When the first notes of a concert ring out and the audience quiets, a musician hovers in a state of nervousness and excitement. Months of practice, however, must come before the figurative curtain can rise. One of the first things Mirabai Smoot ʼ23 told me when I met her was that this past Monday’s rehearsal was a tiring one, a full rehearsal with the complete Swarthmore Orchestra. Often, the class is split up into sectionals, where the pieces are practiced in smaller groups. During full rehearsals, it is time for the unification of the sections as the pieces come together.
Mirabai has been playing the violin since she was three years old. Her mom is also a violinist, which is how Mirabai’s journey began. Mirabai, however, didn’t choose the violin for herself.
“At first I didn’t like it very much and [my mom and I] fought about it all the time, but I think the turning point was when I was about ten or so when I started orchestra … prior to that point, I’d been mainly doing solo repertoire, which is nice, but not what I prefer … when I started orchestra, that was really when I started liking the violin,” she explained.
The connection and magnificence of orchestra drove Mirabai’s passion for the violin in a way she hadn’t experienced before.
“I kept playing, I think, almost entirely because of orchestra. It is just a really great experience. Solo repertoire is nice; it’s fun to play. But when you’re in orchestra, it’s a lot more of a communal experience we share, a form of art that we’re all contributing to. And it’s really fun. It is really beautiful. And that’s why I kept going: because there’s so much more stuff I want to play and I’m not ready to give up on that.”
This semester, she is the Assistant Concertmaster of the Swarthmore Orchestra, responsible for making sure the violin section joins the piece on time.
When she plays with others, Mirabai is surrounded by music on all sides. It permeates every part of her, from her brain reading the notes to the fingers creating them. It’s a place where she can’t be bothered by the things that might nag her at any other time of day; there is no space for those things in a room so full of music.
“I think it might be a bit of a cliche, but I think that music really does make the rest of the world fall away. It’s like a world in and of itself. And when I’m playing, especially in orchestra, everything else falls away … all the stresses of life, everything that you should do: all the homework, all the tests, all the papers, that all falls away, and all I can think about is the music,” Mirabai shared.
With the orchestra, Mirabai is living in a contradiction: she is grounded in her focus on her role in the piece while simultaneously encompassed by the sound of dozens of other instruments that threaten to sweep her away with them.
“I think in general that when I play in an ensemble, it’s at once a very grounding but also a kind of destabilizing experience. Because on one hand, I’m very much in my own head, I’ve forgotten everything else, I’m just thinking about me and the music. On the other hand, it’s such an expansive experience because we’re all working together to create this music, and so you can kind of get carried away by the sound and by everything that’s going on.”
At Swarthmore, Mirabai is a math and computer science double major, so orchestra is her step out of the cool logic of numbers that govern most of her time at Swat.
“Music is also just a world of emotion more than anything else and in my life, as a math and CS major, there’s not all that much room for emotion. Music is a world where that’s the only thing that matters. It’s all about emotion, and I think that provides a nice contrast with the rest of my life.”
For Mirabai, playing with the orchestra makes her take a break from the daily college stress, especially with a Swarthmore course load.
“It’s really an escape from reality, I would say. And that’s not something you get very often here at Swarthmore: there’s always stuff to be done … [playing the violin] definitely gives me a break. Because I can’t play and think about life at the same time and so it definitely has been good for my mental health. There isn’t that much art, I guess, in my day to day life. And this is a very unique, different way of expressing myself that doesn’t come in many other parts of my life, so that’s nice as well,” she noted.
In Mirabai’s home in New York, there’s always somebody practicing the violin. During the COVID lockdown, there were seven residents in Mirabai’s family’s home, six of whom were violinists, and four of whom were students in school on Zoom during the day. Though trying to schedule rehearsal time for every individual after the conclusion of schooling at 5 p.m. was a hazardous endeavor, being a family of violinists also brought them together.
“COVID was really isolating overall, but we had all the family together with all of our instruments and that was definitely a way to bring a sense of community back into a rough year … despite everything else going on,” Mirabai explained.
But violin doesn’t connect only her household; Mirabai sees music as something that can bridge people of all cultures, as a universal language. Even throughout different culture-specific traditions, everyone shares the same sound.
“I think music really is a thing that brings us all together as people regardless of language. Every culture is different … but [it’s] the same overall world of music. And it’s one that we all share, one of the few things that can bridge the cultural and linguistic gap. I think it’s nice to have something that brings us all together despite our many differences.”
Though Mirabai doesn’t know exactly what she wants her future to look like, she does know that she wants music to be a part of it, despite the time commitment.
“I really want to keep playing in the future. It’s easy to keep it in my life in college because there’s an orchestra, whereas after graduation, I would really like to find an orchestra to play in or an ensemble to play in, some group to play in. But I’m not sure what that will look like, and also violin does take up a whole lot of time just to maintain and to get better. And currently I have that time, but I don’t know if I will have the time in the future and for how long it will be feasible to keep going for. But I hope to keep going for as long as possible.”
Even if she can’t keep playing the violin, Mirabai doesn’t want to let music go, whether she’s playing the violin or listening to other artists’ music.
“Even when I actually stop playing violin, if I stop playing violin, I definitely want to stay involved in the music world, and keep going to concerts, and keep listening to music, and still engaging with the community even if I’m not actually playing anymore. But I hope to push that moment off for as long as possible.”
If you’d like to see Mirabai and the rest of the Swarthmore Orchestra, the Fall 2022 concert will be in the Lang Music Concert Hall on Dec. 2nd at 8 p.m.