Laughter fills the vast expanse of McNamara Rehearsal Hall, bouncing off stacks of chairs, bleachers, paneled walls, and floor-to-ceiling window panes. Stray rays of sunlight escape from unhappy clouds and reflect off the metallic surfaces of a bassoon, a clarinet, a flute, a French horn, and an oboe — tools of the trade for the Hillsdale College Faculty Woodwind Quintet.
Hillsdale adjunct music professors Cindy Duda, Andrew Sprung, Alan Taplin, Jaimie Wagner, and Kaycee Ware-Thomas, laugh at the last strains of a joke made during a break in rehearsal before looking up.
Here, laughter is plentiful and time is precious.
The quintet members rehearse every week between teaching classes at Hillsdale, working with high school orchestras, conducting private lessons, teaching at other universities, performing in ensembles, caring for families, and, in Taplin’s case, even playing full-time with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.
“The biggest challenge for a lot of us is driving,” Duda said. “Driving to work, to different schools. I am kind of cranky until I get here because it’s a lot of driving.”
Sometimes, she said she asks herself why she continues to make the trek through the snow and ice of Michigan winters.
“But then I get here,” she said. “And I work with the students, and I play, and it’s like, ‘Aha.’ I remember. It’s not work anymore. I’m making music. And it’s just cool.”
Duda has been playing bassoon since high school. She said she started with the flute, but noticed the bassoon when a colleague was cleaning out a closet.
“I asked what it was,” Duda said, “and she said to take it home and try it. I just loved it, and she told the high school band director that I tried it and he recruited me.”
Her private high school was in need of bassoon players, so when the band director heard she was interested, he offered her a scholarship. She hasn’t stopped playing since.
Sprung and Ware-Thomas both started playing their instruments in fifth grade. Sprung said he chose the clarinet after realizing he could make the biggest and best sound with it. Ware-Thomas said she decided to play the oboe when her older sister suggested she would get all of the solos.
Composers Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss brought Taplin to the horn.
“When I was a kid, my Dad used to play classical music on Sunday morning before church while we ate breakfast,” Taplin said. “I would sit by the stereo and listen to recordings. I thought the horn made the coolest sound. I knew from age 3 or 4 that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Taplin went on to play in a brass quartet in college. His first gig was sitting on the street corners of Ann Arbor, Michigan, playing for change. He made $30 per day.
Now, Taplin plays in 170 concerts a year with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.
“One hundred seventy concerts a year? Not including rehearsals?” Ware-Thomas asked when Taplin mentioned his schedule. “They’re working you to death!”
“If you enjoy what you’re doing, then it’s not work, is it?” he said.
Years of training and hours of practice brought each of the five to their respective positions.
“I think we’re busier than the average person,” Ware-Thomas said. “All of us have probably studied long enough to be brain surgeons by now. We probably have more training than they do because we start in elementary school. String players start when they are 3. We’ve been training longer than any profession I can think of.”
But the five call themselves lucky. Few schools of Hillsdale’s size possess the time or resources to sponsor programs like the faculty woodwind quintet, Sprung said, and there are plenty of talented musicians with graduate degrees working retail to make a living.
Working freelance also provides schedule flexibility.
“The benefit of freelancing is the fluidity of schedule to change things around,” Duda said. “If my husband needs to work late, we can switch off and he can come home in the evenings. I have a little flexibility that makes it much easier to be there for really important events. That makes it really nice to be both a mom and a musician.”
For the first time ever, the quintet also asked a student to perform with them. Senior Kaitlyn Johns, an economics major and music minor, has been playing clarinet with the group this spring.
“I thought it was going to be intimidating, playing with five professional musicians,” Johns said, “But it has been a joy to work with them. Everything is very collaborative, so I am comfortable expressing my thoughts and ideas about the piece, but I am also learning a lot because I’m getting instruction from five different teachers with five different perspectives.”
Hillsdale provides an amazing opportunity to engage with music and the arts in ways few rural areas experience, Sprung said. Every week there are free concerts and recitals, yet many students miss out.
“What we have here with weekly rehearsals is really nice — it doesn’t usually happen that way,” Ware-Thomas said. “With chamber music, I think you do need to just put in the time together to feel like you’re gelling as a group. It’s different than practicing individually and learning your notes. You’re learning to read each other’s body language, to become one unit instead of individual players. That’s the hard part.”
The quintet will perform April 10 at 7 p.m in Howard Music Hall.