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Meet the Musicians

Meet a Musician: Valerie Little

Valerie Little holding a music score
Valerie Little | Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash

Position: Assistant Principal Librarian
Orchestra musician since:
University of Minnesota, University of Texas at Austin, Penn State University, University of Pennsylvania
Hometown: New Freedom, Pennsylvania

How did you find your way into being a music librarian?

I’d call my path medium-typical for a music librarian. Most of us at major orchestras have at least a master’s degree as a performer. I started working in the Minnesota Orchestra library part-time during my doctorate studies in viola at the U of M, and in 2015 Osmo Vänskä granted me tenure as assistant principal librarian after several years working on one-year contracts. I’ve also performed with the Orchestra many times as a substitute violist. That background is key for me as a librarian, so I can approach things from a performer’s perspective—asking what I would need if I were the person playing—and I get to apply the huge amount of random but very useful music knowledge I’ve picked up over the years.

In addition to your librarian work, you’ve taken on a visible role for our early-arriving audiences.

Yes, I love being an occasional host of pre-concert talks! It’s a fun challenge to go in directions which aren’t explored in program notes, and when I interview guest artists, I need to adapt quickly when conversations go somewhere unexpected. My favorite guest so far was violinist Elina Vähälä, who came in 2022 to play the two versions of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. She’s an extremely genuine person who was so excited to play both versions and share a granular look at the differences. It helped that the Sibelius is my favorite violin concerto!

What are some of the more typical things a music librarian does?

Most importantly, preparing music and scores in a timely manner, so the performers can access six to eight programs in advance. Preparing music means getting the conductor’s direction on which edition to use, working with publishers and rental companies to get any music that’s new to us, and looking into markings in the music that need to be copied or changed. A big part is bowings—the symbols that show when the string players’ bows should go up and down—and we work with the principal players on their preferences, then copy them into all the parts. The librarians are always double-checking since things can change during rehearsals. In rare cases a piece of repertoire can switch during the concert week, and we roll with it like everyone else.

You’re one of three full-time librarians at the Orchestra.

That’s right, and our trio has a diverse skill set that complements one another—I’m the resident string musician, Maureen has a background as a horn player and Eric was a bassoonist. We have the advantage of pooling our strengths, whereas a librarian at a smaller orchestra might have to do everything on their own.


Meet the three librarians—including Valerie—who lay the foundation for every concert performance at Orchestra Hall.

What materials are held in the Orchestra’s library?

We have almost 4,000 complete orchestra sets in our catalog, plus another thousand-plus sets of chamber music, and maybe another thousand conductor’s scores that are separate from the orchestra sets. We also store the Orchestra’s collection of commercial recordings and archival recordings that are available only to Orchestra musicians and guest artists. If a piece we don’t own is available to buy, our preference is to buy rather than rent it, so that we have it forever and have a starting place for the custom markings. When we do have to rent music, it’s important to stay on schedule—so we try to put our orders in all at once during the summer before the new season starts.

How has technology changed a music librarian’s job?

Things are easier when so much can be sent by email, and we can do things like work with our string principals through cloud storage to make the bowing process faster, even if [Concertmaster] Erin Keefe is out on the road. Of course, our new Music Director Thomas Søndergård travels often, so we’re getting used to new ways of working. The convenience of technology comes with responsibility, too—librarians need to know and follow all the rules of copyright and music ownership.

Can you talk a bit about your work on the Orchestra’s Artistic Advisory Committee?

The AAC’s work has been different since the beginning of the pandemic, when we had to do such different kinds of concerts and generate ideas rather than just advising. That type of collaboration has continued.

There’s an endless combination of pieces you could put together to make a program and then to make a season.

Nobody will always be 100 percent happy, but what’s really special about being on the committee is you try to balance everyone’s ideas. The seven people on the AAC all have different areas of focus—repertoire, up-and-coming soloists, conductors they’ve worked with at summer festivals and so on—and the best part is learning about new pieces and increasing all of our repertory knowledge.

Which upcoming concerts are you most excited about?

Definitely David Robertson’s program with John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, a suggestion that came from the AAC. On the more traditional side are Tony Ross playing the Dvořák Cello Concerto—who doesn’t want to hear Tony play Dvořák?—and Christian Tetzlaff playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto. The concerts in April with Nur-D will be easy from a librarian’s perspective, since the arranger Andy Thompson is amazing to work with. He’s always on time, and he likes to interact and make sure the music is how we want it.

Tell us a bit about your work away from Orchestra Hall as a writer and performer.

When I was at Penn State, I earned undergraduate degrees in both English and viola performance, and I’ve continued to do a lot of writing. My debut chapbook, Little Blue Primer—a hybrid nonfiction poetry book structured around the format of a syllabus—was published in 2021, and I’m in the process of getting a graduate certificate in creative writing from UPenn. I play viola as an active freelancer, too. I’m really interested in chamber music and performed in a string quartet for many years, and I recently started a string trio called Ninebark Ensemble, named after the flowering tree, with Elizabeth York and Ruth Marshall. In summers I play in the Apollo Music Festival in southeastern Minnesota. The audiences there are so appreciative, and we’ve developed strong relationships with that community.

Do you have any top reading and television picks?

I always recommend the books Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim, about a woman who goes undercover and works at a boys’ boarding school in North Korea, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi that’s an authentic reflection on tragedy and mortality. I also liked The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis, about four early American Presidents, partly because I love Hamilton in an extreme way. Some older favorites are British novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. My TV go-tos include Reservation Dogs, 30 Rock, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Love Is Blind—which was recommended to me by a member of our stage crew.

Finish the sentence: Every day I have to…

…complete Wordle, The Mini, Spelling Bee and Worldle. Must complete!