In modern life, musicians have to wear many hats and juggle different events. Today’s musicians need more than just natural talent — their musical journey requires dedication, passion, and forged friendships. Kirsten Docter, Associate Professor of Viola and Chamber Music at Oberlin Conservatory, isn’t worried that anyone who attends the school will be deficient in any of these areas. Rather, she considers Oberlin to be a place to foster artistic growth and cultivate one’s personal creativity.
Growing up in a musical family in Minneapolis, Docter first discovered the viola while studying the newly introduced teaching method founded by the Japanese violinist and pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki.
“I used to want to play the double bass, but my mother convinced me that viola would be a better idea, and I did both instruments for fifth and sixth grade. I started viola lessons in seventh grade,” Docter said during a recent interview. “At that time, there weren’t a lot of young people playing viola at a serious level, so the opportunities were greater for me right away.”
Her interest for that under appreciated string instrument led her to join several youth orchestras and multiple chamber ensembles, which only increased her passion over time. The viola took her away from home for the first time at the tender age of fourteen, to the Eastern Music Festival (EMF) in North Carolina. Docter said she had “an amazing teacher who really pushed me,” but her older colleagues impacted her the most. “I could play chamber music with people who were in college. To be treated like them, being coached at that level, I thought I really liked this and wanted to pursue it.” Where someone else might find such a circumstance intimidating, Docter enjoyed the challenge and went on to attend other festivals, including the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, and in 1991 won the Primrose International Viola Competition.
Dedicated private teachers are one of the most important contributors to a young musician’s development, and Docter was lucky to have several. The teacher from EMF was Alice Preves, who played in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Docter later studied with SPCO Principal Viola Lynne Ramsey, who after being named Assistant Principal Viola of the Cleveland Orchestra, started teaching at Oberlin — and Docter followed her to the school. Soon after graduating, Docter was invited to join the award-winning Cavani String Quartet, a position she held for twenty-three years.
“We played in all fifty states, travelled internationally, and worked with so many amazing collaborators. In Columbus, we played the Schubert Cello Quintet, which is a gem, with Joel Krosnick, who was still with the Juilliard String Quartet. We had two amazing days of rehearsals, and hearing Joel talk about the music and tell all these stories — it was such a personal experience the five of us were having on stage.”
In addition to touring, Cavani was also in residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “At CIM I was coaching some people my age and older, which was really scary. Performing was one thing and I really enjoy that, but having to coach some of my peers and my former classmates from Oberlin, now that was intimidating.”
Docter said that since every member had parents that were educators, teaching came naturally to them. “I learned from and was inspired by my colleagues, so maybe three or four years later I started teaching viola privately as well as coaching. The more I taught, the more I grew to love it and I feel like the two inspire each other. The process of practicing makes me empathize with students, and the more repertoire I get to play, the deeper the relationship I develop with the music. That’s what I love about teaching at Oberlin. Everyone’s serious about their music and wants to learn, but the type of student that comes to Oberlin specifically wants to learn to think.”
Perhaps that’s why Oberlin is special. Not just for nurturing highly intellectual individuals or stellar musicians that go on to have successful careers, but teaching everyone how to grow, learn, experience life, and foster love and universal change. “There are plenty of students that are going to graduate and play in professional orchestras, but there are also so many that will go on to be the CEO of the orchestra or conduct.” Docter said “I still remember all of my students, and I don’t worry about them because with that level of creativity, thought, and knowledge, they have skills above and beyond what they achieve on the viola.”
Kirsten Docter’s own life and career prove that musicians are more than what they do with their instruments, and music is a life-long learning process — a lab of experimentation and self-discovery.