Musings: An Interview with Cristina Ballatori 

Interview by Diane Boyd Schultz

What was your early musical training like?

My musical training officially began in my public-school band program in East Rochester, New York in the 4th grade, but my beginnings on flute were very rough. I loved music and the sound of the flute but did not get along with the elementary band teacher (who taught all the private lessons in the band), or enjoy band. For the first two years, I begged my parents to let me quit, but they refused.

My mom was a hairdresser, and she was at her wits end with me when a new client landed in her chair at the salon for a haircut. Jeanne Coonan had moved back to the Rochester area after living in Chicago for many years. She was a fine musician who had grown up in the area and graduated with degrees in music education and bassoon from the Eastman School of Music and Ithaca College. In one last desperate attempt to keep me playing, my mom asked Ms. Coonan if she would take me on as a private student. 

When I met Ms. Coonan at our very first flute lesson in 1988, I was a struggling music student. In addition to my intense dislike for band, I also happened to be a terrible flutist with every problem you would expect for a kid who was not started properly. I also had a remarkable inability to count quarter notes! By the time that we met on that fateful day in 1988, two public school teachers and one frightening private teacher had already given up on me.  Ms. Coonan was undaunted. I took lessons with Ms. Coonan for a few years before she sent me on to her best friend, Diane Smith, a wonderful flutist and a Joseph Mariano student. Diane performed with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and freelanced in the region. She also taught at the Hochstein School of Music & Dance, where I would go on to study as scholarship student, participating in the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and various chamber music groups outside of my school music program. 

Describe some of your most influential teachers.

From Diane Smith, Judith Lapple, and Katherine Kemler to Alexa Still and Peter Lloyd, I feel fortunate to have studied with flutists who were fantastic role models as musicians and humans. Each of these flutists contributed to my growth immeasurably during the time we were together, and Diane, Alexa, and Dr. Kemler continue to be wonderful mentors and colleagues.  However, had it not been for Ms. Coonan, my very first flute teacher who was an exceptional public school music educator, I would never have been able to connect with these flutists. The difference that one passionate, highly skilled, and dedicated music educator can have on the lives of their students cannot be overstated.

Thirty-four years after my first flute lesson with Ms. Coonan, I am struck by how profoundly her teaching, guidance, and mentorship have influenced my growth as a musician and person. Early on, she helped me to develop the fundamentals of good flute playing and musicianship with a tireless and patient dedication.  While the musical skills I developed under her guidance had a tremendous impact on my growth as musician, the most important lessons that I learned from Ms. Coonan went far beyond the scope of our flute lessons. Although I lagged far behind my peers in every aspect of my playing, Ms. Coonan set high standards for me with small attainable goals right from the beginning. A demanding and caring teacher, with a no-nonsense approach to teaching, she encouraged me to pursue each increasingly larger goal with a persistence that was unmatched. More importantly, she sincerely believed that I could achieve each goal she set, and she helped me to believe that I had the ability to reach a high standard if I was willing to do the work. Ms. Coonan brought a passion for music and an enthusiasm for teaching into each lesson that inspired me to learn and work hard to improve. Beyond lessons, she invested time taking me to concerts at Eastman and Hochstein to hear great flutists, and she helped to get me involved in musical opportunities outside of my school music program. These experiences, coupled with her teaching, expanded my perspective of what was possible and resulted in great personal growth. 

The example Jeanne Coonan set as a musician, teacher, and person continues to influence my life and the lives of my own students, and for that I will always be grateful. If Ms. Coonan (No, I still cannot call her Jeanne) had never gone to get that haircut from my mom way back when, my life now might look very different!

What made you decide to pursue a career in music?

As a first-generation American, and the first-born daughter in an Italian family, I grew up feeling like my life at home with my family and my life outside of my family were two very different places–and I did not quite fit into either. I was a quiet, angsty kid, and music and the flute became outlets for me to express myself in ways that I could not otherwise. On Sundays, the whole family would gather for lunch after Mass. These lunches would go on for hours and my mother and grandmother made us sit through them every week until the last cup of espresso had been drained.  I quickly learned that if I asked to go practice flute, my mother would excuse me from the table, and I could escape to the quiet in my grandmother’s basement away from my very large, loud, and boisterous family!

The summer before my junior year of high school, Ms. Coonan sent me 9 beginner flute students to teach, and that summer was pivotal. I loved seeing the kids light up when they learned a new note, or made a new sound, and it felt good to help them to learn. After that experience, I thought I would go on to major in music education and become a public-school teacher.  However, over time, I had progressed from the kid who couldn’t count quarter notes to the Flute Girl who was doing all the music things.  I knew I loved teaching and had a way with kids, but I could not imagine a life without playing the flute. I also realized, after trying to learn clarinet, that I never, ever wanted to play or teach another band instrument that was not flute! 

My family immigrated to the U.S. with very little. Education was a priority in our family, and I was going to be the first person in my family to go to college. I was a good student, Salutatorian of my high school class, and I originally intended to pursue pre-med as an undergrad to become a pediatrician. As you might imagine, my declaration that I was going to be a professional flutist did not go over well. Once they realized how hard I worked and how much music was a part of me, my family eventually came around, but the decision to pursue music did not come without resistance. 

Describe some of your most influential experiences

Throughout my career, music has provided rewarding opportunities to perform, teach, serve, and connect with people from all over. These experiences have influenced my playing and teaching, and shaped my life in different ways. However, my struggles and failures, or what I perceived as failure at different times in my life and career, have been among the most influential and transformational experiences that I have had on my path as a musician.

In 2005, I won an audition for a flute/piccolo position with the United States Navy Band in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, shortly after entering boot camp, I was medically disqualified from the military and was not able to join the band. After working for so many years to follow a plan that I had made, I was suddenly unemployed and had nowhere to go.  For the first time in my life, there was no plan, and more unsettling to me at the time, there were no indications of a plan materializing anytime soon. I’ve always been a very driven and goal-oriented person, but I did not know what to do with myself and stopped playing for a long time. 

Although I could not see my path moving forward at the time, that period proved to be a positive turning point in my life and career. Despite my time away from the flute, the experiences, good and bad, helped to improve my approaches to teaching and playing.  In the professional realm I was forced to get creative and develop the entrepreneurial and administrative skills that have become invaluable in my work today. Perhaps most importantly,  I became more resilient and fearless, traits that continue to serve me well to this day. 

In June 2021, my mother passed away. During the three years of her illness, the last two of which spanned the pandemic, I stepped away from my professional life and turned inward to focus on my family and tend to a mid-life crisis that was already in progress.  Walking with my mom through her illness, the impenetrable grief of losing my person, and a pandemic that made me question my purpose and all my choices in life collided and I lost my way for a bit. In stumbling from the path, I also found my way back to myself. One of the many gifts of this time has been connecting to my own music making again, reminding me why we do what we do as musicians, and appreciating it in a way that I have not before. Playing the flute during this time once again helped me to express myself in ways that I could not otherwise, just like it did for that angsty, nerdy kid in her grandmother’s basement. 

I organized my mother’s funeral service and my longtime piano collaborator Kevin Chance and I played throughout. (It was basically a musical tribute to my mom with some Catholic mass thrown in). I will always remember that performance because it was the first time in my life that I simply played in the moment without any kind of fear—what an indescribable feeling! Since that performance, I experience some nerves when I perform, but I have lost all fear of judgment or being “good enough,” and now I play to play. It has resulted in a new freedom and joy in sharing while performing that I have never experienced before, and I am grateful for this. 

The person I was before both of these experiences was/is very different from the person I grew and continue to grow into following them. Each of these experiences although difficult to navigate through, proved transformational even if the beauty of their lessons was not revealed until later. 

You have taught college for many years and involved your students in community outreach activities. What are some of those that have been the most successful and/or meaningful?

When I started at my first job at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (formerly University of Texas-Brownsville), I was the university’s first full-time flute professor and needed to grow and create a culture within the studio. One of my superpowers is event planning; creating and organizing events is something I enjoy very much. During my time there, I created many outreach projects for my students to create bonds in the studio and to help the students learn the value of service to their community while building their teaching and presentation skills.  Brownsville was remote, and these outreach activities like the Brownsville Flute Festival, South Texas Flute & Clarinet Festival, Honors Woodwind Choirs, and many more provided experiences to other young students in the community. 

When I moved to Wisconsin in 2016, I brought with me one of my favorite community activities, Flutiz Navidad, a holiday community flute choir and food drive event that my students and I started in Brownsville in 2014. Flutists of all ages, with at least one year of playing experience, are invited to campus to attend rehearsals and present a concert of holiday music in a one-day flute extravaganza. The atmosphere is festive and fun complete with holiday costume contests and cookies. In order to participate in the community flute choir, or attend the concert, performers and attendees are required to donate a canned good for a local food pantry. The university students help organize the event and run sectionals for younger students. The last time we held the event in Wisconsin, we had nearly 80 flutists from the region participate and hundreds of cans of food donated to our local food pantry. We are all excited to bring this event back in 2022 after a 2-year COVID hiatus. 

Helping my students develop their teaching, presentation, administrative, entrepreneurial, and organizational skills has been an important part of my teaching since I started in my first job at UTRGV in 2008. I believe we learn best by doing, and activities like Flutiz Navidad and UW-Whitewater Flute Day give my students opportunities to develop and hone these skills. 

When I arrived at UW-Whitewater in 2016, we started the UW-W Flute Club, a student run organization, to gain access to funding for guest artist events and master classes on campus. My long-term goal for this organization was for my flute students to organize and present our UW-W Flute Day entirely on their own.  Since 2021, our UW-Whitewater Flute Day has become an entirely student run event with students responsible for contacting guest artists, arranging their travel, securing funding, planning the events for the day, doing PR, and running the events for the day. I mentor the students and offer guidance when needed, but we are now at a point where the senior members of the studio mentor and train the younger students in the studio. It is wonderful to see the growth in the students through their participation in community outreach activities.

What are some of your recent and upcoming projects/performances?

During the Spring 2023 semester, I am looking forward to a sabbatical from UW-Whitewater to refocus, reflect on what is next, and pursue interests and projects that I have put off for a very long time. In addition to getting out and performing regularly again with concerts and master classes scheduled throughout the spring and summer, I am excited to delve into training to become certified as a Body Mapping Educator and to make my first recording with my dear friend and duo partner of more than 20 years, pianist Kevin Chance. The album, entitled “Night Surrendering to Dawn,” will feature works by 21st Century composers, including Amanda Harberg, Valerie Coleman, and Samuel Zyman, along with two works written for us by my friend and colleague, Christian Ellenwood.  For most of my career, my priorities and energies have been focused on serving my students, my university, and creating opportunities for others in my community. As much as I love working with people and putting on a good event, making music is what feeds me and is what started me on this path in the first place. It will be wonderful to have time to redirect my energies, invest in my own creative projects, and see what unfolds.

Lastly, what makes your heart sing?

Performing, working with students, mentoring students, and seeing them go out into the world after graduation and positively impacting their own communities—each of these gives me great joy. However, many of things that fill my heart now have little to do with music. Cooking, gathering friends and family around my table for a good meal, crafting the perfect meatball, spending time building forts with my niece and nephew, working in my garden, running, curling up with a good book and my co-dependent cat, and going on long hikes with my dog are a few of the things that make my heart sing.

To read more about Cristina Ballatori visit her website.

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