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Alumni Spotlight: Annabelle Gardiner ’89, Grace Gavin ’79, and Kathy Thomas ’88

Whether in the Fine Arts Building or in Orlando, Florida, the CYSO community has a way of finding each other. Orlando-based alum Kathy (Tait) Thomas, ’88 reached out to us after seeing a photo of her and her Orlando Philharmonic colleague Annabelle (Jimenez) Gardiner, ’89, featured in our 75th Anniversary Instagram post. As it turned out, in addition to both being featured in the anniversary season image, Kathy and Annabelle also play in the Orlando Phil with a third CYSO alum, Grace (Bahng) Gavin, ’79. With such a coincidence and wealth of CYSO talent in one orchestra, it was clear we needed to speak with these three musicians more. Social Media Team member and Concert Orchestra violinist Laney Kang chatted with Kathy, Grace, and Annabelle to learn more about their CYSO experiences and professional careers.

From left to right: Kathy Thomas, Grace Gavin, and Annabelle Gardiner

What was your favorite part about being a member of CYSO?

AG: I’d definitely have to say just the wonderful concerts and great friends. I was also in a string quartet with three other girls and we took it really seriously and spent a lot of time rehearsing. I think of all the friendships, the awesome concerts at Orchestra Hall, and the great tours we took were my favorite parts of being in CYSO.

KT: I totally agree with Annabelle about being able to go into Orchestra Hall and being in hallways and rooms and using stands that CSO members used. That was pretty epic and very overwhelming. Also, I loved the massive amount of wonderful music we played and being onstage with all the other players.

GG: I loved everything! I remember my first rehearsal, we were playing Brahms’ Second Symphony and nobody was faking. Everyone had their parts down; it sounded so incredible. To be a part of that was so amazing. I remember once that the chair I was using was the same chair that belonged to the principal of the Chicago Symphony. It had his name on it! 

Do you have any CYSO stories or memories that you would like to share?

GG: I remember when I was a junior, I got to play Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the orchestra. I probably should’ve been nervous out of my mind, but I was listening backstage while the orchestra was playing Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. When I walked on stage I thought, “This is the coolest thing ever!” I don’t remember being nervous at all. My cello teacher Dudley Powers was actually the conductor of the orchestra at that time. He was conducting the whole time I was in the orchestra, so I couldn’t mess around or anything. I had to be really serious. 

CYSO 75th logo with collage of various historic photos of CYSO students from the archives
The image used with our 75th anniversary celebrations that included photos of Kathy Thomas (circled top left section holding horn) and Annabelle Gardiner (circled bottom left with violin) who both now play together in Orlando Philharmonic

How have your experiences in CYSO helped with your career as a professional musician? 

GG: You know I think it goes back to that very first rehearsal when I walked in there and sat down and couldn’t believe the level of playing in that room. You didn’t want to be the slacker, you didn’t want to be the one who was faking. So it really taught me to be really prepared because you’d have more fun if you knew the piece really well. Brahms’ Second Symphony, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, all really difficult music, but it made me realize that I’d be more relaxed if I did my homework before rehearsals, then I could really have a good time rather than trying to learn it during the rehearsals, which some people do.

KT: For me, it was learning a new way of thinking about how to play in each position within the horn section. When I got into CYSO, I was third horn, but then eventually worked up to principal horn. It wasn’t so much of a popularity contest or seniority contest, everyone was just doing their job. Having four horns, all doubled, nobody was wasted. If you’re second horn or fourth horn, you mean just as much as the first horn. So I learned that being first is not what it’s about. You have to do a really good job no matter what chair you sit in. 

AG: Yeah, I’d like to echo what my colleagues have shared. I feel like the level of excellence of all the players in each section was something that was really inspiring. Like Grace was saying, the more you’re prepared, the deeper you can dig into the music and get more out of rehearsals. I definitely felt that that was something people held to a high standard, taking rehearsal seriously. I feel like the training we all received in the CYSO was really something special. I will forever cherish my time in the orchestra. 

CYSO musicians including Kathy Thomas, ’88, in the center holding a French horn.

What is the best part about being a professional musician?

GG: You get to do something you love and make a living out of it. Sometimes I would rather not learn new music, it’s not always fun, but at least you’re playing, you’re improving, and learning new things. It can be challenging, but it’s very rewarding. 

KT: Totally agree. It’s really rewarding to be doing what we love and to get paid for it. For me, just showing up to rehearsal and having this wonderful group of people that I love so much to make music with is the best part. 

AG: Yeah, I agree, the camaraderie and the satisfaction you get from playing music you love. Sometimes it’s not music you love, but you’re going through it together and knowing how to do it at an excellent level. Also as a professional musician, you never arrive, you’re constantly being challenged and learning. Even though we’re not practicing every day like I used to when I was younger, I’m still growing as a musician. You’re never stagnant and you always have to challenge yourself to be better. 

What is your practice routine like as a professional musician?

KT: As a brass player, we can’t really take much time off, so it’s rare that I’m not playing my horn, even just a little bit every day. Even when you’re on vacation and can’t bring your horn, you bring your mouthpiece and buzz your mouthpiece. For orchestra, I make sure I’m really warmed up and have the stamina to get through all the music I need to get through.

GG: I still have the same warm-up routine that I’ve done since college. I warm-up with open strings, then slow vibrato, and then scales. I used to do six scales everyday, but then I found myself dreading the warm-up, so I cut it back to three. I usually try to have an etude that I’m using just for fun. I can’t believe I’m saying “etude” and “fun” in the same sentence, but that would be on my warm-up. 

AG: I’m sorta like Grace. What’s coming up is going to influence how much time I spend on something. Ideally, I would do slow scales, arpeggios. Also working with a drone is really important, making sure you’re in tune with something that’s not going to change. I think stretching is really important to make sure that you’re not just jumping into something crazy fast right away. Slowly warming up is important.

Students and Music Director Michael Morgan lined up in front of Carnegie Hall before CYSO's performance. Annabelle Gardiner is pictured center holding her violin
Annabelle Gardiner (in white blouse holding violin) poses with fellow students and Music Director Michael Morgan (far left) in front of Carnegie Hall before CYSO’s 1989 performance.

Since lives get way busier as you get older, do you think that it’s important for students to get as many hours of practice as they can since they have more free time?

AG: Definitely, and I’m sure my colleagues would agree, we always try to teach our students how to practice effectively and not waste time. I always tell my students to make sure they understand why I’m telling them to do something. Don’t just do something for the sake of doing it. You need to know why I told you to do something. You need to understand the details so you can eventually get more done in less time.

GG: Yeah, mindful practice, not mindless practice. It’s gotta be focused.

KT: Like an athlete building muscle, brass players must “build” their chops. You can’t just start at age 50, go back, and build all those muscles. They have to be there from a young age. Like any athlete, you can’t just start playing professional football if you haven’t been brought up playing football.

AG: I also think that playing in as many masterclass situations as you can, putting ourselves out there to get your nerves up, getting nervous to see how you respond is really important. You can spend all this time in a practice room, but if you’re not going to put yourself in that pressure situation, you’re not helping yourself at all. Even playing for a group of friends is really good. 

Grace sent along this photo of the CYSO poster and program from the spring 1978 Orchestra Hall concert in which she soloed

Do you have any advice on how to deal with performance anxiety or audition nerves?

KT: As a brass player, a lot of what we do deals with our breath. A lot of what I talk to my students about is breathing, taking in correct air, positive air, and always having positive thoughts. For wind and brass players, being nervous always makes you close up and you can’t do that, you have to breathe out. 

GG: What I used to do with my students was to set up mock auditions. We would do them with a screen in front, because a lot of auditions are screened. That’s kind of an artificial, weird situation to go into when you’re used to playing for an audience.

AG: Another tool that we didn’t have available were cell phones. You need to record yourself and listen back. Be really tough on yourself, take notes, do some score study, and really listen for any little thing that catches your ear. Figure out what you need to do to fix it. You might see weird things that you’re doing, but don’t even realize it. That happens to professionals too. 

This year marks CYSO’s 75th anniversary. What does this mean for you as alumni?

GG: It makes me feel really old! But I think it’s amazing that it’s still going, still in the same building, rehearsing in the same room. I would love to go back and visit. I loved being part of that orchestra. It was a real privilege to get to play with CYSO. 

KT: Something that made 75 years possible is the continuity of the level of professionalism. It doesn’t waver, it only goes up. I think CYSO in particular puts out an incredible amount of talented musicians that go on to do incredible things just because the standard is so high.

AG: It makes me really proud to have been part of such an excellent organization. I always tell my friends that the only things my mother remembers is the stuff I did in high school. She’s always bragging, “My daughter was the concertmaster of the Chicago Youth Symphony!” That’s the only thing she talks about, it’s hilarious! So obviously, that left a huge impression on me. I also remember all those trips driving into Chicago. I don’t even know how I drove in downtown Chicago when I was 16!

KT: When you say CYSO that means something still. Even though it was a high school group, you say that you were in it and people go, “ohhhhh!”

Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, 1986
From Kathy’s archives: Group photo of Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, 1986

Do you have any advice for CYSO musicians who are looking to pursue music professionally?

KT: You have to really want it. You can’t just want to do it because it’s easy. “Oh I play an instrument, so I’m gonna be a musician.” No. You have to not care about anything else that happens in your life except pursuing that career.

GG: Be single-minded about it.

AG: Yeah, fully dedicated. You should also trust your teachers and mentors around you. They should be able to guide you. Definitely talk to them about it, tell them your plans, and tell them what you have to say. Be open and know that if you go for it, you really have to be all in. 

KT: And it’s not an easy life, so you have to be ready. 

Thank you to Kathy Thomas, Grace Gavin, and Annabelle Gardiner for speaking with us!


Portrait of Laney Kang holding her violinLaney Kang (pictured above left) is a violinist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra and a member of the CYSO Social Media Team. This is Laney’s seventh season participating in CYSO. She is a junior at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois. Aside from music, Laney trains and competes in dance.

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