By Diane Eisenman
One day, during high school music class, 13-year-old Rowena Hammill and her classmates were soaking up Brahms’ 3rd Symphony. Rowena found herself taken by the “profound music.” So much so that when it was over, she was “shocked” when one of her classmates seemingly shrugged it off and asked: “So when’s lunch?”
That was the moment it occurred to the Sydney, Australia native that she might have a connection to music that her peers may not get.
“Music chooses you,” Rowena says today. “You don’t have a choice.”
Rowena’s school had no instrumental music program, but her mom had heard of an excellent cello teacher in the neighborhood offering private lessons. “So I thought, ‘Okay, why not?’”
She promptly found that with her small hands attempting a half-size cello, the instrument was still demanding. “A heart surgeon said that playing the cello is harder than heart surgery,” Rowena says. “It requires finding the correct place on the strings for each note, with no margin for error, and holding the bow so that it rests on the strings with minimal tension. It takes the coordination of two hands doing different things, like rubbing your tummy and patting your head.”
And so Rowena finished high school with a scholarship to major in cello at Northern Illinois University. This was followed by a Master’s at Indiana University. When a job offer lured her to Cal State Northridge (CSUN), which she parlayed into a job with the LA Chamber Orchestra (LACO), Rowena had both her green card and her future in her hands.
Rowena was part of that original group of LACOers who branched off from LACO to form the LA Opera Orchestra in 1986.
LACO not only led Rowena to her professional zenith with LA Opera, but also to her personal one in the form of her husband. He was her music stand partner at LACO, and despite naysayers who said it would never work with another musician, Rowena fell head over heels and married the guy. Today they live on Vashon Island near Seattle and have two grown sons.
Rowena finds the most challenging opera, cello wise, to be Wagner’s Ring Cycle, that quartet of marathon-length operas that many people who don’t play cello also find challenging. Wagner was a fan of the cello’s mid-range tones, which translates to the instrument playing almost constantly throughout any given opera. To prove to herself that she was up to the task, in 2009 Rowena grabbed the opportunity to play principal cello with Seattle Opera for the Ring Cycle. So how’d it go? “Exhilarating!” she says.
While her husband has retired, Rowena is not ready to do so just yet. She commutes weekly from Vashon Island to her new job at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, and continues to perform with the LA Opera Orchestra. And she performs with Pittance, a chamber group made up of LA Opera Orchestra members. “I find I am a better performer as I teach these skills to others,” she says. “And I am a better teacher because of my experiences as a performer.”
Her advice to aspiring cellists? “[P]lay as much chamber music as possible. It teaches you to listen, to blend, to get along, to be flexible and to compromise for the best sound.”
Meantime, Rowena has put her stamp on Seattle. She founded the nonprofit Vashon Chamber Music Series, which produces between two and six concerts a year, then created a one-week cello summer camp. She has joined with members of the Seattle Symphony to create the Girsky String Quartet and often substitutes with the symphony.
And the genes pass on. Her younger son Hugh has found his voice as a baritone. At 21 his exceptional voice is already garnering rave reviews.
Throughout it all, Rowena still has down time. Living on an island has great opportunities to relax and explore nature. Rowena enjoys her horse, two dogs, and beautiful scenery everywhere. Hiking in Mt. Rainier Park is a frequent family adventure.
Cover photo credit: Diane Eisenman