By Doris Degner-Foster
Hannah Murray was 5 years old when she heard violin music for the first time. She was so impressed, she demanded on the spot to take violin lessons. Luckily for Hannah, the young lady whose playing had captivated the group with a rousing rendition of a tune from “Fiddler on the Roof” was also a violin teacher.
Hannah was not just momentarily infatuated with the violin; it became her life. “I’m currently the associate principal second of the Tulsa Symphony and Tulsa Ballet,” Hannah said. “I’m also the associate concertmaster of the Signature Symphony, the second violinist of the Tulsa Rock Quartet, and I’m a master teaching artist with Harmony Project Tulsa. I also keep a private studio of students.”
As if that weren’t enough to fill her days, Hannah just completed her doctorate studies last fall from the University of Oklahoma. And despite her busy musical schedule, horses help Hannah find a balance in life — they help her stay in tune.
Back to the Barn
Hannah was working with the Wichita, Kansas, symphony two years ago when a friend invited her to come to her riding lesson. “I came back to Tulsa gushing about how much fun I’d had and the executive director of the Tulsa Symphony, Ron Predl, said that I should call his daughter Melissa since she’s a horse trainer, and that’s how I got started,” Hannah said. “All of my colleagues think that it’s really adorable that I show up at performances wanting to talk about riding horses. They can’t figure out why I’m doing it — some of them don’t get it — but many people find it really exciting that they have a musician colleague that likes to throw herself over poles on an animal.”
Hannah gets a lot of encouragement from her family, too. She said, “My mom thinks this is the best thing to re-happen.” Although Hannah loved horses as a small child, she didn’t have the opportunity to ride until her family moved to a house that was around the corner from a barn. Hannah would walk there two or three times each week for lessons.
“Between the ages of 9 and 14, I could walk to this barn and it was the best thing ever, but then I went to a performing arts high school, which was a boarding school, and they didn’t have horseback riding as an elective,” Hannah said. “I didn’t ride again until almost two years ago and it made me think, Why was I not doing this for so long?”
Hannah began lessons with Melissa Predl Buffington on school horses but wanted more from the experience. “I took lessons once a week for a while and I expressed — being a musician — that I like to practice,” Hannah laughed. “I wanted to be able to come and work between lessons and have a horse to do that with. I tried a couple of different horses to lease and one named Eliot and I really clicked.”
Even with her busy schedule, Hannah rides at least two days each week on Eliot, a chestnut off-the-track Thoroughbred, and competes in local schooling shows at the beginner level, jumping 2’3”.
Hannah’s trainer, Melissa, said that although Hannah hasn’t been riding for very long, she’s been a quick learner, partly because she’s a diligent student and partly because she’s acutely aware of pace and rhythm in her music, both of which are beneficial to riding and jumping.
“What’s really helped me is that Melissa has a background in music so she can make things really relatable to me in a language that I can understand,” Hannah said. “We talk a lot about pacing and how a mental metronome is like a pulse to help me be consistent and not be rushing or slowing down.”
Hannah explained that when performing, her mindset is magnified, but even more so when on a horse. When she was nervous about a jump or playing a passage on the violin, she tended to go faster. Riding has helped her relax into the tempo and pace, following through in a planned manner. And just as her experience with music has helped her riding, her riding has helped her in playing and teaching music, too.
“When I’m learning something like a new skill on a horse, it’s about the feeling. I try to capture that feeling and practice it over and over again,” Hannah said. “To translate that onto the violin, when I do a shift, I can hit that shift several times in a row in tune, but I have to remind myself to practice the right feel of the shift every single time. Riding has reiterated these lessons that I’ve learned on the violin, but either gotten away from or forgotten about until I was a learner in a different
Along with music and riding, Hannah is excited about her work with the Harmony Project in Tulsa, a program at an elementary school where over 90 percent of the children are from low-income families. Students have been followed since the program was founded in 2001 by Dr. Margaret Martin in Los Angeles, and the positive difference it has made in the students has proven to be remarkable on several levels.
“I’m really proud of the Harmony Project. We start our kids in pre-kindergarten and we follow them all the way through graduation,” Hannah said. “We do mentorship through music, tutoring with homework and reading assistance, as well as providing them with an instrument and music lessons. The goal of the program is that the older students become mentors for the younger students so that they are teaching each other through the program as they grow older.”
While she loves working with the children in the Harmony Project, after Hannah started riding again, she also took more of an interest in her adult students.
“I felt like I related to them so much more and I appreciated and valued the type of person who would invest themselves back in something they really liked and wanted to be better at,” Hannah said. “I have so much respect for the person who wants to put themselves in kind of an awkward position to be the beginner.”
Tools in the Toolbox
In music, there is sometimes too much focus on the negative when teachers point out problems that need to be fixed. Through riding, Hannah learned a different philosophy of teaching.
“Melissa emphasizes that you don’t focus on what the problem is, but that you try to focus on the proper action around it,” Hannah said. “If you focus on the negative, the negative is going to happen. For instance, instead of saying, ‘Don’t look down’ before a jump, she would say, ‘Look up.’”
Hannah said that in music, focusing on the positive is generally not the case. Especially during her master’s degree studies, there was more of a focus on problem areas, which at times became a self-fulfilling prophecy. “As music teachers, we can focus on the negative so often than we forget there’s a whole other plan of action we could implement,” Hannah said.
“In my riding lessons, there’s a patient focus on the plan of action rather than a focus on what goes wrong, and I just think that’s awesome!” she added. “It’s a whole game changer in my approach to doing things.”
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