When The Who announced its 2019 tour of North America in January, the band’s goal was to present the music of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend in a truly unique way – with support from “some of the best orchestras in the U.S. and Canada.” The orchestras were made up of a variety of players, and the two Florida shows required another violist and violinist. That need would lead to two Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) students performing on stage twice with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band that played Woodstock 50 years earlier.
More than two years ago, elementary education major Sarah Ball was wrapping up her sophomore year at FGCU. She loved what she was learning, but it’s fair to say she was on a different collegiate path than she originally planned. As it turns out, Ball is an accomplished violinist who had been accepted to and attended one of the country’s most prestigious music schools, Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music.
“I’m passionate about music, but I didn’t want it to be such a weight on me that I would lose that passion,” Ball said about her decision to leave her original college after the first year. “I recognized that I also had a passion for teaching and working with kids, and I ended up moving to Florida. I got into elementary education at FGCU, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot. It teaches you about building yourself as a person, how to communicate with others and to become more patient.”
In one of her classes, she met a student who was performing as part of a string ensemble that would eventually be known as Jade Strings. The group was the brainchild of an FGCU entrepreneurship student, Jade Gibson. Gibson needed another violinist and, despite not touching her violin for quite a while, Ball was in need of a musical outlet.
“Once Jade and I started working together, there were so many opportunities that I enjoyed. Even though playing music was now a job, I was able to tap into my passion without exhausting myself,” Ball added.
Along with their bandmates in Jade Strings, Ball and Gibson have played more than 200 weddings together. And while they enjoy the opportunity to make a couple’s big day special, the two women say performing original music for a paying audience is their ultimate goal. That’s why the chance to play with The Who was such a big deal.
“My parents were blown away”
Since she was 17, Gibson has been working with an agent who secures talent for shows like these with The Who. It’s afforded her a few big opportunities, including a Florida performance with Jeff Lynne’s ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) and two shows with Cirque du Soleil. When the agent’s email arrived with a formal offer for the two women to play with The Who in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Ball thought it was a joke.
“I was like, ‘No way!’” said Ball, who adds Gibson was very nonchalant about the offer. “I immediately thought of ‘Baba O’Riley.’ I then went on to Spotify, typed in ‘The Who’ and realized how many songs I knew by the band.”
Gibson’s lack of a response might have been because the 21-year-old didn’t recognize the name.
“I don’t think I’d ever heard them,” Gibson revealed. “I’ve played with a few artists I had never heard before. I didn’t know about Frankie Valli’s music before I played with him. The ‘Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience,’ I played in that concert, too, but I’ve never seen the HBO show.”
Ball couldn’t contain her excitement over the offer to play with The Who.
“My parents were blown away when I told them,” she said. “They were shocked.”
Gibson said her dad is a “huge fan” of the group, which means his daughter likely heard The Who music at some point in her life – even if she doesn’t remember it.
After telling a few select people, Ball and Gibson agreed to accept the offer. They soon realized there would be a lot of rehearsing.
“It was a huge production, so it required everyone coming together [before the tour started]. It was definitely worth all of the hard work, and it was super fun rehearsing with everyone,” Ball said.
Over the summer, the duo met and practiced with Daltrey and Townshend in West Palm Beach along with the rest of The Who’s current lineup and other orchestra musicians.
“We could only have the music when we were with [Townshend and Daltrey]. So you can’t take the music with you. If you don’t know how to read music, you wouldn’t be able to take on this role,” Gibson said.
“At this point in our lives, we know how to sight-read music, and it’s really nice working with other professionals who know how to sight-read. It all comes together at once. The orchestra adds a whole ‘nother component. It elevates the whole experience for the audience. You do see the band, and it’s awesome, but having those strings, the brass and the wind instruments just adds so much. It’s a wow factor,” Ball said.
The set list for both shows included The Who classics: “Who Are You,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Tommy’s Overture” and Ball’s favorite, “Baba O’Riley.”
After playing with the rock ‘n’ roll legends, Ball and Gibson call themselves big fans.
“I have come to appreciate everything so much more. Before, I might not have sat down and listened to ‘Eminence Front,’ but now Jade and I jam on the way home to The Who,” Ball said.
This experience has also added a few more desired performances to the musicians’ list of goals. Among the artists they want to collaborate with are Billie Eilish, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus and Lil Nas X. They email agents with their cover versions of top songs in hopes they can get an opportunity.
“I don’t know who we will play with next, but I know we will do it. We’re already playing with bands like The Who, and we’re 21 years old. We started playing with these people while we were in college doing other things, so I know that we’ll keep doing it. The difference between people who do it and the people who don’t is just taking the initiative to try,” Gibson said.
“That’s exactly it. You have to try,” Ball echoed.
Gibson and Ball are slated to graduate in December. Gibson plans to continue growing her business, Jade Strings, with Ball as her headliner. While she doesn’t know what job she will take, Ball plans to use her education degree to work with students while also performing with Jade Strings.