Musicians in their Lairs II: Cynthia Katsarelis

Online teaching leads to at-home learning for the teacher

By Peter Alexander April 26 at 5:40 p.m.

Cynthia Katsarelis is in her happy place.

The music director of the Colorado Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra is speaking by Facetime from the basement of the home she shares with her wife, musicologist Rebecca Maloy. This is her office, where she is surrounded by her violin and her music and her books and her Roland digital piano.

“It’s really true, that saying that musicians either are practicing or should be practicing,” Katsarelis says. “I reflect on that almost daily. I’ve been practicing a great deal and making some terrific discoveries on the violin.”

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Cynthia Katsarelis in her “happy place”

But she’s been doing much more than practicing her violin. She has been able to accelerate her work on a Doctor of Musica Arts degree, which she had expected to finish next December. “Perhaps I’ll finish in August or even July,” she says.

She is also “doing a lot of professional development stuff”—playing Bach chorales from open score, with each voice part in a different clef, and playing “figured bass,” Baroque-era keyboard parts where only the bass line is given with numbers to indicate the chords above the bass. “It’s like floss for the brain,” she says. “I figure if I’m not out and about and interacting with people, it keeps the brain lively, so that’s a good thing to do.”

Like a lot of musicians during the crisis, Katsarelis is teaching online. Since 2004 she has had a relationship with students in Haiti, through the Holy Trinity School of Music in Port-au-Prince, where she has regularly taught violin and guest conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique Sainte Trinité.

“One of the things that I took up was asking Haitian students if they wanted [online] lessons,” she says. “The next thing I know I’ve got 45 Haitians who want lessons! That became huge really fast.”

It also took on a new dimension when a Haitian violinist that Katsarelis knows, Victoria Joseph, launched an etude challenge. “In addition to the online lessons, I’ve been making videos of how to practice certain etudes,” she explains. (You may see one of her etudes—with her apologies for her halting Haitian French—here.)

“I’ve tried to pick the etudes very, very strategically, to pick the kind of things that will really further their technique,” she says. “I pick etudes that work on a particular aspect of technique so they can explore it in greater depth and ideally things that they can do mostly on their own, with a little guidance.”

Katsarelis says that this project has been a learning experience for her as well as the Haitian students. As she has gone through her extensive collection of violin etudes, including ones she played as far back as middle school, she is looking at her own training with new eyes.

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Katsarelis teaching online from her basement

“There’s something about revisiting that old stuff,” she says. “I went through all of my etudes from whenever, and I just see gobs of wisdom from these early etudes. I think, ‘Oh, that’s what my teacher was trying to teach me! I wish I had really absorbed the lesson,’ but also ‘How can I teach it to [my students]?’ That’s been really beneficial.

“And when I practice the advanced stuff, it reminds me how to teach the intermediate students so they can get to that advanced place. Sometimes you forget how you got there. So now I’ve been tracing the steps to success. So the next stage will be for me to work through how to get [my students] into the advanced stage.”

The result of going back through the etudes she has studied over so many years: “I’ll be a much better teacher. This could actually be helpful in [getting a job], but I’m doing it because it’s really beneficial right here and now, for the Haitian musicians and for my own playing.”

Katsarelis and Malloy have gotten their old turntable out and have been listening to some of the old vinyl recordings in their collection. This includes old Classical recordings, by artists including Zino Francescatti, Leon Fleischer and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but also 1960s and early ‘70s rock. Katsarelis says she favors the Beatles, while Maloy also has a collection of the Grateful Dead.

Even though there are no concerts, Katsarelis still has work to do as conductor of Pro Musica. She and the board have been hard at work already for the 2020-21 season. In addition to deciding the programs for next year, they have decided to drop the performances they have been giving in Denver, and to look into options for streaming their concerts.

“We worked things through and decided to focus our efforts in Boulder, and to put  more energy into outreach,” she says. “And once the virus hit, I’ve been working on creating a season that has a smaller budget. I’m having a lot of fun, but I’m busy on pretty fulfilling stuff.”

“I keep really busy, but when I’m not busy I tend to worry about people. I want people to be healthy and happy—and listen to lots of music, because it really does help the time pass beautifully.

“I just hope everybody’s doing well.”

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