That remarkable violin, however, did not reach her hands for many years. First there was college. She began at San Diego State, when she was merely 16 years old. As an academic standout, her school counselors and her parents encouraged a career in medicine. Phyllis had other ideas. She loved the Humanities, and studied Italian, history, creative writing—but mostly she studied music and refined her violin technique. Midway through her collegiate studies, she knew music would be her career. She crossed the country to pursue graduate studies, and a dream unfolded. She was able to study with Joseph Silverstein, renowned violinist and Concert Master of the Boston Symphony. After graduation, she carried her violin—though not the fine instrument of her dreams—back to San Diego and played with the city’s orchestra for four years. It was a fine accomplishment, but her father doubted it was really a career.
Ready to explore something new, Phyllis and her violin headed to Nashville where a whole new musical world opened. As a violinist in recording studios, she worked with country music greats like Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins, and the band Alabama, creating records. Her passion now had a product she could point to, which was something that pleased her father. The music scene delighted her; she had always enjoyed folk music as well as classical music, and while in Nashville she was able to enjoy both because she also played in the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra. Engulfed in music, she stayed in Nashville for eight years, stepping away during summers to play with the orchestra of the New Hampshire Summer Music Festival. Now, with savings accruing in the bank, she felt she finally could purchase the spectacular Italian violin she’d found after searching a long time in violin shops throughout the East. This instrument, with its rich projecting tone, was created by Giovanni Grancino in 1699. Now hers, it traveled with her to many places including the New Hampshire Summer Music Festival.
THE ROAD TO BOISE
It was while performing in that festival’s orchestra that she met David Saunders, a French horn player whom she later married. She followed him to Albany, New York. Both played in the symphony there. Then, opportunities called in Cleveland. There, David played with the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, and Phyllis added her melodic violin to the pit orchestras of Broadway shows visiting the city. But that was not all. She also played in the Akron, Canton and Erie Philharmonic orchestras. Those orchestras were no less than an hour’s drive from Cleveland. Scheduling became tricky as two little boys had joined their family. They managed, but decided life would be sweeter if David found a university position. With his Doctorate in Music, he was well qualified. When Boise State offered a position, the family moved West. Phyllis had thought perhaps she would take a musical hiatus and just enjoy this appealing new city, but she also wanted to be part of Boise’s musical scene. She soon auditioned for and won a position in the Boise Philharmonic. “It was such a relief” she sighs, “to be driving only 10 minutes to rehearsals!”
Before long, she looked for additional opportunities and decided to approach the Boise School District. Despite her impressive resume, she learned she was missing an essential item -- a teaching certificate. Not deterred, she enrolled at Boise State to secure one, working her studies around the activities of her young sons. Three years later, she presented herself again to the school district. They happily opened the door. She began her formal teaching career at East Junior High, and then accepted assignments at White Pine Elementary, Le Bois Junior High and Timberline High School. A student once asked her if she would choose performing over teaching. “Teaching wasn’t a choice,” she responded, “teaching was a discovery.” Recently elaborating on that comment, Phyllis shared that never in her whole life had she envisioned herself teaching. “I didn’t understand,” she says, “how people could want to teach rather than perform, but teaching turned out to be engaging, challenging and such fun.”
Apparently performing has been fun too. Ms. Saunders not only plays the violin in the Baroque Orchestra, but also performs in the Boise Philharmonic and has served as Concertmaster for the Opera Idaho Orchestra. Her current students are receiving lessons via Zoom. Phyllis Saunders will continue to make her violin sing. “It’s a joy,” she says, “to take it out of the case every day.”
Ellie McKinnon is a fan of the orchestra and a dog lover. She served as founding director of Boise State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Currently she is a freelance writer and offers memoir writing workshops.