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.”

Musicians in their Lairs I: Michael Christie

Creating wide-ranging playlists, learning while homeschooling

By Peter Alexander April 22 at 7:05 p.m.

NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts about musicians with Boulder connections, and what they are doing while they can’t rehearse or perform. You can expect a non-formal photo to accompany each story.

Michael Christie is listening to music. A lot of music.

Christie, who was music director of the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder 2001-13 is spending the COVID-19 quarantine at this home in Minneapolis. Because his wife is a physician, a large part of his time is taken with homeschooling their two children while she is on the front lines of the pandemic.

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Michael Christie, inside his home in Minneapolis, planning another playlist

When he’s not tied up with those duties, he’s creating online playlists, under the title “Michael Christie’s Jukebox.

So far he has posted 10 lists, nine that reflect his own thoughts, and one in collaboration with composer Kevin Puts, whose opera Silent Night Christie conducted at Minnesota Opera in 2011. The complete opera serves as the anchor piece of “Jukebox #8.”

It turns out there is a lot of listening involved in creating each playlist. He has to not only select the pieces, but also the individual performances of those pieces. “The process of selecting the pieces encourages me to listen to full albums,” he says. “So that I’ve enjoyed, but the tricky part is that I’ve tried to keep the bites fairly digestible, except for the showpiece of each list.”

The playlists are a way for Christie, who is now music director of the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to stay in touch with audiences during the pandemic. “I observed as COVID was shutting things down that people were hunkering down—hunkering down in their homes but also hunkering down in their own areas of expertise, musically,” he says.

“I thought ’what a pity!’ These people listen to a lot of other things, and yet they’re only talking about the narrow window that they’re professionally working in. That was the genesis of the playlists, and then it was trying to make sure that I was being faithful to that by looking at 400 years of music then saying, ‘Alright, what’s interesting’?”

One feature of Christie’s playlists that will seem familiar to those who recall his years with CMF is the breadth of the music that he finds interesting. It includes portions of standard classical repertoire by Haydn, Beethoven, Rossini, Dvořák and others that you would expect. But there is also world music; jazz by Branford, Wynton and the late Ellis Marsalis; Bill Haley and the Comets, the Beatles and Radiohead; an excerpt from Hamilton; stunning Baroque selections by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claudio Monteverdi; newer music from Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass; and even Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five.

From creating his own lists it was an easy step to start asking other musicians what they were listening to. “I thought people are going to get sick of hearing my thoughts, and also, I’ll run out of ideas eventually,” he says. “I’ve reached out to a lot of people, and no one has said no yet.

“The interesting thing is that all of the composers that I’ve been in contact with have said, we’re using this time to catch up. They’re so busy right now taking advantage of the time to not be traveling, and as a consequence they get to focus in a different way.”

Christie says he learns as much homeschooling his two children, ages five and 11,  as they do. “It’s a big learning process every day,” he says. “It definitely takes more patience and a different time scale. Time has to stretch out to flow with the day a bit more. Things that they do in 25 minutes in school take more time than that. But there are so many resources online, that’s amazing!

“Mercifully this is happening in springtime. If this was happening in November, I think—boy! Stuck in the cold and snow? I just can’t even imagine.”

But he definitely relishes the time spent at home. “The children are very different, but curious about the world, clever and sympathetic,” he says. “Being home steadily after years on the road is a great joy!”

Christie spends some of his time planning for his next season at the New West Symphony, particularly the new pieces that the orchestra will introduce. One feature of the concerts began at CMF as “Intermission Insights” interviews. The New West Symphony now has “Entr’acte Composers,” in which a composer is introduced at the beginning of intermission in a conversation with Christie, much as occured at CMF. Later, their piece is played first thing after intermission, giving the audience members the choice to linger in the lobby or hear the new work.

“So far, we’ve only had a handful of people willingly not listen to the new piece,” he says. “The vast majority stay for the interview, like they did in Boulder, and the vast majority come back for the new piece. I’m very careful about what that new piece is, and trying to get [it into a] five- to eight-minute time frame.

“But it’s great, because people have the opportunity to interact with the artist, and people have the opportunity to hear something they’ve never heard before at every concert.”

And in that respect, Christie is not doing anything new at all, quarantine or no quarantine. It’s what he did at CMF, and what he now does for audiences in Thousand Oaks.

You can access all of Christie’s playlists at Michael Christie’s Jukebox.