May 08: Notes and light

Laura Mulligan Thomas, director of the acclaimed Charlottesville High School Orchestra since 1982, moved with her family to a new house in 1999. Its biggest selling point: a living room that easily doubles as a music space. It’s big enough for a string quartet, and has plenty of room for a piano, as well as other instruments and equipment. The high ceiling is an acoustic dream. Natural light streams through the windows.

Music runs in the family. Her daughter, Emily Thomas, was 5 years old when they moved into the new house, and already prepared to make the most of the music space. “My mom started me on violin when I was 3,” she says, “and when you’re 3 you don’t have much say in what you do, but I definitely appreciate starting that early. I have an appreciation for practicing, I know where that will get me.”

“Where that has gotten me,” she could have said. Now 14, the ninth-grader plays piano, viola, violin, electric violin, and guitar, is a gifted improviser, and writes songs that she sings herself. In addition to playing in her mom’s orchestra, she is a member of The Virginia Consort, and is first violinist of a group called The Vesuvius Quartet.

During my visit, Emily picked up her violin and treated me to one of Bela Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances. She then moved to the piano and sang one of her own songs, afterwards explaining how her classical training helps her add tastes of dissonance to standard chords.

Leaving that space with all of its lovely music and good vibes behind and heading back out into the cruel world wasn’t easy, I can tell you.

“The space has a really nice high ceiling and the acoustics are really good. The natural lighting is really nice, and even when there’s no light it’s still really nice. Everything’s here; the piano’s here, all the instruments are here. The music room is really important for when we all get together and just play as a family. It’s where I have written most of my songs and practiced for a lot of competitions. It’s where the computer is so I can compose on a program called Finale. So, I go over to the computer and switch from violin to piano—just messing around—and then I go back and write the notes down. Also, it’s where the amplifier is for when I play violin. If we were in a little apartment or something where everything was close together, if we just didn’t have the space, it would be a lot harder to get the feeling of the music, one, and two, to stay on the good side of your family. I mean, it doesn’t always sound good when I play.

“I like the columns. They’re pretty cool. There’s a step when you come down and it’s lower than the rest of the house. For me it kind of puts me in this separate mood. You step in here and you know you’re playing music. It’s all about entertaining and music in this room. You step down and I either walk over there to the piano, over there to the violin or over there to the amplifier. It’s what I’ve grown up with most of my life in this room, for the majority of my life. It’s like a part of me, so that I know subconsciously when I’m walking into the room that I’m about to play. Or sing. Or compose. Sometimes I’ll walk in and I’ll decide—I mean I’m learning guitar right now—or I’m trying to—and I’ll just be, like, hmm, maybe I’m in the mood to play guitar so I should look at these chords in the book or I should mess around with the strings on my guitar. You either come in wanting to learn something or improve on something.

“Our family comes here at Christmas and we all play here. There’s just a mood that it sets during the holidays with food cooking and music that’s being played. Maybe it’s the colors of the Christmas lights, I don’t know. I mean, people just sit outside of the room and listen, and you just walk around and you’re like, it’s Christmas and it’s music. That’s really cool. The thing is it’s live too, so it’s not like you’re just playing a CD from the CD player. It’s throughout the house; you can hear it everywhere.”

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