Spotlights beat down on the stage of the Missouri Theatre, catching the blond in Siri Geenen’s shoulder-length hair. She took a deep, steadying breath and raised the bow to her violin.
The occasion was a February 2006 performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” by the Columbia Civic Orchestra. As the orchestra’s concertmaster, Geenen played the piece’s gorgeous, mournful violin solos.
“In the work,” she explained, “the concertmaster acts as the narrator, tying together the stories that Scheherazade tells her husband to save her life.”
Geenen had studied the demanding excerpts and played them for auditions. But she had never played them for a performance before — and it was something she got to talk about when summer season of the professional Missouri Symphony Orchestra rolled around.
“The other violinists were like, ‘Wow, you got to play that? Nobody gets to play that,’” she recalled.
Geenen has felt a connection to music since her earliest memories; it’s a part of her being. Without it, she said, she wouldn’t know what to do with herself. “My playing is an extension of myself and my emotions,” she said.
As concertmaster of the Columbia Civic Orchestra, Geenen must not only play well, she must serve as a model for the rest of the violin section, and to some extent, set the tone for the rest of the orchestra.
Sally Swanson, a violinist in the orchestra since the mid 1990s, said there’s “almost a sorority that happens within the violin section of any orchestra. It can either be a warm, supportive environment or be catty and vindictive.” The section under Geenen, Swanson said, falls into the first category.
However, Geenen’s reach extends well beyond two-hour rehearsals every Tuesday night with the community orchestra. It is felt, for example, in her use of Suzuki instruction to teach violin.
The approach, which comes from Japan, incorporates the way children learn language: they hear it, imitate it, learn the words and, over time, learn to read or, in the case of Suzuki, learn to read music.
“It helps develop the ear; the words come later,” Geenen said.
Geenen has 28 violin students right now, ages 3 to 41. That includes her 2½-year-old daughter, Linnea, who just started playing a small violin 1/32 the size of a real one.
“It looks like something you’d hang on the Christmas tree,” Geenen said. “It’s so tiny.”
Stefan Freund, who conducts the civic orchestra and is a composer teaching in MU’s School of Music, said an influx of talented violin teachers, including Geenen, to the Columbia area has been a change for the better. “We’re already seeing the fruits of her labor showing up,” Freund said.
During the summer, when the civic orchestra goes on hiatus, Geenen plays in the violin section of the Missouri Symphony Orchestra, a summer festival orchestra led by Kirk Trevor. In the second concert of the group’s 2006 Family Concert Series, Geenen’s young students, along with pupils of other teachers, played along with the symphony.
The longest Geenen has gone without picking up a violin is two months, after the birth of her first child, her daughter Solveig — an old-fashioned Norwegian name meaning “sunny path,” which turns up in the play-turned-opera “Peer Gynt.”
“I was so busy and so in love with the baby that it was OK,” Geenen recalled. “But then when I got back to playing, I was like, ‘Whoa. I don’t think I should take this much time off again.’”
When Linnea was born in 2004, Geenen took only three weeks off.
Geenen wasn’t much more than a baby herself when her love of music took root.
“When we got home from a Christmas concert in which her brother was playing, she sat in front of our piano and played the melody of ‘Carol of the Bells,’” said Margaret Heglund, Geenen’s mother. Heglund said she watched in awe, realizing it was time for little Siri — a Scandinavian version of Sarah — to begin lessons.
Throughout the years, when the musical group that Heglund played with rehearsed at their home in Fridley, a northeastern suburb of Minneapolis, Siri fixed her eyes on the violinist, captivated by the sound and the movement of the bow.
When she was in fourth grade, musicians visited her class to see which string instruments the children were interested in playing. Heglund recalled Siri coming home that day, declaring, “Mom, I’m going to play violin.” She was a late beginner; most violinists begin learning the instrument when they’re 4 or 5 years old, but Siri had a gift, Heglund said.
Eager to take her playing to the next level, 12-year-old Siri joined the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony.
Surrounded by budding young talent, Siri found her soul mates in music, and, at a youth orchestra-sponsored summer performance camp, she formed a bond with her best friends to this day, Kate Donaldson and Meghan Jones.
“With most of my friends in high school that weren’t in music, they just didn’t get why I was practicing all the time, not hanging out like a normal teenager,” Siri said.
In Kate and Meghan she found assurance there were other people her age who felt as passionately as she did about music.
Siri excelled with the youth symphony and toured with the group to Russia, New Zealand and China. Those positive experiences, as well as encouragement from her two best friends, helped persuade her to pursue a career in orchestra performance.
But even then, the desire to share what she knew was present. She had taught piano since her junior year of high school; her mother had an overflow of students, and Siri took on some of them to make extra money. “Good thing,” Heglund said. “She hardly had time to eat with all of the practice and activities. She hardly had time for an after-school job, but for teaching, Siri always made time.”
The clock ticked toward Siri’s high school graduation and after getting rave reviews from Kate — who was a year ahead — about Northwestern University’s orchestral program, Siri and Meghan visited the school.
On her first night there, Siri was brushing her teeth in the women’s restroom of the dormitory when a guy rushed in to add water to his Ramen noodles. The two smiled at each other, and Siri blushed nervously. “I was a little shocked, because I grew up in such a sheltered environment,” she said. “I didn’t really date boys much in high school.”
The next year, when Siri was a freshman at Northwestern, she was sitting in the dining hall one evening when the same handsome undergraduate from the Ramen incident approached the table to chat with her and her friends.
Standing with a tray full of ceramic coffee mugs filled to the brim with black coffee, he introduced himself as Rich and declared he was on the cusp of pulling an all-nighter for a philosophy paper due in the morning.
After that, the two saw each other around campus frequently, and a friendship developed. Rich Geenen said their personalities balanced each other: She had a more warm and affectionate nature compared to his more intense and serious disposition. “Right away I knew that if we ever dated, I’d fall in love and maybe spend the rest of my life with her,” he said.
It took most of that first year before Rich mustered the courage to ask Siri to dinner at a quaint Italian restaurant.
Though Rich was not a musician like most of Siri’s friends, he never questioned why she needed to practice so much and not spend time with him. He encouraged her, and if she slacked off, he reminded her of her upcoming performances.
Rich graduated a year before Siri and entered a graduate program in philosophy at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Siri later joined him to enter a graduate program in violin performance and Suzuki pedagogy. They later married.
In those days, Siri thought she wanted to play in a professional symphony. But the reality of what it takes to win a symphony job set in.
On average, she said, it takes 55 auditions to land a job. That’s 55 plane tickets just for auditions. She took a few auditions, for which she practiced six hours a day.
“It’s hard to do anything else, and somehow you have to support yourself,” Siri said. “I realized that I loved it but I didn’t love it that much, and I knew I could have music in my life even if I wasn’t in a professional symphony.”
Throughout her time in Colorado, Geenen played with Viardot, a string quartet comprised of graduate students. The ensemble won the Music Teachers National Association National Chamber Music Competition in 1995 and the Young Musician’s Foundation of Colorado Chamber Music Competition in 1996. The group also played at weddings and funerals, toured throughout Colorado and California, and spent a summer at the Chautauqua Music School Festival in New York. As much as she adored touring, Geenen said it was hard for her because she felt married to the group.
In 2000, Rich Geenen accepted a job offer from Westminster College in Fulton. With the creative energy and Midwestern comfort Columbia offered, the couple decided that it would be the right place to start a family.
Within her first month of arriving in Missouri in 2000, Siri Geenen moved into a new home, became the owner of Iris, a black and white Labrador-mutt mix from the Humane Society, and found out she was pregnant with Solveig. With the help of other Suzuki teachers in the area, she acquired students quickly, but her hectic schedule didn’t leave open many opportunities to play.
She performed with the Columbia Civic Orchestra a few times, on an as-needed basis. But in the fall of 2003, orchestra manager Bruce Gordon called to tell her that the coveted position of concertmaster was available. She auditioned for the part, and Gordon said her playing was impeccable.
“Her warm and nurturing persona permeates through her section, making the experience of playing and practicing more positive for all,” Gordon said.
Now, she attempts more than ever to keep career and family in a happy equilibrium. Like many couples, she and Rich are “tag-team” parents, handing off the primary care of Solveig and Linnea around work, teaching and rehearsals.
“It’s kind of a balancing act,” she said, “and a lot of the time I feel like I’m juggling.”
When she’s not teaching private violin lessons, she’s practicing for performances. And most days, she tries her best to spend as much time as possible nurturing her daughters.
“As hard as it is sometimes, I know that I’m a better mom for being able to continue doing my music and what I love,” Geenen said. And she believes it’s important that her girls see her doing something that makes her happy, something that’s just for her.
“As a musician I try to have a balance between my playing and teaching, and as a person I try to have a balance between my career and my family,” she said. “Not to say that I have it all figured out, but I’m happy with my life the way it is.”