In the Studio with Viola Professor Kirsten Docter

April 15, 2019

Conservatory Communications Staff

violist performing with an ensemble
Photo credit: Walter Novak

The coordinator of ChamberFest! shares her love of small ensembles.

Chamber music announces the end of every semester, with small jazz ensembles at the Cat in the Cream and the two-day ChamberFest! showcasing a semester’s worth of hard work by dozens of conservatory students.  

ChamberFest! presents programs on Friday, April 26, at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 27, at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. in Stull Recital Hall.

We had the chance to chat with Oberlin viola professor Kirsten Docter, a coordinator of ChamberFest! and a 1992 Oberlin grad.

black and white image of Cavani Quartet
What made you fall in love with chamber music and make it a focus of your life’s work?

I started playing chamber music first with my sister (cellist with the Met Opera Orchestra) and my brother (then a violinist) when I was in grade school. Throughout high school and college, I usually had two chamber groups going and liked the challenge of one-on-a-part, but in collaboration with friends or colleagues. I have always been attracted to the very personal and intimate nature of the music, and the way it represents relationships in all aspects. Greg Fulkerson and Marilyn McDonald were very influential coaches while I was a student at Oberlin, and I had the chance to work with Felix Galimir while studying at Curtis. When I joined the Cavani String Quartet (pictured), they were in their 10th year as an ensemble. I learned so much from them, and from other individuals and ensembles we collaborated with, in particular Donald Weilerstein and Peter Salaff (both of the Cleveland Quartet).

You’ve played a lot of it—do you have a favorite piece of chamber music? 

I will cheat and say I usually fall in love with whatever piece I’m working on at the moment. My overall favorites are Beethoven and Bartók string quartets.

What are some of the most important skills you learned from your work in chamber music that made you a more rounded classical musician and teacher? Why is chamber music such a crucial part of an Oberlin undergrad education?  

We are so lucky at Oberlin to have both world-class private teachers and a thriving and lively orchestral program. I see chamber music studies as a synthesis of these two aspects of study. One must perform their chamber part as if it is a solo, and then—somewhat differently than a solo—one must be flexible and open to making changes to accommodate the other parts. One has to be willing to give it their all, but then be able to commit to trying other ideas as if they are one’s own, even if they severely disagree with the ideas. 

This semester, the YB Center for Dialogue has hosted “Empathy Cafés,” in which students get advice on how to deal with relational conflict and receive information about communication. I love that this is happening on our campus. I think it could be a great way to help our chamber ensembles have positive, constructive rehearsals. Not that all of our groups get into heated arguments every week, but it’s great to have this as a resource!

What are some goals you have for Oberlin’s chamber music program? What do you hope students will take away from the program?

Chamber ensembles are the perfect musical entity to take on the road: They're not too large, you don’t need special equipment except a piano, they represent more than one instrument and often families of instruments, and they are great for educational settings and can be a source of comfort. Along with ongoing master-class and performance opportunities, I am hoping to start working with a few ensembles to do more with community engagement in the area and beyond. (More to come soon!)

Interested in reading more about chamber music at Oberlin? See how Oberlin Conservatory musicians trade paper scores for iPad Pros.

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