You could say I'm a true Texan (and you'd be accurate) but, I daresay, not a stereotypical one. My grandparents on both sides immigrated to the U.S. from eastern Europe (Ukraine and Lithuania). My father was raised in the Midwest (Kansas and Missouri); my mother lived in Dallas virtually her entire life.
My father, Henry Brahinsky (who passed away in 2001 at age 84), was a musical prodigy on violin as a boy; after coming to Texas in 1940 he would become for many years one of the leading figures in the music performance and education scenes in the DallasFort Worth area. My mother, Muriel, had more of a scientific/academic bent; her M.D. from Southwestern Medical School at age 21 made her one of the youngest graduates of that institution. (She died in 2013, aged 88.)
The two worlds, musical and academic, that my parents brought to their marriage would exert their respective influences inexorably in the home where I grew up in Dallas. I was reading at 3, doing column addition and reciting my times tables at 4 or 5, doing chemistry experiments, spelling "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis," and writing poetry at 6. Yet perhaps my greatest fascination was listening to Daddy practice his violin; no doubt I looked on with some combination of curiosity and envy as my two older brothers started violin lessons.
During first grade my wish became reality as I began lessons with my father on a 1/4-size John Juzek violin. By third grade I was sufficiently advanced to play, by memory, two movements of a Handel sonata in unison with a number of older students on a program featuring students from throughout the city. In sixth grade I won a trophy for my 1st-place performance of a Vivaldi concerto in a contest involving all of Dallas County.
Meanwhile, I was working hard at schoolwork. I think I annoyed my 6th-grade math teacher when I finished a worksheet of the 90 division facts in 45 seconds. I was class champion of the spelling bee in 5th, 6th, and 7th grades, and school champion in 6th and 7th; I took first prize among the 6th graders at my school science fair for a project about rockets. In 7th grade, my two best friends, Sam Rhodes and Jim King, and I joined forces to form DISRUPT (Decent, Intelligent Slide Rule Users Put Together). Academics and music played tug-of-war with my summertime time, too: I attended both nature classes at the Museum of Natural History and summer orchestra and music theory classes at local schools.
Junior high proved, frankly, to be one of the most unpleasant periods of my life: my preference for academic and musical pursuits over those more generally admired in my peer group, such as an ability to smoke, swear, and ride a motorbike, was clearly sufficient grounds for ceaseless humiliation and periodic beatings. Nevertheless, I persevered, auditioning my way into the All-City Junior High Orchestra in 8th grade, and both the Dal-Hi Symphony Orchestra and Texas All-State Youth Orchestra in 9thmeanwhile earning membership in National Junior Honor Society both years. I attended Big "D" Music Camp at Southern Methodist University for two summers during junior high, and Baylor University Summer Music Camp in Waco after 9th grade.
For 10th grade I entered the almost brand-new Skyline High School and Career Development Center in Dallas. Skyline featured, in addition to a regular high-school curriculum, Dallas' first magnet high-school programs in a multitude of areas. With a student body of close to 4000 on a multi-building campus covering some 100 acres, it made quite an impression. I enrolled in the music section of the Performing Arts Cluster, which meant three hours of music a day, with the rest of the day spent on conventional academic subjects. I generally enjoyed my time at Skyline. The music-cluster offerings were interesting and even occasionally inspiring, but after two years I needed a change of scene, so I spent my senior year at Skyline in the Advanced Mathematics Cluster.
I will note at this point that Skyline is the alma mater of a number of rather famous individuals. Michael Johnson, the world- and Olympic-champion, world record-holding sprinter (he of the gold shoes) was a Raider. So was Larry Johnson, a former NBA #1 draft pick and All-Star forward with the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks. And I was very pleased to learn that Peri Gilpin, the inimitable Roz Doyle on NBC's Frasier, went to Skyline. I would also mention that Dallas' Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School, which the Skyline Performing Arts Cluster became when it moved to its own campus in 1976, counts among its alumni such notable pop-music performers as jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and singers Erykah Badu and Norah Jones. . . . . But enough about Roz and Roy, Larry and Peri, Johnson & Johnson.
I continued with my musical ventures in high school, making all-state orchestra each year, including the top orchestra, All-State Symphony, in my junior and senior years. I was a member of the short-lived but highly regarded Dal-Hi Chamber Players in 10th grade. I spent my high-school summers at Sewanee Summer Music Center at the University of the South in Tennessee. Meanwhile, I kept hitting the books. In 1972 I was second among all Skyline 10th graders on the American Mathematics Contest by the Mathematical Association of America, and on the 1973 version I finished first in the school. I was elected to the National Honor Society two years and was an officer of both the Mu Alpha Theta math fraternity and the German Club. I was fortunate to score well enough on the College Board PSAT/NMSQT to become a National Merit Semifinalist; I would ultimately be awarded a scholarship. At the end of my senior year, I was chosen valedictorian of Skyline's 939-member graduating class of 1974.
My dual life in violin and mathematics continued as I began college life as a member of the MIT Class of '78. Like all MIT freshmen, I duly labored mightily over calculus, chemistry, physics, and computer-science texts and handouts, jabbing far into the night at calculators and computer-terminal keyboards. Yes, I was a Texas Instruments SR-50A-wielding, CRC-toting, LISP-interpreting, Maxwell's Equations sweatshirt-wearing MIT nerd, majoring in . . . . . . . . music, of course.
I've said frequently that if I had a nickel for every time I was asked, "Why did you go to MIT to major in music?," I'd be a very rich man today. A logical question, I suppose. The answer, though, is pretty straightforward: music was my first love and intended career, but I loved math and science very much as well and was good enough at them to get accepted to this world-class school. Plusmy mom said, "You got accepted at MIT; you're going."
MIT was indeed amazing. The Boston area was so stimulating (albeit different in so many ways from Dallas!), and I immersed myself in the milieu. To this day, one of my proudest accomplishments was to be one of only 9 out of, I think, 567 MIT freshmen to make a perfect score on the first exam in Physics I that semester. Here I was, a music major who had not even taken physics in high school, and my cohorts were almost all on their way to MIT science and engineering degrees. I was getting into this!
Things change. A couple of years later, I'd be telling my friends, "I used to say I wished I had a nickel for every time somebody asked, 'Why did you go to MIT to major in music?' Now I could get as rich if I had just a penny for every time someone asked, 'Why would you transfer from MIT to the University of Houston?'"
The obvious answer: MIT was too hard, and I couldn't cut it academically. But the obvious answer is wrong. In fact, I did just fine in the grades department: a 4.85 on MIT's 5-point academic-unit system, which translated to a 3.79 upon transfer conversion to the conventional 4-point, semester-hour system used at UH.
What happened was that a lot of people who I thought were friends decided as time went on that it was more fun to band together to make fun of "the humanities major." What started out as occasional good-natured (I think) ribbing by a couple of guys quickly deteriorated into constant ridicule and name-calling by the whole bunch. At student-faculty-alumni gatherings, or at MIT Club of Dallas Christmas parties, people would walk up to me and ask my major, ready maybe to have a few chuckles about the old Mech-E lab or whatever. When I said "humanities," they'd suddenly recognize an old friend on the other side of the room. . . . I was a shy kid just getting out of my teens, and I couldn't handle it. I needed out.
There were, of course, other factors. I had chosen MIT because of its virtually peerless math and science offerings. In my two years there, I certainly took advantage of them, completing three courses in math, one in chemistry, two in physics, and three in computer science. But if I had continued at "the 'Tute," I probably would have taken few if any further courses in those areas. It seemed to make sense, in view of all the other reasons mentioned, to continue at a place where my major subject, music, was taught at a top level, and at a small fraction of MIT's tuition costs.
One of my older brothers was making great strides in his violin studies in Houston, and my thoughts turned back southwest from Cambridge. When I told my MIT dorm-mates of my plan, they stopped their teasing long enough to warn that I could never relate to college students at some state university in Texas. I mean, I'd know about surface integrals and second-order differential equations and capacitance, and what would they be able to talk about? Tumbleweeds and quarterbacks and rodeos? Despite these dire predictions, and over parental pleas to reconsider, I was a Cougar come fall of my junior year.
The doomsayers could not have been more wrong. Perhaps never before or since have I had such a fulfilling, comfortable sense of belonging as I did in my student days at the University of Houston. The music curriculum was exhilaratingly challenging, and the competition was tough but always friendly. My violin teacher, Fredell Lack, was an internationally-esteemed artist and pedagogue (I created this encyclopedia article about her) but mothered her students as if they were her own children. I made friends easily, and quite a number of those friendships remain strong today.
Under Miss Lack's tutelage my violin playing improved rapidly; a summer spent at Meadowmount, Ivan Galamian's grueling string camp in upstate New York, studying with Margaret Pardee and her young assistant, Kevin Lawrence, contributed significantly as well. I was playing repertoire I would have deemed impossible only a couple of years earlier. On my graduate recital in November 1979, accompanied by a 19-year-old Timothy Hester (who is now a professor and director of the University of Houston Moores School of Music Keyboard Collaborative Arts program), I performed the Prokofiev Sonata in F minor, the Bach D minor Partita, and the Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5.
M.M. in hand, it was time tentatively to test the waters of the professional world. I auditioned successfully for the Texas Opera Theater orchestra. TOT was the touring company that represented Houston Grand Opera. As the 1980s began, I found myself mostly sitting on a Trailways bus or in cramped pits in auditoriums in such places as Twin Falls, Idaho, and Show Low, Arizona. Before concluding my tenure after four seasons with the company, I would become concertmaster of the orchestra as I logged some 50,000 miles across 27 states with TOT. Over the ensuing months, I won auditions for Texas Chamber Orchestra (as assistant principal second violin) and the substitute list for the Houston Symphony. Also, in 1981 I acquired the violin that I played for most of my subsequent professional life, crafted in 1980 by the Italian-American maker Sergio Peresson. I was establishing myself on the Houston scene and, for the most part, enjoying it.
As they always seem to do, things took a turn south, this time in late 1983. Actually there were a number of minor things, and one major one. A new music director had taken the reins of Texas Chamber Orchestra. He made it his first order of business to drive certain University of Houston alumni, including me, out of the TCO violin section through a series of humiliations, so he could make room on the roster for his own current and former students. When I realized how unwilling my colleagues were to intercede (out of fear for their own statuses, as several later confessed to me) and how the musicians' union, which was very much aware of the situation, stood idly by as this individual flouted rules and policies with impunity, the writing on the wall became quite clear. On a frigid Christmas Day in 1983, I left Houston behind.
Out of the frying pan into the fire. A job playing with a trio at The Greenbrier, a luxury resort in the mountains of West Virginia, proved far worse than anything I had endured in Houston. I became depressed and chronically physically ill; I hung on for a long two months before returning to my hometown of Dallas to recuperate.
Healing balm came on a very balmy day in San Antonio in April 1984, in the form of a successful audition for a full-time one-year position in the San Antonio Symphony violin section. The 198485 SAS season, though 11 of its 38 weeks were lost to a musicians' strike, gave me my first valuable experience as a full-time symphony musician.
Unfortunately, I was runner-up in the subsequent audition for a permanent position in San Antonio, so I had to return to free-lancing for one more year, this time in Dallas. The Dallas free-lance scene proved quite difficult to break into: most of my jobs were playing for receptions with musical entertainment provided by Dial-A-Quartet! I did have one nice surprise that year: I was listed in the 1985 edition of Outstanding Young Men of America, having been nominated by the wife of one of my roommates from my Houston days.
I was rescued from my seeming fate as a perennial free-lancer (if that!) by another figure from my Houston past: Louis Salemno, who had been a music director of Texas Opera Theater, recommended me to the people at Lake George Opera Festival, a professional company in upstate New York. I was hired for the LGOF summer season of 1986 and performed as assistant principal second violin in the orchestra. My stand partner there, Eloise Clark, was during the year the principal second violinist of the Virginia Symphony in Norfolk. She told me they were having auditions in September, and at that time I won a permanent full-time position in that orchestra. The orchestra was not great but it was a good start. I enjoyed my time there although I (and many others) were treated badly by the conductor.
In May of 1987 I won an audition for a better and higher-paying orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in Florida, which was an excellent ensemble. I enjoyed my time there although I (and many others) were treated badly by the conductor. (Oopsam I repeating myself?) In addition to the JSO schedule, I performed chamber music with some terrific people as a member of the Classic Ensemble of Jacksonville: the other violinist was my girlfriend at that time, Melissa Pierson (now Barrett), whom I had gotten to know at Lake George when I returned for my second summer there. My relationship with Melissa was my first real involvement of that sort, but we would ultimately part fairly amicably.
In October of 1989 I finally won a permanent position with the San Antonio Symphony. It was at that time a significant improvement in pay and gave me membership in what is considered a major orchestra (Jacksonville was at that point a "regional orchestra," which is one tier below major status; it has since moved up to the "majors"). It was good to be back.
The San Antonio Symphony is an outstanding orchestra. I am proud to have been a member and to have earned the great respect of many of my colleagues.
One of those colleagues, violinist Bonnie Boyd, went well beyond the call of duty when in January of 1995 she introduced me to April Abraham, a local piano teacher and pianist, whom I met at the intermission of a San Antonio Symphony concert. April and I knew almost immediately that we had "met our match" in one another. We were married in October of that year, and our marriage has flourished ever since.
I elected to take a sabbatical from the SA Symphony for 199596 and used the opportunity to return to school. I enrolled as a mathematics major at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and meanwhile continued to free-lance as a violinist, playing that season's concerts with the Victoria (TX) Symphony.
I returned to the San Antonio Symphony in the fall of '96 but took a couple of evening classes at UTSA towards my math degree, then a full load in the summer of '97 to complete my degree work. I earned a Bachelor of Science magna cum laude in Mathematics with a UTSA GPA of 3.93.
In October 1997, disaster struck. In the aftermath of an automobile accident on a two-lane highway near Hico, Texas, I fell some eight feet from a bridge, onto my back. The injury essentially paralyzed me for a couple of weeks, but I was back at work after a month. To my great dismay, I began experiencing severe pain in the upper-back and neck areas, which had not been directly impacted in the fall. Much effort, time, and money went towards attempts to eradicate the pain in the succeeding nine years, but I obtained at best partial and/or temporary relief through the dizzying variety of treatments applied. In July 2006, at the recommendation of an orthopedic surgeon, I elected to have disc surgery. Two years after the surgery, I had essentially recovered, and I have been virtually pain-free since.
In the wake of the accident, I tried to continue my career of performing full-time in the symphony, but sadly I came to realize it was not to be: the symphony schedule was too grueling for my injured back to manage. After the 199899 season, I left full-time employment with the San Antonio Symphony. I still play professionally and have managed to keep up my "chops" pretty well. In the fall of 1999 I began offering private math tutoring to high-school students, and early in 2001 I started a private violin-teaching studio. I have also done some part-time consulting, editing mathematics exams for a local company that published tests for the United States Academic Decathlon. From 2003 to 2005, I belonged to the National Puzzlers' League, which provided an outlet for my lifelong obsession with wordplay.
So the high-powered "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis"-spelling kid, the National Merit ScholarvaledictorianMIT alum...well, he's settled into a pretty low-key, patchwork career (if you can call it that). But he has a supportive, fun-loving, and loving wife, a beautiful home, lots of hobbies to fool around with and books to read, and a few dear friends. Life is good.
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