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Commemorative button featuring GRYS conductor John Varineau from their 2012/13 season, when Linda's daughter was a member of the clarinet section.

John Varineau and the Nelson Family

By Linda Nelson

Linda Nelson, GRSMA violinist and musician representative to the GRS Board of Directors, reminisces about the impact that John Varineau has had upon her family over the years.

When our youngest child was in fourth grade, my husband Roger and I began to have conversations with her about what instrument she would like to play. Various instruments were discussed and she gradually settled on the clarinet. I remember giving John Varineau a call when she started fifth grade, wondering if he was willing to teach the child of two parents with whom he worked so closely. Why yes, he was willing! 


John instructed us to go to Meyer Music and sign up for their basic clarinet rental and that at some point we would need to buy a higher quality mouthpiece. I would drive my daughter over to John’s house and, for her first lesson, he had me come into his studio with her and observe how they would work. For the lessons thereafter, he would leave the door open and I could sit in their living room to read or listen. I had observed in the twenty years prior how John would speak to students in the GRYS as their conductor and as the presenter for our various GRS childrens' concerts. Now being a parent, I observed with renewed interest just how age appropriate and rich were his communications towards my daughter to learn not only how to play the clarinet but introducing her to all aspects of musicianship, deportment, practicing ethic, performance confidence, and relating to her instrument with her body. By the time she was participating in Solo and Ensemble festivals, I remember him coaching her to warm up with “Gut Busters” that would warm up not only her instrument and fill her lungs with “big air” from “big, belly breaths” but that also relaxed her and filled her with a positive, confident, and supported sound so that she would start off boldly. 


As I sat in their comfortable, light-filled living room all those afternoons with aromas of Gwen’s stew simmering for their supper, I was aware of the love in the Varineau household. My daughter and I would often greet students and their parents whose lessons were immediately before or after hers. She would listen to older students playing more difficult works. John and Gwen had an agreement that Gwen would accompany all of his students for their Solo and Ensemble performances, and that she would rehearse with them once or twice prior. Gwen was the finest coach for a young student, treating them as the soloist that they were, asking how they wanted the music to go regarding tempo, dynamics, and ritardandos. She used a subtle approach giving them practice in being the musical leader in their performances. She would offer them small observations that helped them achieve their best outcomes and to feel proud of their work.


My daughter had clarinet lessons with John for eight years, through high school. She also played clarinet in the GR Youth Symphony for two years. She enjoyed playing the clarinet so much that, even though she didn’t major or minor in music in college, she continued with concert band, ensembles, and lessons through her college years. John has been a teacher, mentor, and trusted adult in her life, as in so many, many young people’s lives.


All three of our children had the opportunity to conduct the GRS during a 5th Grade Concert. They each have their batons stored in a special place. After seeing their parents leave so many evenings of their young lives to go play concerts, it was a fun memory for them to have, leading their parents and colleagues in a Sousa march in front of their school classmates. Thank you, John, for giving our children these pleasant memories!


When our children were young, I was active in a local Storytelling group. We had a Storytelling tent for the Festival of the Arts the first weekend of June. I had asked John if he would be willing to tell a story for children at our tent. He said, “Sure!” He came on the appointed morning (with props!) and told the story of “The Philharmonic Gets Dressed”. His animated performance was one more time that John took a random opportunity to plant seeds of creativity in our community. He could easily have said that he was too busy or that my request had nothing to do with his career of being a professor or a conductor, but he always saw the potential for investing himself in new ways, sharing his joy of music and the arts, and reaching out to new audiences.


During the years that my husband was involved with the GRS development team launching new ways to attract and retain donors, they began to organize house concerts for small groups. As his spouse, I attended a few of these. I remember one in particular. The house had an open floor plan and the piano was in a large living room, allowing the guests to be seated nearby, with open doorways that led into adjoining rooms which circled back into the kitchen and around to the other side. Pianist Rich Ridenour and John Varineau were the musical guests that evening. They had devised a fun and entertaining set of music as their collaborations always were. What set this memory apart from the humorous verbal schtick they usually did on stage was watching John, clarinet in hand, play a few notes near the piano and then watch him run around the circle of the house to arrive, panting, barely in time to play his next entrance. It was some cute piece that had brief eruptions of music from the clarinet, each time interspersed with his running around the house. The other guests and I could not stop laughing! It was the most fun little concert. Once again, John could very well have said “No” to such shenanigans. That he said “Yes” to this and many other times of creating wonderful memories for thousands of others at concerts is another aspect of John’s planting seeds in our community that the arts can bring engagement, fun, creativity, and joy to all people. Classical music definitely need not be a stuffy affair.


Another time that I have had an opportunity to watch John serve the GRS where other musicians may not have been aware was, once again, attending a few dinners as Roger’s spouse (when he was our General Manager). At these functions, there was always a short speech given before the dinner to highlight the current work of the symphony or to excite the board members and donors about a new initiative. John was frequently asked to say a prayer prior to the meal. What conductor willingly does this? Why, our John Varineau does! He would sometimes jokingly refer to his dinner prayer duties as ones for “Vicar Varineau”. This willingness of his to be vulnerable, to serve in yet more personal and intimate ways over his years associated with the GRS, bonded him even more firmly to the hearts of the leaders in our community.


Exactly four years ago, John provided the most intimate and humbling service for our Nelson family. On the afternoon of March 30th, 2017, my dear husband and best friend Roger suffered a massive heart attack at home while I was at a GRS rehearsal with John at Cornerstone Chapel. John had always demonstrated a collegial regard and support for all of the GRS musicians. Backstage he would check up on anyone who had had a challenge in their lives and make sure they were okay. His ministrations towards our family and for the wellbeing of the GRS during this time went well above and far beyond any normal amount of support. By the very next afternoon, he had written a beautiful summary of Roger’s career and significance to the GRS family. He dedicated that evening’s GRS concert to his memory. He and GRS Personnel Manager Erich Peterson began conversations about how musicians could show their support for us. Within a few days, as plans for Roger’s memorial service took shape to be held ten days later, they created a list of willing volunteer musicians and a list of music available in the library should our family wish to have them play for the service. At Roger’s service there were over 30 musicians gathered in the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church, playing a beautiful half hour of pre-service music as well as selections throughout the service, rehearsed and conducted by John. Two of our musician colleagues offered newly-composed pieces dedicated to Roger’s memory for the service. All this came together over spring break! A third kindness that John was willing to perform was to speak at the service and render memories of Roger’s employ with the GRS. Who puts themselves through this agony? Why, faithful leaders and colleagues like John Varineau. And, of course, he told me that it would be his honor to do so. 


Even though his last name ends with "no", that word does not seem to be in John's vocabulary!

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