Sandra Pearson’s career reflects her wide-ranging expertise. In addition to serving at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, she is the only person to have had the official title of Librarian for the Boston Pops. You may be surprised that she has worked with the likes of Cab Calloway, Conan O’Brien, and The Manhattan Transfer, and on the recording sessions for Saving Private Ryan.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what interests Sandy, a multifaceted musician and researcher who is retiring after serving as Assistant Principal Librarian of the New York Philharmonic for 21 years. Here's her Q & A, followed by the speech she would have given the night the Orchestra would have celebrated this year’s retirees.
Q: How were you introduced to music?
SP: I grew up in a house filled with music in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother was a pianist, organist, and singer; my father had played trombone in the high school dance band, my uncle was a bassoonist, and we kids took piano lessons. There was a decent phonograph record collection; one LP I loved so much that I wore it out was an introduction to the instruments of the orchestra, with musical examples. I also loved the record of Peter and the Wolf. My mother played the postludes in church and, in the evenings, cocktail piano, so I already I knew that you could do music for a living and that music was going to be part of my life.
Q: What did you play other than piano as a kid?
SP: Our public-school system gave a musical aptitude test, with an almost psychological component; they said I had a strong, independent personality and put me on bassoon. I also picked up clarinet and brass instruments to be in the marching band, and I was involved in drum and bugle corps.
I was lucky that the University of Wisconsin–Madison was in my own backyard; it had a terrific faculty, including players from the East Coast and the Chicago Symphony. I maxed out the ear training exam, but had to audition on three different instruments before being accepted as a bassoon major. Some burn out in college; I couldn’t learn fast enough. Graduate school was a no-brainer — I earned my masters in bassoon performance from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
Q: How did you get involved in music library work?
SP: I helped out in the band room in high school, and in college I worked as librarian for the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (there were four of them), where I also played. I basically learned on the job, especially at my first full-time library job at the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops, working in both classical and pop repertoires, still playing bassoon as a freelancer. It wasn’t until the Boston Symphony job that I had to decide between performance and the library.
I got the urge to play again around 2007, after 12 years. At the Philharmonic I was around some of the greatest bassoon players, and with great encouragement from [Associate Principal Bassoon] Kim Laskowski I got back into it. Within two years I gave a recital in Madison as a thank you to my professor. I was playing better than I had been in school. It was a great way to go out.
Q: You have stopped playing the bassoon?
SP: Performing is a high-repetition job and the body eventually wears out. I made the decision to quit playing bassoon in 2018. I had already returned to the cello, which I had studied a little in Cincinnati to develop my understanding of string instruments — I thought it was important because of all the editing and string marking that librarians have to do — despite being trapped in a beginner’s body, I am falling in love with the orchestra repertoire all over again! And chamber music — all of the string quartets I could only admire from afar as a wind player. I am a lucky person to be able to explore that, too.
I had really good support in this change; in fact, The New York Repertory Orchestra, in which I was playing principal bassoon, adopted me into the back of the cello section! The looks on the wind players’ faces were priceless! Just before the pandemic shut everything down I’d just started playing with the UN Symphony Orchestra, and I’ve since recorded “virtual performance” videos with them. It is nice to be able to play, and also feel that I’m doing something to fill a humanitarian need.
Q: What else are you doing these days?
SP: Lots of letter writing with my beloved fountain pens! I have also been joy-riding in a time machine disguised as a bookcase. Many of my routines and activities were upended and I am trying to take that as a signal to stay flexible and remain young at heart. Reading and journaling about my past, what is going on now, and planning for the future all help keep me grounded. I am a goal-oriented person so — much like formulating a practice strategy as I would for any given summer — I am now recalibrating my daily routine to prepare myself for a more structured academic lifestyle soon.
Q: But you are young to retire. Any plans?
SP: That’s true, but it is time to take my experience and fascination with our interaction and history of the printed page in a different direction. I will be pursuing a master’s degree in Information at the University of Toronto, concentrating in Archives and Records Management. I will have a collaborative specialization in Book History and Print Culture, focusing on Music. I hope to become an advocate for open access to information, someday becoming a historical caretaker for an arts institution. It will be more important than ever to find a way to showcase our musical institutions and reconnect with our communities as society adjusts to what has just happened. I am thrilled to return to university and to get an international perspective on all of this. I will definitely be outside my comfort zone as I embark on this academic odyssey, but I enjoy being a lifelong learner who strives to learn something new every day. It might be the 15th time you are addressing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but there is always another layer to discover about it. My mantra has been and will continue to be: be flexible, be understanding, be open to new concepts, don’t hoard information, do better.
Q: As you look back over your decades at the Phil, do any particular performances stand out in your memory?
SP: It can be easy to take for granted sometimes how great the music is, but there are moments when a performance can still take my breath away. In a live concert, something special happens — you can’t put your finger on it, but somehow an artist can take a 2,700-seat concert hall and make you feel like you are the only person in the room. I remember that happening with Emanuel Ax, for instance, and Wynton Marsalis — you feel that they are cradling the most precious thing and you were privy to that. That’s one of the things I most cherish about live performance. I don’t remember that happening anywhere else the way I do in New York.
Sandra Pearson’s Farewell Remarks
Hello, I’m Sandra Pearson, Assistant Principal Librarian. I will be retiring on September 20, 2020, after 21 years with four Music Directors while contributing to the music-making as a member of this great Orchestra.
The New York Philharmonic has made steady progress over the years in diversifying its roster, and I am proud to have been the first female librarian hired and tenured by this Orchestra. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have worked alongside and, in a few instances, made music with colleagues who know how to bring out the best in each other.
There are so many things to be grateful for as I think about having been able to make a living as a musician. It started back in Wisconsin, where I first joined the union at the age of 16 and gigged my way through school, and then I won my first jobs with the Cincinnati Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestra libraries before coming to New York in 1998. I would like to thank my colleague Larry Tarlow for challenging me to do better, to be a thoughtful person when conversing, and to offer unique perspectives on current events. I would also like to thank my other library colleague, Sara Griffin, for keeping me young at heart and reminding me to keep a good balance between work and family. I would also like to thank my other Orchestra colleagues for constantly reminding me of what’s artistically possible and aesthetically achievable through hard work.
Thank you to all of the staff and crew whom I have gotten to know, to work with, and to tour with over the years. Your efforts, like ours, often went unnoticed (which was a good thing!), but your dedication and professionalism did not. And, lastly, thank you Jaap for your inspiring words and actions during this time off from performing. I wish I could have worked with you for a little while longer.
I also wish this message could have been delivered in person, but I know I will come back to say goodbye properly someday. For now, I would like to say to my fellow retirees, Howard Wall, Eric Bartlett, and Arlen Fast: I wish all of us success as we embark on new chapters in our lives and careers. Change is good, lifelong learning is even better.
And so it is time to go. I will never forget all of the tours, musical highs, and friends I have made here in New York and abroad.
Good luck, good health, and take care. Thank you.