Jennifer Startt makes music with her violin, but she’s also very aware of how she makes music with her body.
“The violin works better and sounds better when everything is lined up,” said Startt, the Milwaukee Symphony’s principal second violin. “Playing any instrument is a feat of coordination, from head to foot.” When she’s practicing and runs into trouble with a particular passage, “the first thing I do is check my position and posture.”
Practicing at home, Startt usually stands. When she’s sitting onstage at Uihlein Hall for four or five hours of rehearsal in a day, “I try to sit like I stand.”
But she will be standing in concert this weekend, when she is among four violin soloists from the symphony performing Antonio Vivaldi’s complete The Four Seasons.” Her assignment is the Spring concerto, which “everyone knows, even if they don’t know they know it. It’s in movies, TV shows, even rock bands. People will be coming because they love The Four Seasons.”
Experienced violinists “have lived with it for a long time,” Startt said, both as soloists and accompaniment. “There are as many ways to play the piece as there are violinists to play it. It sounds great just the way it’s printed, but I’ll use some embellishment to put my signature on it.”
She has become more aware of the physical aspects of playing from watching the progress of her daughter, Emmeline Sipe, who is now a first-year voice major at Lawrence University. “She chose an instrument that I don’t know anything about,” Startt said, but she sees the similarities in how singers have to be aware of their bodies. For string instruments, she said, “our breath is our bow,” both literally and figuratively — using the bow dictates how a phrase is shaped, but musicians also time their actual breathing to coincide with the bow strokes. “She helped me clarify a lot of my own thoughts about the violin.” Startt said. “Singers learn that right from the start.”
When she began to think about a career in orchestra music as a college student, Startt worked on her own to develop the best physical techniques for performance. (Some violin teachers emphasize that aspect, some do not.) When she consulted a chiropractor, she was told, “You’ll be fine, as long as you don’t hold the phone between your chin and your shoulder.”
Startt lives in Shorewood, not far from her parents, James and Catherine, who retired to the Milwaukee area about 15 years ago. She grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana, where her father was a history professor and her mother was a nurse. She attended Chicago Symphony concerts, played in the Chicago Youth Symphony, and developed a lasting attraction to the orchestral repertoire. Chamber music was fun, “but not like orchestra. I liked being part of a bigger instrument, and the variety of sounds, hearing brass and woodwinds and not just strings.”
Upon graduating from Curtis in 1988, she joined the first-ever cohort of the New World Symphony, the training orchestra for young musicians in Miami led by Michael Tilson Thomas. (MSO principal clarinet Todd Levy was also in that group.) She joined the MSO’s second violin section in 1990, and won the audition for principal in 2009. But having often played in the front row in earlier years, she knew that “so much of being a good section leader is being a good section player.”
Before resigning last fall, Startt spent many summers in the first violin section with Peninsula Music Festival in Door County. “That was a very important part of my life for quite some time,” she said. Playing first violin “reminded me of how better to support that” during the MSO season.
“Principal second is a notoriously difficult position to fill,” said MSO concertmaster Frank Almond, “You have to be a virtuoso, but there are other qualities you might not focus on. You have be in a subordinate role in Mozart and the Classical repertoire, and then you have to be bold in something like Mahler 9. Jennifer’s done a great job, and she’s been doing it for 10 years.”