By Bronwyn Banerdt
My name is Bronwyn Astra Banerdt, and I’ve had the privilege of playing in the cello section of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2014. I grew up on a dirt road in the Mojave desert an hour outside of Los Angeles with my three siblings and two geophysicist parents (my Dad is a lead NASA scientist and my Mom switched careers after homeschooling us for many years to work as a school librarian).
Music has been my obsession for as long as my memory extends. I learned to read music at the same time as I learned to read. I started “borrowing” my older brother’s violin from its case when I was two years old, and my parents finally acquiesced to my demands for my own instrument when I was four. At the music shop, I pointed excitedly to the coolest-looking instrument in the store: the banjo! My parents’ eyes went wide with trepidation, and someone gently suggested the cello instead. I sat down to try the 32nd-size cello (just about the size of a viola), and I immediately felt like I had found a part of me I’d never known I was missing.
One year later, I called a family meeting to make a solemn announcement about my career decision: to become a “famous” cellist. Somehow, I just knew, and I never wavered from that path.
I finished high school early and graduated from the University of Southern California at age 19. After USC, I was thrilled to be accepted into the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and I began a new chapter of my life on the east coast. I spent four years studying at Curtis, and eventually went on to get a Master’s Degree at the Juilliard School in New York, where I remained for a number of years.
It was exciting to be a New York City musician! Life was different every day. I might play as a substitute in the New York Philharmonic for three weeks and then get on a plane to Florida to play Vivaldi with a small chamber orchestra, or drive through the night to Cleveland to record with my piano trio. Or I would play a concert at Carnegie Hall one day and the next day take a train halfway across New Jersey to play backup for a high school musical for fifty bucks. I enjoyed the variety and the freedom, but after a few years, I started to yearn for some stability, and I began to practice for orchestral auditions in earnest.
Let me tell you, I could write a novel about orchestral auditions, but for now I’ll leave it at this: the process of developing the consistency, technical facility, and musical maturity required to succeed in an orchestral audition changed me not only as a musician, but as a person. As challenging as it was, I am grateful to have become who I am as a result. My winning audition at the Pittsburgh Symphony was my 10th try at a full-time orchestra job, and I feel beyond lucky to have landed the job of my dreams: a position in one of the world’s greatest orchestras, and with it a life in a city that I truly love.
During the past year, it has often felt like there is endless time to reflect on what I’ve been missing during the pandemic: spending time with family and friends, trying new restaurants, traveling the world, scouring every rack of my favorite discount clothing stores, and simply feeling safe and secure on a daily basis. But perhaps nothing has felt like a bigger hole in my heart than not spending my days wrapped in the warm blanket of the sounds of the PSO.
When I remember, I try to fill that hole with gratitude — and there is so much I have to be grateful for. Just as a single musician cannot perform an entire symphony, a life in music cannot be made on one’s own. I think first of my parents, who invested their time, money, and patience on lessons, instruments, youth orchestras, and endless practice sessions, and above all, always encouraged me to believe in myself and pursue my dreams.
Then there were so many teachers, coaches, conductors, and mentors who passed down their knowledge and experience in this art form, drawing on hundreds of years of oral history.
There are the people working tirelessly behind the scenes at Heinz Hall, programming concerts, maintaining our beautiful hall, raising money day after day, and fulfilling all the other myriad responsibilities of running a world-class artistic institution.
And then I wonder how many people I’ve had the honor to perform for in the 32 years I’ve been playing music — because the experience of playing music is transformed by the presence of others. It is a different sensation altogether when music is shared instead of solitary. This sense of connection is what I miss the most. The thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that this sad time when we are apart is only temporary. Until the day we meet again in Heinz Hall, I will continue to be grateful for the privilege of this life in music and the many people who have been a part of it.