Jennifer Humphreys is one of the youngest players in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. At 29, she has achieved the status of cellist in a major symphony orchestra, an uncommon feat for one so young.
Raised in Owensboro, Kentucky, Humphreys is the oldest of three children, and both her parents are classically trained musicians. She begin to play the violin at the age of six, then quickly switched to cello and began to focus on music as a career.
She graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rice University in Houston. It was at Rice where she discovered her love for playing in an orchestra. She doesn’t like to play solo because it means being the center of attention, she says, while she also revels in the musical interactions with those she’s performing with.
Humphreys arrived in Atlanta in 2011, having already held jobs with several symphony and festival orchestras across the United States, including two years as assistant principal cellist with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. She auditioned 13 times for the ASO, she says, before she was hired.
ArtsATL recently met up with Humphreys at the West Paces Ferry Road Starbucks and interviewed her for our “30 Under 30” series.
ArtsATL: How did you come to play the cello?
Jennifer Humphreys: My parents are both musicians. They teach band in the public schools, and they play in the local symphony and the local groups. I was always taken to concerts or singing or listening to music.
They realized that I had a good ear and I started on violin at six. I switched instruments pretty soon after that. My mother said that I started playing the violin between my knees because I didn’t like it screeching in my ear. She suggested that I switch to cello, and I began studying with the local Suzuki cello teacher. I switched cello teachers around seventh grade and would drive to Evansville, Indiana, for lessons.
ArtsATL: How much do you practice?
Humphreys: It depends on how many hours of rehearsal we have at the symphony or whether I’m teaching. I play all day long. A good day would include four or five hours all by myself. But you can’t play nonstop, so you have to pace yourself. My friend says it’s kind of like a language. You have to constantly be immersing yourself in it. I try to practice as much as I can. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, because it’s what I love to do.
ArtsATL: At what point did you decide you wanted to be a professional musician?
Humphreys: It was a process. I went to a music camp one summer, then to an arts school called Interlochen for my last two years of high school. It’s a boarding school. I had been a big fish in a small pond back home, and this was the first time I had been with kids who played better than me. It ignited a competitive streak in me. It was a challenge.
Then I went to Rice University for college, which has a stellar orchestral program. Before that, I knew that I loved playing cello and that it seemed to come naturally to me. A string player can go several different routes. You can be a soloist, go the chamber music route, join a contemporary music ensemble, free-lance, or be in an orchestra. Going to Rice made me realize how much I enjoyed playing in an orchestra. It refined my focus.
ArtsATL: You do not think of yourself as a soloist?
Humphreys: No. I don’t like being the center of attention. When you play in an orchestra, you’re part of a team. I also play in the Peachtree String Quartet. In a chamber music setting you are exposed, but you’re still part of a team and can feed off of the other players’ energy. I like collaborating with different people, responding and reacting.
ArtsATL: Young aspiring cellists reading this interview might be curious about what repertoire you’re studying now.
Humphreys: I’m playing the Elgar Concerto right now and will perform that with an orchestra in Tennessee next season. I think that every cellist continually works on Bach, because it’s good for you musically and technically. I’m always working on orchestra and quartet repertoire. And, of course, scales every day.
ArtsATL: I’ve heard it said that for every 50 auditions a musician does, he’ll land one job. How many auditions did you have to take before you won your first full-time orchestral gig?
Humphreys: It took nine auditions before my first full-time job with the Charlotte Symphony. Atlanta was lucky number 13.
ArtsATL: What does an audition entail?
Humphreys: Auditions are screened and either two or three rounds. You play an exposition of a concerto and orchestral excerpts, sometimes a movement of Bach. Each audition is a little bit different. You learn to audition by failing and falling on your face. Part of the process is learning how to trust yourself. It’s cool. I really get a thrill out of auditioning.
ArtsATL: What do you do when you’re not playing the cello?
Humphreys: I like to bicycle. I have a decent road bike that I like to get out on. I play pickup Frisbee games at Piedmont. I volunteer for hospice. I’ve done that since I was in school, because Rice is right next to the medical center in Houston. We had a group that would play in the hospitals. Here it has morphed. I go and just sit and talk with the patients. It’s an easy, easy thing for me to do. I don’t have to prepare anything. I just go and listen.
ArtsATL: You don’t bring your cello along?
Humphreys: It depends. I just help out. Sometimes people don’t want music, but I always offer. If they would like it, then I bring it. But some people would rather not. These people have accepted that they are dying soon and their perspective on everything is different from most of us.
ArtsATL: How do you like Atlanta?
Humphreys: I love it. I do the bike trails: Stone Mountain, Silver Comet. The BeltLine is really cool. Piedmont. I live in Midtown. There’s so much on the Westside.
ArtsATL: In light of the fact that the ASO has just become a 42-week orchestra, how do you see the future of classical music and professional orchestras?
Humphreys: I’m optimistic. In general, negative press gets more attention than positive news.
ArtsATL: One can definitely see an aging audience.
Humphreys: You can, but it’s been like that for a long time. I have a newspaper article from the 1950s that talks about aging audiences and declining support. People have been saying this forever. The fact is that classical music appeals to a more mature audience. The majority of our audience members who attend concerts most frequently are those who have the disposable income and the time to attend.
At the end of the season, we offered an hour-long concert at 6 [in Piedmont Park] to try to be more attractive and convenient to those who work Downtown or in Midtown. They don’t have to sit in traffic. They can come after work, get a drink, and we do an abbreviated concert for them without an intermission.
We played [Gustav Holst’s] “The Planets.” It was great, almost full, and a totally different demographic. We’ll do this next season on the first Friday of every month.
ArtsATL: What did you do this summer?
Humphreys: We all scattered. People found other work for the summer. I did a festival out in Santa Cruz, California, called the Cabrillo Music Festival. It’s two weeks of all-new music, world premieres or American premieres.
ArtsATL: What was on the program?
Humphreys: One thing I was looking forward to is an electric cello concerto by Enrico Chapela played by German cellist Johannes Moser. It’s music that probably no one has heard before.
ArtsATL: That’s really important. Not just the premiere of new works, but second performances of new works.
Humphreys: Absolutely. I love the fact that the symphony here in Atlanta recognizes that. We have the “Atlanta School” of composers. It’s a crucial thing that we do. In order to receive a second performance, the work has to be performed well the first time. Well-established groups that sound good promoting new works are crucial.
ArtsATL: What’s next for you? What are your aspirations?
Humphreys: Atlanta is, and I hope continues to be, a destination orchestra. We sound just as good as Boston, Chicago or New York on a regular basis. I am confident and will work very hard to ensure that the ASO continues to be a destination orchestra. Atlanta needs that and deserves that. Can you imagine if the Braves or Falcons went somewhere else, for example? What does that do to the status of a city? Every major city has a really good symphony orchestra. It’s part of the cultural fabric of a city.
I’m still taking auditions and I will continue to, because it’s good for me and for my playing. If the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continues to be a thriving, stable orchestra, then I would be thrilled to stay here. I love Atlanta.