It is no secret the world of classical music is a small place. From youth orchestras to summer camps, music schools to festivals around the world, and little orchestras to big orchestras musicians make lifelong connections at every stage of their career. So when a musician passes away, chances are high most musicians around the country will have known of or know another musicians that had worked with that musician. Normally, this sort of sad news spreads remarkably fast and with the advent of email and social networking, it isn't unusual for musicians to find out about a colleague's passing within moments.
Last week, shock waves were felt as Los Angeles Philharmonic Principal Trombone, Steve Witser, passed away at the age of 48. Although my professional path had not crossed Steve directly, I received three phone calls from friends that had known him and wanted to let me know just in case I had known him. What touched me the most was how Steve must have touched my friends that knew him. All over Facebook there were notes of sadness, memories of happiness, and a general feeling of camaraderie as everyone tried to deal with the loss.
But while there was a physical loss, I got the feeling that this musician will continue living through all the musicians he worked with. His trombone students will continue his way of playing certain musical phrases and technique and eventually pass them to their own students. Colleagues from the various orchestras will always have a story that will live on through generations. Friends and family will pass on the generosity they received from him, on to others.
While it is always sad to lose a fellow musician, what is striking is the uniquely powerful memory we keep for each cherished colleague. I know for a fact that my teacher at Peabody Conservatory, Herbert Greenberg, is keeping his iconic teacher, the legendary Josef Gingold, alive by passing on what he learned to all his students. Just last week I was sitting next to a fellow Greenberg studio student in an orchestra and we were going on and on about what we'd learned from Greenberg and how he used to make it clear what came from Gingold. The stories we carry through our lives were shaped because of a man we never met and undoubtedly, we pass on these gifts to our students.
Losing a colleague is always hard, but there are so many aspects of our daily musical lives that are influenced by these relationships it's like they are with us when we play our instruments. Every musician who has passed contributes something that will keep them alive to those they leave behind, whether a recording, a composition, words, actions, teachings, or a joke.
Although I catch myself cursing the small world professional musicians live, I am grateful for it during times of loss. And it is this thought that makes me think classical music's future will always be bright.