A very successful buddy of mine in Chicago, a man named Jim, once told me that he believes a glass of water is neither half full nor half empty. It's simply half a glass of water.
I used to think that was just plain silly. I'm a dreamer, and I'm forever encouraging people — especially kids — to "see what's not there," to dream big and to cling to hope. But I've come to agree with Jim.
He's not a pessimist. He's simply a realist who believes we must see what's right in front of us before we can ever pursue what we hope will be ahead of us.
I've been in the classical music business now for well over 25 years. I've seen enough vision statements and five-year plans and 10-year projections to sink a rowboat. I have been with orchestras that have flourished even in this economy, and others hanging on by a thread. I have never known, however, a group of musicians more patient, more resilient, more accommodating and perhaps more realistic than the men and women of the Florida Orchestra, where I was resident conductor from 1994 to 2002. After being with them again a few days ago, I am reminded why.
This is where I grew up as an artist. This is where I made some of my biggest mistakes and had some of my greatest successes. These are the people who not only played for me, but also nurtured me and fed my musical soul. And perhaps more important, these are the people who partnered with me on the mission to turn the lives of hundreds of Tampa Bay's children away from what was in front of them and fervently toward what could lie ahead of them. They did it early morning after early morning, long week after long week. And they did it with a strong sense of dedication, passion and purpose.
And now here they are once again, like so many of our colleagues around the country, holding half a glass of water. Just before I came to town recently to conduct the Florida Orchestra, the musicians had a tough choice: Accept a potentially devastating cutback in pay or have their season canceled. They took the pay cut. They will make $24,500 for 25 weeks this year and then for 24 weeks next year. They were supposed to make $29,890 this year for 32 weeks and $32,000 next year for 34 weeks.
And yet once again, I can't help but have hope. It is, however, hope based not just on what they want but who they are. I have hope because I see the same men and women I saw when I arrived in Tampa Bay in the mid '90s. I see the same dedication, the same passion, the same striving for excellence and yes, the same sense of mission and purpose.
I believe there are just three options available with half a glass of water: Drain it, abandon it or fill it. The choice we will make says much about who we are. Options one and two say we only did this all these many years for the glory and the money. Those options say we considered ourselves merely in the entertainment business and the business has moved on without us.
Fortunately for the Florida Orchestra, there exist in this community plenty of folks, including many former 9- and 10-year-olds, whose lives were forever changed by the transformative power of music. To this day, I continue to run across young adults across the country who were profoundly and forever affected by one of our youth concerts. One such young lady doing business in Omaha a year ago stopped by our concert hall during a performance. After asking the security guards which car was mine, she then took the time to write a note of thanks, and left it prominently on my windshield.
It surely seems to me that our only choice therefore is to look at that half a glass of water and, with hearts full of courage, commit as an organization and a community of supporters to fill it. The orchestra members are doing their part. Now it's up to the community to respond. There are just too many young lives in need of inspiration in our midst.
On a wall in my office is a plaque created by artist/poet Mary Anne Radmacher. I read almost daily. It simply says:
"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ... I'll try again tomorrow."
Dearest friends, tomorrow is here.
Thomas Wilkins, the former resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra, is music director of the Omaha Symphony and is principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.