50 Years of Music

Jane Hall, a musician with the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, will be retiring after 50 years of playing with the orchestra.

In 1966, 23-year-old Jane Hall was on her way into the Peace Corps when she decided to visit her mother, who was working as a secretary in Flagstaff. 

Hall had just finished a degree in anthropology at the University of California Berkeley. She certainly didn’t plan to join the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, nor could she have imagined that she would stay for as long as she did, get married to the son of Lowell Observatory director John Hall or perform the selfsame notes that Igor Fyodorovich Stravinksy (her favorite composer) wrote -- she didn’t even play an instrument then.

“I had never been to Arizona," said Hall, who was raised on Bainbridge Island outside Seattle. "I thought it must be an awful place, 120 degrees, cacti all over the place, but it was so beautiful."

Not many musicians can say they’ve been with the same orchestra for half a century, and in Flagstaff, nobody besides Hall can say so at all.

The now 76-year-old oboist and English horn player retired from FSO this April after 50 years of playing both instruments in several hundred performances and even more practices. She joined the orchestra in 1969, when she was 26, less than a month after her son Ian was born. In fact, the call from then-conductor Tom Kirshbaum came in while she was still in the hospital’s maternity ward: Would she please play in the next concert?

Hall’s answer was yes, but, as the performance approached, so did the nerves. 

“I was not getting a whole lot of sleep. I said to the conductor, ‘I don’t think I’m coming to the concert because I’m going to ruin it,'” Hall said.

The fear almost cost her a career, she said, but the young mother recovered and went back.

Hall's first performance was The New World Symphony. It turned out that several major life events for Hall would align with Antonin Dvorak’s prolific and oft-played symphony: Four years later, Hall would play it again, her husband John holding their screaming 3-week-old daughter in a Cottonwood concert hall until he was forced to wait outside with her for the rest of the show.

“My first experience [on stage] was absolute terror, but I got over that pretty fast, and then it became a thrill. It was a thrill to play then because I was young and enthusiastic and I didn’t see any boundaries at all. I had a tremendous enthusiasm for what I did,” Hall said.

Unlike many who have mastered their instruments, Hall learned the oboe in her 20s. She had some training on the piano as a kid, but the double-reeded, 17th century French woodwind was entirely foreign to her until the age of 25.

Hall was entranced by its sound. "I said, 'I want to play that'," she said. 

She found a teacher, a visiting professor from USC, and began what she called a lifelong process of learning. She wanted to be in an orchestra of her own. 

"I went with the idea that it would be nice to belong to something; I needed family and friends, so I thought, family and friends and music, what could be better?" Hall said. "It was a dysfunctional family, but the oboe player was very nice."

Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1950 with only a handful of members. Now, the company has 60 musicians and plays for an annual audience of over 14,000 people. It’s a far cry from the orchestra Hall first joined -- a group she describes as decidedly more rag-tag, made up of students and faculty desperately wanting a way to play music, together.

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Back then Hall was paid $5 "just to show up." 

Her salary went up only when she threatened to quit in the early 1970s and Kirschbaum raised her pay to $12 in an attempt to keep her. It worked.  

“Everybody saw me, this whirlwind, come in, full of enthusiasm, and love, and youth, and everything...and I guess they noticed,” Hall said.

While John taught astronomy at NAU (he is now retired), Hall spent time with her children. He built their house in University Heights, on land that had been allotted to NAU professors. John would make many things; "it turned out he was very savvy at that," Hall said. This included a wooden box in which his wife could store her reeds -- a dark brown shell she still uses today -- and epoxy key extensions for Hall's oboe so her pinkies could reach the highest notes.

Hall's days were a balance between the musical and the familial. 

"After the kids finally went to bed, I would go out in the woodshed behind our little house with my light and my space heater and practice. This was sometimes 11 or 12 at night and my daughter was an early riser, so I hardly got any sleep at all," Hall said. 

Hall's mother hadn't been able to give her the same attention -- a lifelong battle with mental illness kept her from doing so -- and Hall vowed to do things differently for her own kids. That, and she quickly learned that music was a lifeline when the going got tough.

“When I have a crisis, my solution is always to learn something. That’s the beauty of music: if you can’t do anything about your problems, you can play something," she said. 

As her time with FSO went on, Hall made connections that had her teaching music theory and giving music lessons. 

A career in music is no walk in the park, Hall said. It frequently comes with injury and stress; discipline is crucial. Daily practice and constant learning are the minimum. Hall has managed to remain injury-free in all her years, however. She said doing yoga every day has facilitated that.

"I think the reason I play [music] is because it gives me a voice, oboe and the English horn both are singing instruments, my mother was a singer, my grandmother was a singer, but I wasn’t born with a singing voice...but this gave me that voice," Hall said. 

Hall also began learning the harp at the age of 47. 

"I decided I would try it because somehow it appealed to me, it was soothing and comforting," Hall said. 

In retirement, Hall plans to continue learning, "always," she said. A life without music is out of the question for her. Among other things, she'll have more time to devote to the harp in particular. Hall's 47-stringed instrument shares a space with the oboe, the English horn, her reeds, reed-making tools and books in a music room all her own.

Last month Hall played her last concert with FSO, Shostakovich's "The Gadfly Suite." She was handed a bouquet of flowers and a thank you letter after the performance. Leaving could be summed up in one word, she said: "Hard." 

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