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Meet Joanne Donnellan, Founding Member & BSO violinist

November 13, 2019

“On a warm afternoon in the spring of 1975 former Ferndale orchestra teacher Ethel Crook and musician Claire vg Thomas of Lynden called a meeting together in a small room at the former Roeder Elementary in Bellingham and proposed putting together a Bicentennial Orchestra which would later become the Whatcom Community Orchestra. Also present at the meeting were John Warden, Bob Storms, Doc Leedy, and myself, all music teachers. The orchestra’s rehearsals and concert were held in Ferndale and musicians from throughout Whatcom County participated. From that beginning, Bellingham Symphony Orchestra was born.

After playing in the Bicentennial Orchestra, I waited to join the Whatcom Community Orchestra (whose name has since twice evolved!) until sons Grant and Glenn were old enough and skilled enough to also join!! By then I was teaching high school orchestra in Ferndale, teaching private violin lessons, and would drive a carload of five or six high schools orchestra students, all boys, including Grant and Glenn to rehearsals in Bellingham.

We got to rehearsals on time except for once: I ran out of gas on the freeway at the Northwest Exit! Picture six boys heading on foot to the nearest gas station down Northwest Ave to get a gallon or two of gas and convince the gas station attendant that yes, they would return the gas can AFTER rehearsal! Four other Ferndale high school orchestra students, also boys, would join us at rehearsal, adding up to nine Ferndale string players, all boys, several of whom have gone on to careers in music. They made up a sizable portion of the string section and Director Nick Bussard would refer to them as “The Ferndale Mafia”! They played well, but also were fun-loving. Following rehearsal we’d stop at McDonalds for a bit to eat. They would sneak two to four plastic salt and pepper shakers from the tables as we were leaving, and stealthily stick them under my back tires for me to drive over when I’d back the car up to leave! As closely as I’d watch, they’d usually manage to slip by my scrutiny!

I grew up in Kent and interest in playing violin came from my dad, who had immigrated from Norway, Hardanger fiddle in hand, with Norwegian tunes securely tucked into his head. I began lessons in Kent’s school strings program in 4th grade on a $25.00 violin! By the time I was in 5th grade I knew I wanted to be a strings teacher. I attended WWU, earning a Master’s Degree in Violin Performance and Music Education, and spent my career teaching strings in Ferndale at the elementary and high school levels. I loved teaching - the elementary students were fun and rewarding to teach! You could instantly see if your teaching methods were working!

The high school orchestra program, which I taught for 26 years, grew to 128 students divided into four classes. It was equally rewarding but in a different way. It was inspiring to experience what students could achieve in ability and produce musically at a concert, and to know that their live performances could never be repeated in exactly the same way. Each concert was a moment in time.

As much as I enjoyed teaching, I now enjoy retirement, with more time to spend with family, friends, and pursuing my interests of baking, gardening, and playing the violin at church on Sundays. I’ve also pursued learning more Norwegian tunes on the Hardanger fiddle, Norway’s National Instrument. That has included a few trips to Norway and opportunities to play with Hardanger fiddlers there from the area that my dad grew up in.

Playing in the Symphony is a highlight of my week. Many wonderful musicians have moved into our community and together with those of us who have been a part of the orchestra for years, and under the direction of Yaniv, our orchestra is reaching new levels. It’s exciting to be a part of this and inspiring to experience the current size and enthusiasm of our audiences. It motivates me to play my best. I served as Concertmaster for 26 years and now play within the 1st violin section.”

Where are they now? Joanne’s students have gone on to some impressive careers throughout the US and around the world! The list includes: 

  • Recording engineers for the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Conservatory, and Bellingham Symphony Orchestra
  • Concertmaster for the Sydney Opera Orchestra
  • Principal Viola of the London Philharmonic
  • Violin with the National Symphony Orchestra
  • Violist with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra
  • Violist with a chamber orchestra in Spain
  • Concertmaster of the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra
  • Principal Cello of the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra

In addition, other students have gone on into string teaching careers including three orchestra teachers in the Bellingham School District! Here is what Joanne has to say about teaching,

“I look on myself not as the ‘ultimate’ teacher, but rather as a door opener who tried to provide opportunities for kids, along with teaching them, to look beyond our community to opportunities that would be obtainable for them.”