Musician Profile: Diane McElfish Helle
“You look like you are having a wonderful time when you play – I like to watch you.”
I hear that frequently when I run into audience members around town and I’m happy to confirm that I am having a wonderful time doing something that I’ve loved my whole life.
I come from a long line of singers and church musicians, with great grandparents who met over a strategically dropped music folder (great-grandmother’s ploy), a grandmother who went to Oberlin in 1908 to became a church choir director, and soprano/baritone parents who performed nightly duets at the family piano as we kids fell asleep upstairs.
My own music adventures started in Pittsburgh at the age of five when I begged my parents to let me take piano lessons immediately and not make me wait “all the way until first grade” as was the family custom. Adding the violin later was my own idea, although I first had to overcame an impression that I’d gotten that violins were so special (and so hard) that regular people couldn’t possibly play them. In fourth grade, we were offered the opportunity to have lessons at school and when told that anyone could sign up, I again begged my parents for the chance. I believe I promised them that I’d practice piano ½ hour a day for the rest of my life if they’d let me add violin. I confess this was a promise I failed to keep. I did, however, end up a capable “hack pianist” and I do accompany all the students in my studio for lessons (although, for public performances, I insist that they get a "real pianist".)
I followed a typical path for professional violinists – lots of practicing fortified with a couple degrees (in my case, a BA from University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music and M.Mus from Indiana University), supplemented by summers of concentrated study at Meadowmount and Aspen Music Festivals. I learned later that, at Aspen, I’d spent at least one whole summer sitting literally feet away from two of my future colleagues in the GRS flute section, Chris Kantner and Judy Kemph, without ever meeting them - a great pleasure delayed.
In 1980, I auditioned for the violin section of the Grand Rapids Symphony, which was adding full-time musicians as Semyon Bychkov took over as Music Director. I remember playing in an unexpected super-final round during which Semyon came on stage, stood about a foot away from my music stand and proceeded to conduct the excerpts as I played. Finally, coming to the last one, instead of stopping at the marked spot, I turned away from the music, looked him right in the eye and just finished off the rest of page from memory. It was a bit cheeky but he burst out laughing and I got the job.
So I came to Grand Rapids, lived in an apartment on Lafayette Avenue until I paid off my new (old) violin, and then bought a house a few blocks away in the Midtown neighborhood where I still live. I like the sense of community here in the city and the old house has character inside and enough yard outside to keep this garden-lover happily occupied.
I acquired my co-gardener and husband Todd a dozen years ago also thanks to the Grand Rapids Symphony. Todd was a season subscriber and he had noticed me “smiling up from the stage”. After one of my pre-concert UpBeat talks (now called Inside the Music), he sent me an email and we met for a first date where we talked Mozart and perennials. Although for concerts we must part company at the stage door, Todd and I have maintained a tradition of meeting in Dress Circle B for intermissions before I return to play the second half of the program.
Over the years, I’ve been involved in many aspects of GRSMA and the GRS organization off-stage as well as on, including: Orchestra Committees (Chair), Negotiation Committees (Co-Chair), President Search Committees, GRS Board Member Musician Representative, Strategic Planning Committees, Finance Committee, Education Committee, Health Insurance Task Force, Artistic Advisory Committee, Women’s Committee (now called Symphony Friends).
I think musician participation is valuable in creating and maintaining the GRS as a healthy, vibrant institution and I’m delighted to see so many newer players stepping into these roles now. Representing fellow musicians and seriously engaging with institutional challenges can be daunting, but musicians have tremendous skills and insights to contribute and we all learn to be effective as we dare to step into new roles.
I’ve now stepped back from representative roles to concentrate on my position as Program Administrator with the Grand Rapids Symphony Music for Health Initiative. Some people mistakenly think that I had the initial idea for this, but the impetus came from a series of GRS Strategic Plans, all of which acknowledged the importance of health care to Grand Rapids and the desirability of finding a way for the GRS to engage with the health care community. It occurred to me that what was missing was simply someone stepping up and saying “I’ll do it”. Our programs, begun in 2013, have all been designed around the specific needs of each of our partners. This has allowed us to serve our community and that has brought national recognition to the GRS.
So what keeps me going now in my 40th season
-- Teaching, sharing what I know with the next generation of young players.
-- Swimming and yoga and hiking to stay in good shape to play a physically demanding instrument.
-- Enjoying working with Marcelo Lehninger and the inspiring artistic leadership he brings.
-- Listening to my remarkable colleagues who amaze and delight on a regular basis.
I’m 40 years in now with the GRS, but it is ever new and I am, indeed, having a wonderful time.