On the Record with Kirsten Docter, Violist


Courtesy of Kirsten Docter

Kirsten Docter, an Oberlin graduate and newest member of Viola and Cham- ber Music, has garnered many accolades over the course of her musical career.

Eilish Spear

Kirsten Docter, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory herself, is joining the faculty this year as a professor of Viola and Chamber Music. Docter has won awards at both the Primrose International and American String Teachers Association Viola Competitions, and has served on the juries of the Primrose International Viola and the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competitions. She has collaborated with artists such as Itzhak Perlman, Alisa Weilerstein and members of the Cleveland, Juilliard, Takács, Emerson, Borodin and Amadeus String Quartets. As a longtime member of the Cavani String Quartet, Docter has performed in Carnegie and Alice Tully Halls and at the Kennedy Center and has received the Naumburg Chamber Music Award; the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music; two Guarneri String Quartet residencies and eight Chamber Music America Residency Partnership Grants. Docter sat down with the Review to talk about the evolving music world, Oberlin and her experience being away from campus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you were a student here, what was your favorite place on the Oberlin campus?

The Arb — Just getting away. Not that Oberlin’s a big city or anything, but just getting out… and there may or may not have been a boyfriend involved…

What are you most looking forward to in returning as a full-time professor?

That I don’t have to do theory and aural skills! I think taking full advantage of all the recitals and concerts that are going on and not having to do any homework.

You were a longtime member of the Cavani Quartet until this year. What was your favorite aspect of being in the quartet? What will you miss the most?

I’m going to have to cheat and sort of say two things. The first is the students that I got to work with and the teaching that I got to do. I joined the quartet when I was 23, and for a few years, I was younger than some of my students at [Cleveland Institute of Music], and they were really serious about chamber music and really into it, and so [I’ll miss] getting to work with them. Especially as time went on and I got older, I realized that the impact of teaching keeps coming back to you. Now I have sort of “grandchildren” in the tree of [chamber music] coaching, people that were students at CIM who are now in professional quartets and are coaching other young people that then come to CIM. So just that kind of lasting legacy is such a reward and to be able to have the continuing dialogue with that student.

Having said that, I love to perform, I love being on the stage, I love learning all the new repertoire that we get to play, and that’s what I’m going to miss. I’m still hoping and planning on doing a lot of playing—as much as I can—but there’s nothing like playing a Beethoven quartet, and Beethoven in particular, with people that you’ve been playing with for 21 years, and being able to go to that depth.

What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge that young musicians face today, and what do you think professors of music need to be aware of and change in their own teaching styles to meet the demands of the evolving music world?

That’s a really good question. I think that, too, has changed a lot since I was in school. There was the assumption that one could, pretty quickly after graduating, win a job, whether that was in an orchestra or if you went on and did graduate work, that you could get a job teaching, that you would [have] a job and that would be your one job and you would get benefits. That’s what happened to me, and I was really lucky, but if I think about a lot of my colleagues, people that are my age, it happened to them too. And I think starting soon after, people just a bit younger than me, there is not that assumption. And in some ways, I don’t even know if there’s that desire. I don’t mean that in any kind of negative way, but Oberlin has always been a creative hotspot … nearly 1 percent of the [National Academy of Sciences] are Oberlin grads. That’s huge for an undergraduate school! So it’s not even only in music or the arts but it’s kind of everywhere creative. That’s always been part of Oberlin, but I feel like probably in the past two decades, that’s just exploded and I love that it’s been, I think, first student-driven. Students getting more involved in the community, helping in the community, wanting to do community engagement, and that then following that, trying to assist with entrepreneurship. This place has a lot of that, they have great resources as far as the people here helping to guide the students, and then also money, so that’s really exciting. That was one of the really wonderful things that I was excited about coming here for, teaching the kind of Oberlin student that’s hungry for all these experiences.

At what point did you decide you were going to be a musician? And why did you choose viola?

My older brother played the violin at the new Suzuki program in the Twin Cities. I started playing the violin. I hated to practice, as we all do, and then my sister eventually started playing the cello, and so it was just one of those things you practiced every day you ate … and then when I was 14, I went to the Eastern Music Festival, and I had switched to viola by that point, my mother convinced [me] that switching would be a good idea. “OK mom, you were right!”