Ronda Respess grew up in a musical family in New Jersey. Her mother was a pianist, her father a cellist. An aunt was a professional musician in Boston.
Ronda was handed a violin when she was very young.
“There was a violin in the house that had belonged to my grandfather,” the 71-year-old Sandy Springs resident recalled recently. “My mother decided she would give it to me when I was young. When I was 4 or 5, she took me into New York to get lessons.”
In fourth grade, she took lessons in her public school in New Jersey. She kept playing and earned a music degree from Indiana University. Then, in 1969, she took a job with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She’s been there since, playing with the ASO for 49 years.
Along the way, the 71-year-old Sandy Springs resident has played dozens of concerts a year with the orchestra and performed all sorts of music. She’s played Carnegie Hall. More than a few times.
Respess isn’t the only older musician in metro Atlanta who’s still taking the stage after decades of performances. Performing music once may have seemed a young person’s game, but no more. From Atlanta Symphony Hall to farmers’ markets to arenas, local stages regularly host shows by musicians who display more than a touch of gray but are still playing after all these years.
Tom Gray, who once headed an Atlanta-based New Wave band named The Brains and now leads a blues band called Delta Moon, admits there was a time he thought it seemed laughable to say he’d still be playing music in bars past age 40.
“I thought that was old,” he said during a chat at a coffee shop in Decatur, where he now lives. How does he feel now about taking the stage at age 66? “Actually, I feel good. I enjoy it still. I have to be more careful and I have to work harder than when I was young, but it’s still possible. It’s still fun.”
With the ASO, Respess regularly plays classics by composers such as Brahms and Beethoven, but she’s also developed a taste for newer works by modern orhestral composers. She simply likes being a part of the orchestra, no matter what they’re playing. She also has given back to the metro Atlanta musical community in other ways. She teaches and founded and serves as artistic director of Sandy Springs-based Franklin Pond Chamber Music, which promotes chamber music by young performers.
“I just love the music,” she said. “I just love being part of the collaboration that puts a piece like Brahms Two together. I’m more a collaborative person than a soloist. I love working all the little parts together into one whole. The best part is I get to listen to it from right there in the middle of the orchestra.”
She says it’s the music that’s kept her engaged for nearly half a century. “It wasn’t the violin as much as the music,” she said. “The violin was the vehicle. I can’t say I fell in love with the violin. I fell in love with the music.”
But now she finds the work demands more of her physically, so after nearly a half-century of playing professionally, she’s contemplating retirement from the orchestra. She hasn’t decided when she wants to leave, she said. “I want to retire before I feel like I’m not doing the job the way I should,” she said.
Still, she plans to continue teaching and playing music after she retires. “I’ll play myself or play in quartets. Who knows?” she said. “I’m going to do what I want to do. I enjoy playing violin.”
In Brookhaven, Mandolin and guitar player and teacher Clark Brown, who’s 65, says his retirement from a career in the printing business means he can find more time to play music.
Brown first picked up a guitar as a teenager. He wanted to play rock and roll at first. “It was the ‘60s and everybody played guitar. I’d seen the Beatles on TV,” he said. He switched to the mandolin in the 1970s.
About seven years ago, he started playing music fulltime. He performed at church and found jobs at farmers’ markets, weddings and Christmas parties. He arranged Beatles songs and other familiar pop tunes for the mandolin and developed a following.
Now his house is filled with mandolins – he has five – and guitars. He teaches mandolin and guitar at a music school in Decatur. The average age of his students, he said, is about 60.
“I love music,” Brown said. “One of my students the other day said, ‘I haven’t played my mandolin this week,’ and I said, ‘I’ve played three different mandolins and a guitar today.’”
John and Lynda Anderson like playing for an audience, too. “When we play someplace, people know we’re playing for fun. It’s a way to be with people who are like-minded and just want to enjoy an activity together,” Lynda Anderson said one recent afternoon as the couple picked ukulele tunes while sitting on the screen porch of their instrument-filled home.
The Andersons play all sorts of instruments and all sorts of music. John, who’s 70 and retired from a four-decade career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, plays clarinet, banjo, ukulele, guitar, harmonica, squeezebox and hammered dulcimer. Lynda, who’s 69 and a retired schoolteacher, plays mountain dulcimer, recorder, ukulele, guitar and bass guitar.
They perform together publicly a couple of dozen times a year with another pair of musicians as the Ukulele Society of Decatur. John also plays banjo in an old-time country dance band called the Peavine Creek String Band (named for the creek that runs through the yard of their Decatur home) and bass clarinet with the Callanwolde Concert Band.
“It’s fun to play,” John Anderson said. “It’s also fun to have an effect, to perform for people. If people respond to you positively, it’s great.”
Gray says he, too, still feels a thrill when he’s in front of a receptive audience.
“A good show is always fun,” he said. “It was when I was a kid and it is now. When you’re onstage connecting with an audience and when energy is flowing both ways … that has not changed a bit since I was young.”