Polly Gleason Sweeney ’60 has dedicated much of her life to the violin and making beautiful music with some of the most famous conductors, composers, and musicians in the world, and her passion for music started at The Harley School.
Back in the 1950’s, there was a huge focus on music and all students were given an ear training test by a music specialist from the Eastman School of Music. This test checked the students on their ability to identify pitch, chords, melody, and rhythms solely by hearing. At the age of three, this test revealed that Polly had perfect pitch. After this discovery, her parents enrolled her in piano lessons. While the piano was fine, she really wanted to play the violin. he loved the look and the sound and by 1st grade, she was excited to start violin lessons. Polly said her new-found talent was encouraged by the community, especially her lower school teachers Mrs. Broadbrooks, Mrs. Trinker, Mrs. Cerasani, and Mrs. Wilkens. With all-hands-on-deck, Harley arranged for her to join the children’s orchestra at Indian Landing School run by the assistant concertmaster of the Eastman School of Music where her musical talents flourished.
Life changed for Polly when she was 12 years old. Her mother passed away from cancer and her father, so overwhelmed with grief, “disappeared” into his work and was never home. With her brother William Gleason ’54 studying at Brown University, Polly had the solace of her two dogs, her violin, and The Harley School to help her cope with this devastating loss. She gives Harley credit for “raising a teenager” and she is especially thankful to Mrs. Leon Lansing Allen, her 6th grade teacher, for taking such good care of her after her mother died. When Polly was 13, she learned to drive. Her father was not always available to drive her to school or to music lessons, so one day he handed her the car keys and said, “You know the way.” She did and she went.
When Polly looks back at her time at Harley she says it was “magical.” She loved the beautiful songs from Candlelight and the way they spruced up that old wooden building to look solemn, yet festive, for the evening. She loved her teachers and the way they got to know each student as an individual. Whether it was sports, academics, or the arts, Harley teachers took what was most special to each and every student and made it meaningful, important, and fun. She said Mr. Bud Ewell ’40, P ’66, ’70 was especially good at this and personally motivated her to keep pushing further with her music. She fondly remembers Madame Windholz and the way she “made you feel the emotion of France” every time she spoke. Despite the name, she also relishes her experience with Harley’s “Work Day” (a day where the students did jobs around the school like raking, painting, and cleaning) and the important message it sent the students. “It was a way for you to give back to this wonderful school. We all felt so lucky to be there.” She also gives accolades to the teachers who helped with college counseling. It’s a difficult job to find the right match for each student, but Harley tried to connect you with a college that fits your learning style and temperament. This is how Polly found Oberlin College.
At Oberlin, she majored in music, but unlike schools like Juilliard and Eastman, she did not focus solely on music, she studied a myriad of subjects and received a well-rounded education. She continued to excel in the violin and was the college symphony’s concertmaster both her junior and senior year. Following Oberlin, she went on to do graduate work at the Juilliard School in New York City. After she finished training at Juilliard, looking for musical opportunities in the city, she worked as a secretary and a typist. Polly was the fastest typist in her typing class at Harley and she credits Mrs. Molly Castle Poole P ’58 for getting her this job!
She met her husband in New York City through her brother and they moved to Los Angeles where she performed with conductor Leopold Stokowski, one of the leading conductors of the 20th century, and the American Symphony Orchestra. She also had the honor of working with Yasha Heifetz, a Russian-American violinist, one she says is “the most famous musician in the 20th century.”
Through her years in Los Angeles, Polly has made quite a name for herself and was among an elite group of freelance musicians that are handpicked by composers (like John Williams) and concertmasters to perform film scores. Her violin can be heard in the films Titanic, Out of Africa, Rocky, Toy Story, and A Bugs Life (just to name a few). Polly has also worked with musicians like Van Halen, Barbara Streisand, John Denver, and Neil Diamond. Over the course of her career, she has performed the music for 792 movies. When she first moved to Los Angeles, Polly was a pioneer for women in the world of orchestra work. She said orchestras were all men and you had to be careful because there was a lot of inappropriate behavior toward women trying to make a name in the field. She always stood her ground and her talent kept her moving forward.
After 30 years of an arduous performing schedule, she retired. She said like an athlete, ten hours a day of studio time and then orchestra rehearsal, doing the same motion all day long really takes a toll on your hand. It started with a loss of feeling in her little finger and then another finger and after seeing several different hand experts and 3 different operations, they discovered that while they could stop the feeling loss from getting worse, they couldn’t make it better. She retired in 2005 and now she is the personnel manager at the Pasadena Symphony and spends a lot of her free time horseback riding (which she loved to do as a student at Harley) and with her grand kids.
Does music run in the family? Yes and no. Her son, Ryan, a cellist, has won several musical competitions, is freelancing in Los Angeles, and also an orchestra personnel manager for three orchestras, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Pasadena Symphony, and the Santa Barbara Symphony. Her son, Stender, is a banking executive at Wells Fargo, and her daughter, Alison Sweeney, is an actress. You might recognize her from her 26 years on Days of Our Lives (she started when she was 15) and The Biggest Loser. She still does guest shots and is acting and producing Hallmark movies.
Polly said Harley was so wonderful to her and her brother and she is so thankful for her experience!