For many, music is a means of entertainment and pleasure. But for some it is a great deal more than that. For one person in particular, Desi Alston, the musical director and conductor of the GW Symphony Orchestra, music was a means of survival.
Born in 1953, Alston has conducted the GW Orchestra since 1996. He spent his childhood days in the area of North Philadelphia known as the Badlands. Notorious for its impoverished and abject conditions, the Badlands gave Alston reason to strive for more.
“The violin was my ticket out of there,” Alston said. “It was a place of profound, dismal hopelessness, and the violin was my way out. That was my goal. It was tunnel vision from the time I was eight years old.”
While many young children are forced to practice their respective musical instruments, the soft-spoken Alston never had to be reminded. He spent three to four hours a day practicing. He enthusiastically described his beginnings on the violin 41 years ago as accidental.
“I didn’t find the violin; the violin found me,” he said. “I didn’t have those informal introductions. I didn’t grow up around classical music or people who had any great love for it. My beginning with music was purely accidental, with a little divine intervention on my side.”
Alston went on to become a performance major at Temple University. He chose Temple University to continue studying with Edgar Ortenberg, a former member of the Budapest String Quartet. Alston began studying under Ortenberg when he was nine years old.
“We had much more than a student/teacher relationship,” Alston said. “I was like the son he never had, and he was one means of psychological salvation for me from the place I was from.”
Alston recalls many obstacles he encountered on the way to lessons. Forced to flee from gangs and others chasing him, Alston also had many encounters with police suspicious of “a young black kid carrying a violin case,” he said.
“I was always in survival mode,” Alston said. “I was very strong emotionally, so most of the time after these events when I got to my lesson I could just forget them and play beautifully. But (Ortenberg) was there with a needle and thread for those times I needed to be sewn back together.”
In 1974, after studying violin at Temple for four years, a 21-year-old Alston began playing in the National Symphony Orchestra. He has played as a full time member ever since. He attributes some of his success earning a position in the symphony to his attitude at the onset.
“It was that youthful exuberance that got me through the audition,” Alston said. “Youthful naivete definitely has its advantages. I wasn’t nervous at all because I didn’t know I was supposed to be. I was young and dumb, but it paid off.”
Alston also attributes some of his success to the nature of the business.
“I wasn’t the best player for the job,” he said. “It’s never the best player for the job that gets it. It’s the person that plays the best that day. I played the best that day, when it counted. We’re not robots, so we can’t play brilliantly every day. But in this business, it doesn’t matter how well you played yesterday.”
Alston has used many of the skills he developed as a young child to find success in the National Symphony and for the GW Orchestra.
“The work ethic I developed as a child has stayed with me,” he said. “It was that resolve that I had since I was eight years old, which has prepared me to do what I do today.”
Alston began conducting GW’s orchestra in fall 1996. He has found working with young musicians to be very different from working with professionals.
“I enjoy conducting the GW Orchestra,” Alston said. “But working with young musicians can be difficult also. Few are music majors, so I have to keep in perspective that for many this is their avocation, whereas it’s my vocation.”
Alston likens conducting to playing an instrument. He is conducting a human instrument, he said.
“The conductor has to be that enabler, the voice from which the music is created,” he said. “You have to provide your players with the idea that they want to play for you.”
He said it is important for conductors not to take their leading role in the wrong direction. He disagrees with the way others in his field choose to do their work.
“The kind of conductor you are is very much connected with the kind of person you are,” Alston said. “It’s impossible to separate the two. Many conductors take this sort of dictatorial stance, which is never good. I try to be as magnanimous and easygoing as possible when I’m conducting.
“You’re asking, pleading with your musicians to play for you, and it never hurts to say ‘thank you,'” he continued. “It’s my honor to be before these individuals to make music, not my right. I regard both conducting young musicians and professionals in this manner.”
Alston said he hopes to do more professional conducting in the near future. He has experience as the guest conductor for many professionals, but he would like to do it as more than a temporary thing. But he acknowledges that the positions are hard to come by today.
“I’m just looking for the chance to show what I’m capable of,” Alston said. “I’m not looking for any special favors, just the chance. But to get to that point is almost impossible.”
Alston’s approach to music is similar to his approach to life. He considers himself an eclectic and multidimensional person, so his interest in music is also not only one-dimensional.
“Music in general is one of those genres that will give you what you need at the moment you need it,” Alston said. “It’s one of those unexplainable/explainable things – one of the most profoundly complex and one of the most profoundly simple areas of one’s existence.”
While other interests are important to the conductor, such as training for triathalons, he said, music is an essential part of his life.
“I enjoy doing things without music as well. When I go running, I like to hear the birds and the air; I don’t need to have music playing constantly,” he said. “But if you told me that today was the last day I was going to hear music, you’d be telling me that today was the last day I was going to live.”