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Perseverance and Priorities: A Conversation with Catherine Ramirez

Catherine Ramirez is a celebrated performer and teacher, currently serving as Artist-in-Residence at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She is well-traveled and highly educated, holding degrees from Occidental College, the Boccherini Music Institute, Queens College, Yale and Rice. Dr. Ramirez’s work into understanding our emotional connection to music has led her into altruistic performance ventures as well as into the teaching studio. Here she shares some of her ideas with the Flute Examiner community.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to the flute, and how did you decide to build a life in music?

I was raised in El Paso, Texas, and come from a mostly non-musical family, though my siblings did play music with me in middle and high school.  I have always loved sound – when I was a toddler, I would crumple up the pages in the phone book and tell my mom that “the paper was talking.” I had an active imagination, and loved to sing and invent songs.  I loved experiencing things with all my senses. And as I grew, I learned to also love speaking different languages (beyond my native Spanish and English, learning French and Italian), and imitating accents. While my family often listened to the music of our cultural heritage from Colombia and neighboring Mexico, we also listened to America’s ‘Oldies but Goodies,’ Classical music on the radio, Saturday morning cartoons (Bugs Bunny), and on children’s shows like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street. So in a way, I think all of these things contributed to laying a foundation for me as a musician.

I first became interested in playing an instrument at 9 years old, when I saw my neighbor’s upright piano. My parents got me a small, electric Casio piano, and, much later on, that neighbor’s piano, and I studied for about six years. At age 12, I had the opportunity to play in the sixth grade public school band.  While I wanted to play the clarinet originally, the band director advised me to play flute instead, as there were already too many clarinetists. Starting on flute came easily for me and I fell in love with it quickly. I made my way through the public school bands, even making Texas All State Band, before starting private flute lessons at age 18. 

Building a life in music has been the result of hard work, persistence, and being blessed with helpful people, opportunities and challenges along the path. But I think I can pinpoint a few instances along my journey that were deciding moments to pursue and keep pursuing music.  The first one happened when I was maybe 10 years old and it felt like a premonition – as I was watching a pianist performing on television, I got a “message” in my heart and mind that said “you’ll be there someday.” It wasn’t meant as a literal representation (like me playing piano on tv).  But it felt like a realization that music is what I’m meant to do. Two other moments come to mind as well, in which I had to “claim myself,” my presence and purpose, in a way that was directly related to making music. One was on a mountain top during my undergrad years, and the other in a classroom at Yale during graduate school.  In those two instances I felt an overwhelming need to claim my existence and to reclaim my sense of purpose (if anything, just for myself). Those moments really helped me continue the journey.

Something you are known for is performing for underserved audiences. What drew you to use your voice as a performer to help people who are dealing with adversity, people who might not have access to live music, especially classical music?

I believe that there is profound power in music, not just in the sounds we create, but in the energy that is conveyed by the performer to the audience. That energy can be life-giving, healing and unifying. Depending on the energy we communicate through performing, we can create very positive feelings in listeners, transform tension to peace in a room, and even stimulate empathy. As performers, we have a great responsibility to serve as a bridge, bringing music to life and to the listener. Actually, my doctoral dissertation at Rice was about this idea of “optimal musical communication.” I came up with that term after listening to what felt like a dull, life-draining performance. While music is not tangible (I can’t touch the sound with my hands), its affects are real, and both the performer and the audience can feel when it gives life or takes it away.

We all have experienced adversity and need uplifting sometimes. Performing for underserved audiences gets that lift to those who may need it the most. It’s a way to give back. If I take the time to count my blessings and be grateful for what I have, I realize that I have a lot. If I don’t take the time to be grateful, I end up feeling envious of what I don’t have, and end up seeing only what I lack. Serving others through music reminds me to be humble and grateful, and in turn, hopefully to help others to feel more uplifted and alive.

Tell us about “Shelter from the Storm.”

“Shelter from the Storm” is a recording I made in 2017 with a Minnesota State Arts Board Artists Initiative Grant that was released on Albany Records. The disc contains music by composers who were facing a challenge or difficulty, and used music to help them through it. For example, Karg-Elert didn’t get the job he wanted; Jolivet’s mother passed away; Bach’s wife had died; and Takemitsu confronted his own imminent mortality. I was inspired by how these composers got through their anguish, sadness, burden and frustration. Their music helped me work through some of my own feelings as well. Plus, it seemed that many people at the time, including students, were feeling depressed, afraid or frustrated for various reasons, and I thought this might help to alleviate the stigma in talking about such feelings.

What drives you as a performer? Are there challenges involved in making programming decisions for audiences that may not be the usual suspects, so to speak?

As a performer and introvert, I’m probably driven most by the internal deepening and expanding effect that physically playing the flute has on me and my energy. In those moments when everything feels aligned, I can sense a type of bridge between me and the audience – when it feels like I’m with the audience in hanging onto that particular moment in time, or that one note – those kinds of glorious moments motivate me to continue playing and strengthening my gifts and abilities.

I think there are challenges in making programming decisions for audiences, especially in balancing the familiar with the unfamiliar. But I find that if I can perform a new or unfamiliar piece convincingly, the risk taken to present that work is usually worth it. I find that when a performer has a personal connection to a piece of music, the performance tends to sound that much more meaningful and stimulating. So I think the trick is to get to that point. How can I connect to what the composer is asking of me through this piece? What can I share of myself through this music? How do I want an audience member to feel about this piece or be moved by this piece? Or if it’s a cerebral piece that engages the mind over emotion or movement, how can I help the audience experience that? What can they receive from it? Those kinds of questions can help overcome some of the challenges with making creative programming decisions.

What’s the best part of teaching for you, and do you think your altruistic outlook as a performer rubs off on your students?

The best part of teaching for me are those moments when a student “gets it” – when they understand or experience an aspect of music-making or playing the flute that they didn’t know was possible to them before, or expands their perspective. Like when the plateau-progress makes a jump. I love that moment of discovery, possibility, progress and opportunity! I love the joy I see in a student’s eyes when that happens. It motivates me, I think, as much as it does them. Of course, those moments might be few and far between – with a lot of work happening in-between – but I still think those moments are the best!

As for whether my altruistic outlook as a performer rubs off on my students, I think so, in some cases. I do work hard to create a positive environment in the studio that helps students feel safe, valued, respected, heard, free to be themselves, free to explore new techniques or music they haven’t tried before, as well as to feel that they are part of something special. So my hope is that they feel able to give to others through their music. I have required projects from students in the past that aimed to combine aspects of their interests across the liberal arts and to share their results with others. I’ve held studio classes at retirement communities near St. Olaf College, where residents observed my teaching and my students’ performing. I’ve also encouraged students to perform for those communities on their own, and several students have taken the initiative to do so with their chamber groups.  So I guess, in a way, I have had some impact on my students in that regard.

How do you balance all the different facets of your career? You wear so many hats—teacher, performer, administrator and traveler, just to name a few!

Some days are easier than others, and some days, I don’t get everything done. But one thing that has helped me is something I actually learned from a marriage class. Before I got married a couple of years ago, I had to take a marriage prep course through my church. One lesson from that course focused on how to balance all facets of life. It can be applied to careers too. Basically, you have to decide on what your priorities are, and know that they can change from week to week. So, applied to my career, if I have a performance coming up, I’ll prioritize practice and exercise during open portions throughout the days and weeks leading up to it. If I have a week with many obligations on campus, I’ll prioritize those that week. So while I would still need to practice and teach, for example, the order in which I accomplish those things changes according to the week. I’m learning to have more balance in my life by allowing my priorities to flow more in line with life.

Is there any advice you would give to a young student, perhaps someone considering building a life in music today?

When I was a senior in high school, I eagerly told my first teacher that I wanted to be a soloist.  She then proceeded to give me the lecture about how difficult it is to make it in music. I felt disappointed at first that she had said that. But I remember walking away from that talk with my little fire inside that I was going to do this and make music my life. That teacher, Melissa Colgin-Abeln, is now one of my dearest friends and the strongest mentor and supporter I could ask for. The world is changing. And yes, it still takes a lot of hard work, practice and persistence to build a life in music today. But there are so many avenues to building a satisfying career, now more than ever. To anyone considering a life in music, I say believe in yourself and be true to yourself. Discouragement and rejection come with the territory, but if this is in fact your path, work hard to nourish your gift and share your truth with the world.

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