What I love the most about Orchestral Music is the variety of different composers we played each week. The experience of being on stage with over 100 other talented musicians and collectively bringing a piece of music to life is something that just cannot be replicated outside of the concert hall. Also, in these days of Covid (where many orchestras are performing virtually out of necessity), I think we need to be reminded what a powerful force live music can be.
My name is Alex Rosenfeld. I live in San Francisco, and I’m currently a Software Engineer Fellow at Qwasar Silicon Valley. I am actively interviewing for my first full-time job as a Software Engineer. Previously, I worked for over 15 years as a professional orchestral musician.
I began my journey learning to code as a student at Watch & Code (https://watchandcode.com/). Attending daily meetings with other students (and the founder Gordon Zhu) was a really powerful motivator to build good habits and learn the fundamentals of problem-solving. After this, I spent about six months in 2019 as an open-source contributor to the devtools/debugger of Mozilla Firefox. This was the experience that really solidified my desire to work full-time as a Software Engineer. I decided to enroll as a fellow at Qwasar so I could gain more experience building projects with a variety of coding languages, while focusing on studying software architecture and preparing for interviews.
I grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and I’ve moved around quite a bit for my musical career. I first went to Chicago for college at Northwestern University, then to San Francisco for a Masters’ degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Upon graduation, I landed positions with orchestras in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Rochester in New York. Finally, I moved back to San Francisco and began a freelance career, while still travelling extensively for musical work with orchestras across the United States.
One of my main passions in life is music. I started playing the violin at age 4, eventually became a concertmaster of several local youth orchestras, and assumed I would become a professional violinist. When I started high school, my band director asked if I’d consider trying the French Horn. My school was very small and we didn’t have anyone playing horn. I took to it very quickly, and I was soon pursuing both instruments with equal passion. I decided when I was applying to colleges to focus on horn, and I was thrilled to be accepted to study at Northwestern University, one of the top programs for brass players.
My biggest musical influences would be my two primary horn teachers in college: Gail Williams (Chicago Symphony – retired) and Robert Ward (San Francisco Symphony). I also had incredible experiences at several summer festivals, including a fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Center, where I worked with members of the Boston Symphony. In terms of composers, I particularly love the music of Mahler and Shostakovich. The German lineage of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms really inspired me when I was younger to pursue a career playing French Horn.
I held numerous positions performing with orchestras across the United States, including the Louisiana Philharmonic, Rochester Philharmonic, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, and Sarasota Opera Orchestra. I had the privilege to perform and tour frequently with the San Francisco Symphony, including several international tours. I also enjoyed performing at summer festivals, recording sessions, and as a guest with many orchestras around the United States and internationally.
I have had so many great experiences with Orchestral Music. I had the privilege to perform on several international tours with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), featuring the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. SFS and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas won Grammy awards for their recordings of these symphonies, and the performances on these tours won critical acclaim from audiences across the globe. I often got goosebumps on stage just listening to the sheer musical talent surrounding me.
Mahler’s Symphony Number 3 opens with a powerful statement featuring eight horns playing in unison, and is undoubtedly one of the musical passages that inspire every orchestral horn player. Playing this with one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, in some of the world’s most famous concert halls, is an experience I will never forget.
Other memorable performances include a month playing guest Principal Horn with the New Zealand Symphony, and performing Verdi’s Don Carlos with the Sarasota Opera – the power of this music and the incredible emotion coming from the singers on stage also gave me many ‘goosebump’ moments.
Unfortunately, I have not played my horn since my diagnosis of Focal Dystonia. I was actually advised by an expert in the field that continuing to try to play could lead to complications with swallowing, eating, or speaking. Since I stopped playing, I have focused all my energy on cultivating a new career, and also was forced to consider how I would earn an income. I worked for about a year as a professional brewer (home brewing has been a hobby for many years). Once I discovered that I had a passion for learning to code, I took a job at a local dog-walking company, which has much more flexible hours and allows me to devote more time to studying and working on software projects.
Focal Dystonia was an exceptionally difficult thing for me to handle emotionally. It is, in summary, a neurological condition where an individual loses the ability to control specific muscles, usually related to repetitive movements. It has impacted numerous musicians, and there is no real cure – people have tried everything from Botox injections to rebuilding their instruments in a custom way to change the way that muscles are used during a performance, all with limited success.
For me, the ability to play horn was almost instantaneously gone because the muscles of my throat/tongue would contract and completely block my airway. I considered continuing to teach; in addition to performing, I had recently been selected to join the faculty of San Jose State University. But honestly, the emotional trauma of knowing I could no longer perform was too much for me. For a time, even watching movies or TV would get me emotional when I heard horn parts in the score. I feel fortunate to have discovered another passion in coding, where I can apply the discipline that I cultivated as a musician. And I have reached a point after a few years where I can listen to and appreciate music without being overcome by so much emotion.
I do see several similarities between my time as an Orchestral Musician and my current career. Feeling comfortable with ambiguity is necessary in both fields, as is the ability to work together with many other individuals towards a common goal – this applies specifically to performing as an orchestral musician, where you are playing only one small part of a large composition. Working as one member of an engineering team on a piece of software requires a similar approach to collaboration and the ability to communicate clearly with colleagues – it’s just that the result of the communication is expressed in code rather than musical sounds.
I definitely think my experiences with orchestral music will be a benefit to my technological career. Cultivating the discipline required to practice an instrument independently for several hours each day is a real asset – I have found learning to code requires the same level of patience and persistence. Understanding and practicing a complex piece of music requires being able to break things down into manageable chunks. This is very similar to the way you would approach working on a larger piece of software.
There is always more than tech. I think it is imperative that technology companies and the people who work in tech have an understanding and an appreciation for the importance of music and the arts. It is easy for engineers to think about things in very ‘binary’ terms, while studying art, music, or literature usually requires allowing for different creative interpretations of the same material. I think this type of thinking can benefit engineers and technologists, especially when they are confronted with considering the numerous unanticipated impacts of their work. Our society can only benefit from having strong arts institutions (orchestras, museums, theaters), as well as supporting the work of the artists who make them possible.
In addition, I think music can help technologists to communicate with others outside of their field. Often, a shared appreciation for music can help bridge a divide between people working in very different areas, and help them make mutually beneficial decisions on a personal and professional level. The time spent learning an instrument or playing music can be invaluable and help build the types of habits and thought processes that will enable success in any number of fields.