Thomas Cosbey and Michelle Zapf-Bélanger

March 2017

The musical couple who are partners in every sense of the

For Thomas Cosbey and Michelle Zapf-Bélanger of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, Igor Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring has an extra special, personal significance. It was while working on playing this seminal orchestral ballet at the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto that these two classical violinists first met. From the very beginning, their love story has been a musical one.

At the time, Michelle was 19 and in her first year at the Glenn Gould School, while Tom was 23, in his final year at school, and, as Michelle says, a star.

“I was intimidated by him!” she says. “At the Glenn Gould School, we do week-long orchestral projects. I was sitting right in the back, but by pure chance, three people got sick and I moved up and sat beside him.”

“The Rite of Spring has very irregular, tricky rhythms,” explains Michelle. “I was counting like crazy and freaking out, but Tom was so relaxed! He would flip his bow upside down during rests like this was all easy for him and he didn’t care. Seems like a silly thing to do now, but when I was 19, I thought that he was sooo cool.”

“That’s crazy!” exclaims Tom when I inform him that Michelle was intimidated by his coolness. “I never knew that, she’s never told me that.” He does admit that the two spent the week “flirting rather than paying attention.”

Their first official date was at the movies. “We went to see Bowling for Columbine,” remembers Michelle.

“We dated by the book,” says Michelle. “He called me on my home phone to ask me out. Both of us showed up 15 minutes early for the date – one of the only times we’ve both been early for something. At the bar after the movie, Tom said, ‘I guess you’re my girlfriend now,’ and I said I guessed I was. We hadn’t even kissed yet. We were just so young, it’s funny to think about now.”

Between rehearsals, the two found time to go skating at Nathan Phillips Square. “By the end of the week, we were in love,” says Michelle.

In 2007, Tom left Toronto after he got the job of Concertmaster for the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. Michelle stayed in Toronto for about a year and a half as she finished school and made some initial moves to set up a career.

But, as Michelle explains, “It became clear that one of us had to move.” Michelle left Toronto and joined Tom as a violinist with the TBSO. They were married a year later.

The two found a home in Thunder Bay and in the orchestra – one that, most importantly, allowed them to continue to cultivate, express, and put into practice their passion for music and musical education.

They haven’t found it to be a test to combine their married life and their careers. On the contrary, Michelle tells me that they are fortunate to be able to work together and that their strong connection translates into their music and art.

“Not every couple spends every moment together, but we have made it work. I have always felt we have an artistic collaboration that goes beyond a romantic partnership. We inspire and help each other… we are each other’s muses, and have been for 14 years.”

It is clear in talking to Michelle that the development, preservation, and promotion of musical education within the local community is a top priority for both her and Tom. Tom is the Music Director of the Thunder Bay Symphony Youth Orchestra, a full symphonic orchestra for young musicians, and Michelle is the Director of the Junior Strings, which is for students between the ages of eight and fourteen who are learning violin, viola, cello, and bass.

“Classical orchestral music is a calling for us; it is our life’s work. It has always been our goal to educate children and the public, and reach out however we can. It is because of this that some of our favourite work is with the TBSYO. I love seeing the orchestral army in Thunder Bay growing stronger each year,” says Michelle.

“We have the opportunity to do everything here – it’s rewarding to be involved in so many aspects of music,” adds Tom. “In Thunder Bay, we are not only performers but we are also musical educators. There is a lot of room in the city for us to be creative and inventive.”

They have a 5-year-old son who is well on his way to following in his parent’s footsteps. “He plays violin too! It’s a family quirk!”

Although the TBSO has a lengthy off-season starting in the spring, Michelle informs me that she and Tom continue to be busy as ever during the warmer months. “We’re workaholics!” she says with a laugh.

The two have come to fully embrace all that the beautiful Thunder Bay summer months have to offer. When she does find a spare second, Michelle loves to spend time gardening.

“Thunder Bay is a great place to grow a garden! Because the symphony season is short, most musicians leave in the summers to take other work. In our first few years of living here, we did that too. It took a house and a kid to get us to stay here all summer, and that’s when we realized how truly beautiful and sunny it gets here. Now I don’t ever plan to leave for the summer. Everything I throw in the ground just grows like a weed. Musicians are poor so I don't buy groceries all summer--we just eat whatever I grow. Yes, that means that for a week or two we have zucchini everything.”

They have also been excited by the vibrant and ever-expanding food and restaurant scene in the city.

“Food is one of my favourite parts of Thunder Bay,” says Michelle. “Tom and I love trying out all the restaurants and local food.”

It’s been fourteen years since Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring inadvertently brought Tom and Michelle together. Fourteen years filled with love and music. See these two powerhouse musicians in action at any of the always-fantastic TBSO shows.

Cassandra Blair has a Masters of Arts in English Literature and is a regular contributor to Bayview.

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