Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series! Every other week we’ll be posting an interview with one of our amazing teaching artists. Not only do they lend their talents to support MMI and engage Memphis youth all over the city, but they’re also helping to build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects. 

Meet violinist Marisa Polesky! Marisa is the Associate Concertmaster at the Memphis Symphony Orchestra—and plays with the Iris Orchestra, too. She currently serves MMI youth at White Station Middle School and White Station High School. She recently chatted with MMI about how she discovered her passion for music, why she has the best seat in the orchestra, and how she’s teaching in the time of COVID-19.

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On Discovering Music

I’m from the Philadelphia area and my parents are New Yorkers.  

I had a cardboard box violin when I was two years old. I remember it tasted awful! One of my earliest memories in life is how bad that violin tasted.

When my grandfather was a young man, he was invited to the school that later became the Juilliard school—and his parents didn’t let him go.  They said, “You have to be a lawyer or a doctor.” My father watched his dad go through life, never really happy because he never got to do what he really wanted to do. And anyway, he didn’t even become a doctor or a lawyer. 

So when we showed an aptitude for music, my dad was like, “Absolutely, let’s get them lessons. Let’s give them the exposure. Let’s give them a chance.” 

They were extremely supportive.

 

On Playing with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra

Right now I sit next to the Concertmaster in the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO), so I guess my title would be Associate Concertmaster. 

I sit right under the conductor and I get spit on.

My goal was to sit there—at the front of an orchestra underneath the conductor, where the full force of it is on you. You’re like the surfer on the cutting edge of a wave and all of the energy of the composer and the conductor. And when you’re sitting where I’m sitting, you are the surfer on that wave. I think I have the best experience of anyone else in the orchestra.

And every job has bad moments. But I tell you what, when we play that Mahler symphony, I mean that’s it. 

That’s all there is to it.

The last rehearsal that I did was two weeks ago and we were going to do the Midtown Opera Festival with Opera Memphis. Then the news started coming in that schools were starting to close and Spring Break had been extended. And we just had a feeling that this was going to go down like dominoes. I had practiced my opera music and thought to myself, I don’t know that I’m ever going to perform this. I’m going to enjoy this as much as I can.

And of course then everything just got canceled.

 

On Working with Memphis Youth

I was in the pilot of MMI way back. 

The Iris orchestra actually nominated me to be in the pool of applicants for the MMI Fellowship. I think they had seen me work with kids. I love working with kids and I think you can’t fake that. That’s something you either love or you’re doing it for another reason.

The middle school students I work with had been selected to compete in a competition last year, which was a huge honor. So all this year they’ve been fundraising to do this trip to Florida in which they’re going to compete in a school orchestra festival. And of course they’ve been prepared, they learned the songs. I did sectionals on the songs. I taught them how to do all their hard spots.

We got everybody up to competition level. In February, [their teacher] was like, “You know, it would be cool if they had another conductor besides me here, to hear a different voice.”  And so I thought, we need to get Kalena [Bovell] in here, because she has been fantastic with the youth orchestra. She’s the Assistant Conductor at MSO. 

She was amazing. That first class is the chamber workshop. The students audition to be in that class. But it’s an hour and 20 minutes long. That’s a long time to rehearse. But when Kalena was there, nobody even noticed the time. Then the bell rang and everyone’s like, what? She did not let up for one second. 

It was like the best TV ever. 

Then we had [cellist] Kim Patterson in at the high school. She’s just really good with high school kids. I mean, she just talks to them not like a teacher to a student, but like the way that you and I are talking now. She’s high energy and just doesn’t stop.

 

On Quaran-Teaching 

I really miss seeing my students. 

Today, I’m teaching from my computer. I’m calling it “quaran-teaching” and I’m loving seeing my students. I’m working with my middle school students on their etudes. We had a project going where I would work with them in the hallway privately for 20 minutes at a time, and we’re continuing that like online. Technology is amazing.

One thing we can still do is play our instruments. Students can’t go to restaurants. They can’t see their friends, and go to school. All of their social systems have been cut. But they can still play violin. 

I don’t think it can be called work when you genuinely miss people, can it?  I can’t wait to see my students again. I mean, I’m happy to see them on my computer screen, but face-to-face really is the best way to teach, and I can’t wait to get back there. I mean, not until it’s safe, but gosh, I really miss it. I’m sure everybody does.

 

On Silver Linings

I hope people keep being kind to each other [after this crisis is over].

I’ve seen a lot of random acts of kindness, which I absolutely love. I’m like, why does it take this for that to happen? Or maybe it’s just that I don’t see them all the time and now they’re being highlighted. 

I’d love it if people kept washing their hands, too. My mom is a microbiologist. We had hand-washing drills in my house when we were growing up. 

 

On Why Art Matters

What is getting us through this? A lot of people are missing life, human contact. A lot of us are missing music, our shows, our bands. Humans doing what only live humans can do. 

That’s what we’re missing: human contact. And that’s what art is. It’s somebody alive, putting out something that did not exist before. This social distancing is showing us what we truly miss now. I mean, I have, I have my technology, but I don’t have someone playing the violin in front of me. 

It’s interesting that that’s what a lot of us miss the most, you know?