One of the best parts about living in Cleveland is the fact that we can claim the Cleveland Orchestra as our own. Even before the NYTimes called it “America’s most brilliant orchestra” and “one of the finest ensembles in the country (if not the world),” we Clevelanders knew that it was the best. I listen to a lot of classical music while I am writing; but, there is no better way to experience it than how it was meant to be enjoyed, live. Every time I go to an orchestra concert, I am overwhelmed with emotion and a belief that humans can, in fact, work together to create something beautiful. The amount of hard work, self-discipline, and talent it takes to be a professional musician is also something that blows my mind and what I have always wanted to learn more about.
A couple of weeks ago, I got my chance! For nine years, Katherine Bormann has been performing with the Cleveland Orchestra in the First Violin section. I spoke with her while she was in Miami on tour and thoroughly enjoyed our hour-long conversation about the beginnings of her career, why she thinks classical music is what we all need in 2020, and her favorite book of last year. Please give a warm welcome to Katherine!
+ How did you start playing the violin?
I started when I was about four. Both of my parents loved music, they both sang, and my mum was a pianist and did music therapy. I think all four of my grandparents played an instrument which is kind of unusual. My mum thought the violin would be good for me because I had so much energy – I ran around a lot – so she thought I could have a tiny, portable violin to keep me company. I started on the Suzuki method, and it just stuck, I kept at it all through the years. Really in high-school is when I started thinking more seriously about a career, specifically in an orchestra, because I loved the repertoire so much. By then, I was playing in a community orchestra, and I loved all the different instruments coming together – I still think that is a good model for civilization. For my last two years of high school, I went to an arts boarding school in Michigan called Interlochen, and that was the final click.
+ When you were young, was it clear you had a talent, or do you think it developed over time?
At the prodigy level, I think that is pretty clear; but, I think that if you start young, have a good teacher, and practice regularly, just about anyone can learn. You can start when you are three or four on strings, which isn’t possible on wind instruments because the facial muscles develop differently later in life. Most string players I know did start when they were pretty young because you almost develop your muscles while you are learning. Also, you learn to problem-solve for yourself, that is a key component. You have to put in the hours, but you also have to learn to practice smart. The sooner you decide that it is a challenge you want to spend time with, the more likely you are to develop the patience required to get good.
+ How often do you practice now?
Ideally, six days a week. Our schedule is such that we have rehearsals and concerts at least five days a week, and often six or seven days when on tour, so practice hours fluctuate based on what I have on my docket. However, I have been thinking about this a lot recently. After nine years in the orchestra, this year, I want to spend some time reviewing exercises and technique books to ensure I am staying in touch and sharpening my skills. I can definitely feel it when I haven’t been doing it enough – especially my warm-up routine – as it helps you to move faster and be more accurate. I don’t want to coast, I want to keep revisiting challenges.
+ What is the most challenging & rewarding part of being in the orchestra?
The most challenging part is to stay at the high-level. I have so much admiration for my colleagues because it is challenging to motivate yourself to remain in that high-plane. In some ways, it is easy because the orchestra prides itself on doing the very best we can, and we all shoot for excellence. But, it still takes a level of physical stamina and hourly devotion to keep the craft up. If you compare it to a sports team, the players have lots of people telling them what to do (from what I understand). They have coaches that work on one thing and specific trainers for others. Of course, the athletes push themselves, but they also get a lot of that group training and directive. In an orchestra, you are much more responsible for your own upkeep and maintenance. Pursuing these things and avoiding injury is a significant challenge.
The most rewarding thing – it sounds trite – but it is just to play this wonderful music from some of history’s geniuses on the stage at Severance Hall and around the world with these incredible colleagues and friends. It is just a dream job; I am thankful for it every day.
+ Who are some of your favorite composers?
Oooh! So many! I love Richard Strauss because I think his music is so well orchestrated and passionate. Russian composers tended to be cinematic in their writing, they make visual feasts that really speak to me. In the morning, I love listening to chant or Renaissance music, something that the British have such a rich tradition of, and that I find very peaceful. Of course, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart – especially his concertos. I even love “Carmina Burana”! It isn’t a complicated work, but I love hearing the choir in all its glory and the soloists in that piece. There aren’t too many composers I don’t like…only Schumann, he is not one I get super excited about, poor guy.
+ What role do you think classical music has in 2020 life?
Orchestras are continually working to figure out ways in which technology can spread this art form to people and excite them. Personally, I don’t love that society is so loud, everything is blasting at you, and there is no pause for reflection or meaningful dialogue. I sound like I am 90 when I start talking about this, but it feels like we are not living in a thoughtful, peaceful culture. Classical music can offer you that much-needed quiet and reflection time.
Plus, I genuinely believe that people are hungry for old-time craft and things that are made well and with purpose. You can see it in people seeking home-made food and craft cocktails; they are building with their own hands and doing DIY. There is this counter-culture going on of people seeking a well-made, lasting option instead of a cheap, throw-away one. Weirdly enough, I think classical music is a part of that. It is a deeply meaningful, complex, and worthy pursuit. The art form that is doing that so well right now is TV series, they are getting the culture of puzzles and interest and depth, and people are latching on to it. My hope for the orchestra, and classical music in general, is that as many people as possible know what a passionate, life-giving, incredibly powerful art form this is.
I had a conductor in Miami before I joined the Cleveland Orchestra, and he said, “pop music is wonderful, but the advantage (perhaps) of classical music is that it gives you a broader canvas in which to experience more emotions.” I love pop and folk, but the sheer structure of the classical pieces do allow for a longer, more profound unfolding of what you are experiencing emotionally and intellectually.
+ Passions outside of music?
Reading is probably my biggest passion; mythology, science fiction, fantasy. I don’t read too many biographies, but I do read a lot of books that give you openings into scientific theories that aren’t super technical. Still, they give you a picture, like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
+ Best book you read in 2019?
Let me think about that for a minute…this is tricky! There is a book called The World Without Us, it postulates the question, what would happen if all humans were suddenly gone? What would happen to the buildings, invasive species, bacteria? What structures would topple? How long would it take for the world to revert to how it was before us? It includes interviews with people as well as little vignettes. It is a bit grim, but very well written and kinda cool.
Also, Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish female author, wrote Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which is a very quirky novel about this little older woman living in a tiny village as the caretaker of people’s summer homes. It is her thoughts and meditations on the people who come during the summer. Additionally, there are people in her village being murdered, so she is on a quest to figure out who has done the deed. It is beautifully written, with lots of twists and turns, I would definitely recommend it! That is probably my number one.
+ Advice for other women who are pursuing a creative career?
To pursue any career, especially an arts career, requires a lot of belief in yourself and long-term patience and focus. My biggest piece of advice is not to shy away from criticism. That doesn’t mean you have to adhere to every single thing everyone tells you, but do seek out as much advice and feedback as you can. Then, go back to your inner self and your own instincts. Incorporate those two things into your work and your spirit. Also, be kind and patient with others because the world is smaller than you think, and you tend to see people again!
Whatever your passion is, you have to find a way to do that. It may not take the path you expect, but I think the universe opens up opportunities for the people who are in touch with what they want and who are dedicated to seeing it through.
Thank you, Katherine!
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