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Difficult path to Carnegie Hall

A young violinist endures chemotherapy and surgery before taking his place in the orchestra.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published June 8, 2007


Joe Ginem, a 16-year-old violinist , suffered bone cancer in his bow arm, recovered, and will play in the youth orchestra's concert at Carnegie Hall on Saturday.
photo
[Times photo: Melissa Lyttle]
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TAMPA - For a violinist, the bow arm is just about everything, and Joe Ginem had a good one, right from when he started playing the instrument in seventh grade.

"I always got compliments on it," says Joe, 16. "It's hard to get a good sound out of a violin if you don't have a relaxed bowing arm. And I had an exceptionally good bowing arm."

Joe's violin teacher, Eric Nordstrom, calls him "a natural violinist." When he began taking lessons two and half years ago, Joe was essentially self-trained, but his mechanics were sound. "For me as a teacher, it was kind of like an artist receiving a canvas that was already well-painted and being told, 'All right, now finish this,'" Nordstrom says.

So it was disturbing last year when Joe started experiencing pain in his right arm. At first, it seemed as if he may have fallen prey to a common problem among musicians: fatigue.

"Joe was always playing," his mother, Peggy Ginem, says. His practice sessions sometimes ran six hours. "I'd go into his room at 2 in the morning and yell at him to get into bed and stop playing."

A pediatrician and an orthopedic specialist both thought Joe might have tendonitis or bursitis and prescribed Motrin and rest. But the pain kept getting worse. After he went to a lesson and couldn't lift his arm, his mother took him to get an MRI.

The test disclosed that Joe had osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that especially afflicts teenage boys. He got the diagnosis on April 27, 2006, then underwent a series of grueling chemotherapy treatments at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

"He'd be hooked up to chemo 24 hours a day up to a week at a time at the hospital," Joe's mother says. "He was sick, sick, sick all the time."

Joe, who is 6-foot-1, dropped below 111 pounds and lost all his hair.

His doctors at Moffitt - oncologist Sam Agresta and surgeon Doug Letson - warned Joe that he might have to have the arm amputated, but chemotherapy worked to remove the cancer. Last August Letson performed surgery that replaced his shoulder ball and socket and upper arm with a titanium prosthetic.

Joe was wheeled into surgery with his iPod playing music by his hero, the great violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Slowly, Joe began to feel better. He had gone almost a year without picking up his violin, and when he started playing again the range of motion in his bow arm was restricted. But with physical therapy he made progress with his playing.

"He can play comfortably on the E string and the A string - on the top two strings - but he can't really get his arm up high enough above his shoulder in order to play on the lowest string, the G string," Nordstrom says. "But he's getting there."

Joe, who lives in Odessa, went back to school after the Christmas holidays and is now concertmaster for the Sickles High School orchestra. He organized a benefit concert and other events in May to raise $7,500 for osteosarcoma research at Moffitt.

In April, confident his skills were coming back, Joe asked to audition for a place in the Patel Conservatory Youth Orchestra, a group of talented musicians from around the Tampa Bay area.

He had a compelling reason: The Patel orchestra had been invited to play with two other youth orchestras at New York's hallowed Carnegie Hall.

Conductor William Wiederich said Joe could try out, with the understanding that "this is going to be a bona fide audition because there's a standard for this orchestra."

Last month at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Wiedrich heard Joe perform scales and arpeggios and an 1868 concerto in A minor by Jean-Baptiste Accolay.

The verdict?

Saturday night, the Patel youth orchestra will be playing Respighi's The Pines of Rome at Carnegie Hall - and Joe will be in the second violin section.

"I'm really, really excited," he says. "It's not every day somebody gets an opportunity to play in Carnegie Hall. Hopefully I'll be back there sometime in the future, but you never know. Some of the best musicians still haven't made it there. It's just the luck of the draw."

John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.

 

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727)892-2924.

 

[Last modified June 8, 2007, 01:10:42]


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