music Outside the Box,” a Music in the Barns’ concert that takes place a week from today on August 1!

Can you tell us a bit about the roles you have played in the performing arts? Is it what you set out to achieve when you started your career, or did it change along the way?

I am currently the concertmaster of Sinfonia Toronto. I am the Music Director at Lake Field Music, and am the associate concertmaster of Orchestra London. I’m also founder of Strings Around the World which is an online music school that delivers quality music lessons via Skype. It’s a busy life going in all different directions!

I realized when I was 13 or 14 that my violin was more my voice than anything else, and once you hit that point, you don’t ever really go back. In the last year of my graduate studies in Montreal, I happened to win my current position at Orchestra London. It was my first audition, and it happened right in my hometown. That year I was also appointed concertmaster of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas and of the Britten-Pears Orchestra at the Aldeburgh festival. All of a sudden I was playing concertmaster all the time and playing lots of concerts.

I thought I would be a classroom music teacher when I first went to school. Performing is a really competitive business. I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted when I was a teenager, but I started teaching early, and I knew then that it would always be a part of my life. I still teach, and I am committed to a career where I perform and teach equally.

I am incredibly lucky and grateful to have been in the right places at the right times. I never thought it would go quite as well as it did. It was a nice and easy transition into my career.

Profile picture: Violinist Mary-Elizabeth Brown

Mary-Elizabeth Brown, violinist and member of the Music in the Barns Ensemble

How did Strings Around the World get started?

I spent a brief period living in the Persian Gulf. I realized talking to expatriates there that it was just incredibly difficult to get access to good English-based music instruction. So I gave it a try, and it worked out really well. Now I have students all over the world. I started just a year ago, but it has grown steadily. And I’m so lucky to be able to teach so many wonderful people who might not otherwise have access to a violin teacher.

How did you come to be a part of Music in the Barns? What kind of reception has the group received?

Carol and I had crossed paths before, but we really officially played chamber music together last summer. I had been living in New York City until last fall, and we played in Georgetown together, connecting over our New York experiences.

If you’re a musician, you know that there are just times in a musician’s life where you experience an amazing synergy between two artists. We sat down to play Brahms’ piano quintet, and it was like, “Wow, this is really great!” So she called and asked if I would like to come do this [Music in the Barns], and when I moved back to Toronto from New York, it was a good fit, as I happened to live in the neighbourhood.

We have had warm and enthusiastic reception and received great praise. People talk a lot about Music in the Barns as being innovative — it’s 100% Carol. She is so great at curating well-themed and accessible concerts that put music that might not otherwise be mainstream in the mainstream.

Two violinists from Music in the Barns playing

Tell us more about Music in the Barns’ upcoming concert, “Classical Music Outside The Box.” What kind of audience is this concert geared towards?

We’re creating an experience that is accessible because of the programming, the venue, and the human experience.

If you listen to any of the music on the program, such as Philip Glass, the music we play has very accessible tonal languages; they’re something you might want to listen to at home or in the car. Just because it’s written in the 20 century doesn’t mean it’s scary.

The venue also makes it accessible. Sitting in the barn, and that barn in particular, is a wonderful experience. When you take music out of the music hall and put it into a space like that, you lose some of your inhibitions and see it in a different light. So it’s not just snooty art music. I think we become more open to it.

The energy and the connection between the performers comes through. When people really believe in what they’re playing and in the art they’re making, it really comes across to an audience. As an audience member myself, when I hear performances from people who are really engaged in their art with every fibre of their being, it really has an impact on me as a human being.

There really isn’t a niche audience for Music in the Barns. I will never forget playing George Crumb’s Black Angels with toddlers in the front row. People bring kids; people in the neighbourhood come, musicians come, everybody comes, and they all have a great time. I think the amazing energy that Carol puts into it and the fact that it all happens in an atmosphere that is accessible and welcoming have a lot to do with it. You don’t have to dress up to come; you just come as you are. It’s great music. Have a glass of wine; sit down and enjoy it. It really puts classical music into a different milieu.

What do you see as the main challenges for classical music performers today? Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a performing artist?

Finding and keeping your voice in a noisy world. What I mean is that, especially in this digital age, we hear so much great music around us that sometimes it’s hard to say what I want to sound like. There are hundreds of amazing violinists on YouTube that you can listen to. To be able to take all of that in and come back and say, “Yes, but this is who I am, and this is what I want to say,” and having the courage to do that can sometimes be tough.

In so many ways, we can say things with music that we can never say with words, but it takes the courage to sit down and say, “This is what I want to say, and I want to say it in this voice, and this is how I sound like.” We work so hard to fit into a box doing auditions and being part of a team as orchestra players, which — don’t get me wrong — is a big part of my career that I love and find incredibly fulfilling. But amidst all of that, you have to come back always to that voice that is yours and know who you are as an artist.

Work-life balance is also tough. Musicians work strange hours, especially if you’re freelancing, and there can be a lot of work here and there and not so much at other times. I spend a lot of time on the road and away from my family myself, so finding a balance is important.

What words of advice would you give to emerging performing artists who are classical musicians?

I want to pass on words of advice given to me by a very dear friend: “As musicians, we are crafts people. Work on your craft, and the rest will come.”