Justine Lamb-Budge began her musical training when she was 5, and in a way it has never stopped.
Lamb-Budge, 24, has two jobs: section violinist and backup for concertmaster Noah Geller. The concertmaster’s responsibilities are significant. He or she is the principal violinist in the first violin section and is the soloist unless a guest violinist is performing. The concertmaster leads the pre-performance tuning of the orchestra and has other management responsibilities.
So Lamb-Budge prepares twice for each concert. She learns the music she would usually play in the first violins. And she also learns Geller’s music in case she needs to step in.
“It sort of means I’m Noah’s right-hand man,” she said. “My job when he is there is to support him … and when he isn’t there, I take over for the concertmaster role and give him some time off.”
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The first violins are seated to the conductor’s left. The second violins are on the right.
“Whether you’re in the first or second violins, you are a team and you want to blend in, but you also want to contribute stylistically and in other ways,” she said. “In a leadership role you interact with other principals.
“The associate position is a little tricky because you are a leader but you’re always second in command — but you have to always be prepared to be first in command. It’s a position where you have to be uniquely flexible.”
That can be stressful, she said. But with the right attitude it can be exciting.
“That’s what I love about it,” she said. “Whether I’m sitting first or second, I’m always on my toes. I can’t sit back and let anything happen. It’s a responsibility. And I enjoy that because there’s always something new to learn, and there’s always a new challenge.
“And, of course, sitting next to the concertmaster you get to be a sponge. You absorb things and learn from it. It can be stressful, for sure, but it’s worth it.”
The Wayne, Pa., native began violin lessons when she was 5. She took some piano along the way but her instrument was always the violin. She was good enough to be admitted to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when she was 16.
“I was younger than many students but I was certainly not the youngest,” she said. “I did not have your typical high school experience.”
She began taking college-level courses, mainly in music, and ended up getting a GED. She later studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
As with other Symphony musicians, Lamb-Budge’s time is divided among rehearsing and performing with the orchestra, practicing on her own and constantly learning music to be performed later in the Symphony’s season.
“Part of the job is to show up prepared,” she said. “You’ve got to know your music. You’ve got to understand what you’re playing and some of the background of it. Each person handles it differently and prepares differently. Some people require weeks and weeks of thoughtful, considerate practice, and for some people, it’s a few days before.”
In school, young players feel like they have “all the time in the world to improve your sound and learn all these pieces. But you get into the real world and you’re like, ‘OK, I only have a certain number of hours because I have to pay my bills, and I have to pick up dry cleaning, and you’ve got to let the dog out.’ Life happens.”
If she has to learn a piece she’s not familiar with, she immediately goes to YouTube or buys it off iTunes.
“Learning your own part isn’t enough,” she said. “You have to know where it fits.”
Lamb-Budge plays a violin made for her by Argentinian instrument maker Daniel Karinkanta. She and her father traveled to Buenos Aires to meet the builder. The violin, she said, was modeled on a Stradivarius.
“It’s kind of amazing these days that you can find these instruments that have these beautiful qualities, because it used to be you could only go for these really expensive older instruments,” she said. “He does an amazing job of antiquing them, but it also has a beautiful, warm sound.”
Orchestra musicians work strange hours compared to people at 9-to-5 jobs, and the amount of time practicing, rehearsing and performing might be considered daunting. But Lamb-Budge said musicians do, in fact, have time for social lives as long as activities are scheduled with care.
“I always enjoyed being in orchestra, and I loved being part of a team, feeling like every person contributes and every person matters,” she said. “When I was about 15 I saw the concertmaster role and I decided that’s what I wanted.
“I love the challenges and the excitement and the leadership, but I also loved the lifestyle I saw. … I saw all these things the orchestral world could provide. You get to tour and see the world, but you also get to have a steady job in one place, which I think is pretty great.”