She’s not seen very often, but you’ve definitely heard her work

Deborah Nelson, music librarian for the N.C. Symphony.
Deborah Nelson, music librarian for the N.C. Symphony. Deborah Nelson

As a music librarian for the N.C. Symphony, Deborah Nelson, 67, works a job most people have never heard of. But you will see her occasionally; she’s the one who brings the music and, often, the baton to the conductor before an orchestra performance.

Here, upon her retirement, she talks about the behind-the-scenes work that’s essential for harmony.

Q: You’ve been music librarian for the N.C. Symphony since 1990 and before that, the assistant librarian to the St. Louis Symphony. What does the job entail?

A: Basically anything that has to do with the music the orchestra plays is my responsibility. All parts have to be played but they’re not necessarily played by the person who has that particular part, so we work around that. Sometimes parts have to be transposed or the entire set has to be proofed because it’s known to have errors; every single part has to be compared to the conductor’s score to make sure everything is correct. That can take weeks.

Q: Are you a musician yourself?

A: Yes, I am. You have to be a musician at the same level and caliber as the rest of the musicians in the orchestra, mainly because it requires that kind of knowledge.

We are rather invisible because no one sees what we do. But the work we do is to make the musicians’ jobs easier. We have just as much to do with the final presentation of those concerts as the people who are actually playing them.

Q: What instrument do you play?

A: I’m a percussionist and timpanist. Timpani (kettle drums) was my main instrument. I was timpani extra and percussion extra with the St. Louis symphony, and I was also principal timpanist for awhile at the Des Moines symphony. I intended to be an orchestra musician. That’s how it is with a lot of librarians. I just happened to fall into library work on the side along the way as a student — and even after I was doing some playing.

Q: How did you make the decision to be a music librarian and give up playing professionally?

A: If you’re a string player, there are always auditions because there are so many string players in any given orchestra. But if you’re a timpanist, there’s only one in any orchestra, and you kind of wait for someone to die so there’s an opening.

There would be two or three years when there would be no openings. As I got into my 30s, I thought, “I don’t think this is going to happen, but you’ve got this orchestra library thing going on the side. How about we make this our career?”

Q: How has the N.C. Symphony changed since you started?

A: We play a lot more concerts than we used to. When I first came here, we had eight classical series; now we have 14. We did a lot more traveling when I first came here. The orchestra was on the road a whole lot more; we traveled out to do education concerts. We do almost as many now … but we work in a hub. We go to one location, but kids from different schools in the areas will come to that one location.

Q: You’ll be retiring soon after 39 years in the industry; how did this career turn out to be a good fit for you?

A: It was hard to make that decision to stop trying to get the job. I continued to play, which was good, but it was hard to make the decision that the library was going to be my main thing. It’s been great because everything I learned to be an excellent musician transferred to what I have to do to be an excellent orchestra librarian. It’s been an honor for me—and a real privilege—to be this orchestra’s librarian.

Deborah Nelson — Tar Heel of the Week

Born: August 15, 1951; Fort Pierce, FL

Residence: Raleigh

Professional: Musician librarian, N.C. Symphony

Education: Music Education degrees from the University of South Florida

Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman University)