Collaborative pianist Sara Parkinson uses her musical skills in administration, too
By Peter Alexander June 3 at 2:30 p.m.
The new executive director of the Boulder Philharmonic credits her musical training for her success in administration.
Sara Parkinson was recently appointed the Phil’s executive director, following nearly a year as interim director. Before that, she was director of education and community engagement for the orchestra.
But she was trained in collaborative piano—including what you might call “accompanying”—a field in which she holds a doctorate from CU Boulder.
The job of the collaborative pianist is to solve problems. Whether accompanying a single soloist or playing in a chamber group, they must listen to and respond to the other players. If their collaborators skip a beat or lose their place, they must seamlessly make things right—which is not all that different from the job of directing an artistic organization.
“Absolutely, I have transferred all of my skills that I use as a pianist into the boardroom,” Parkinson says. “Stepping into this role during the pandemic year, seeing an organization through a crisis—I was cut out for situations like that. (As a collaborative pianist) you make things work. And beyond that, you see how to make it better.”
As for the responsibility she has been given to lead the organization, “It’s beyond an honor to see Boulder Phil through a crisis, and now to head into the future that is so bright,” she says.
“This is an exciting time, with (music director) Michael Butterman’s 15th season upon us, and my first season in this role, but we are a team and we are already talking about three years into the future. We have exciting plans in the works.”
One particular challenge for Parkinson was that she steeped into the interim director role during the pandemic. There was literally no guidance for running an orchestra at a time when they couldn’t play for an audience.
“There was no playbook,” she says. “I blazed my own path by bringing people together, which I have done throughout my career. That allowed me to lead in a way that I never had before, and to see the possibilities in the crisis. We continued to connect with our patrons, to build a full virtual season, not only with our main series concerts but with our education program.
“Our discovery program, a highlight of the year for local schools—we pivoted online and we have reached over 16,000 students throughout the world. That includes 23 states and four different countries. Who knew that we could expand our reach that far?”
Parkinson has made it a priority to support Butterman and facilitate his goals. “My collaborative approach to everything really helps that relationship,” she says. “And I want to focus on our musicians. So many of the musicians in the orchestra are colleagues of mine. I’ve made music with so many of them, and they are the reason why I go to work every day.”
If moving into administration makes use of her skills as collaborative pianist, Parkinson is not giving up her life as performer. “Keeping that passion [for performance] alive—that’s not something I’ll leave behind,” she says.
Parkinson has served on the staff and faculties of University of Colorado at Boulder, Cornell College in Iowa and Metropolitan State University of Denver. She performs with the Colorado Ballet Orchestra and members of the Colorado Symphony, and she is a founding member of the tango ensemble Grande Orquesta Navarre. She made her operatic conducting debut in 2018 leading Mozart’s Così fan tutte for Boulder Opera, and she served as music director at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Boulder 2015–2020. She holds degrees in piano performance from the University of Iowa and the New England Conservatory of Music, in addition to her doctorate in collaborative piano from CU.