Interview with Flutist, Ms. Catharine DeRenzis

Interview with Flutist, Ms. Catharine DeRenzis

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Music Performance/Instruction

Ms. Catharine DeRenzis is a flutist who teaches privately and plays professionally in Southern California. She has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Lincoln Center in New York, in European cities such as Frankfurt, Nice, Assisi, Rome, Florence and Siena, and most recently in the country of Belize in Central America. In addition to a select 35 students, she freelances by playing in ensembles and as a soloist at weddings, parties, and other venues.

Ms. DeRenzis says that working professionally as a musician is much more "entrepreneurial" than most young musicians may think, but that the gratification is worth the often-erratic schedule.

She attended Kinhaven Music School, Crane School of Music, Luzerne Music Center and the Governor's Institute for the Arts in Vermont, and graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Ms. Derenzis & Her Career

How and when did you discover your talent for music?

Actually, I'm an interesting case, as both of my parents are musicians, so I started to study and realized I had an aptitude for music at quite a young age. However, I started on the piano, and didn't start playing the flute until I was 9. There again, because my mother was a pianist, she knew the music teacher at the elementary school I attended, and so I was getting special help and attention from the very beginning. The band director at my elementary school happened to be a flutist as well, so I was fortunate enough to receive private lessons from the day I started to play. I think that is quite uncommon, and was really very much a jump-start into my career.

Tell us about your professional career. Where did it start, and how did you get to where you are today?

My professional career really overlapped with my college years. I began performing for weddings and parties, free lance gigging, while still a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts. They have a wonderful program there called Applause that is a talent agency for the students at that school. It was really a great way to learn the ropes of the gigging world, and when I graduated, I was already subbing with three or four symphonies in the area, which was a great segue into playing full time.

You have performed in venues across the country from the Hollywood Bowl to the Lincoln Center in New York, and in European cities such as Frankfurt, Nice, Assisi, Rome, Florence and Siena as well. How important are credentials like these, professionally? What does this mean to you, personally?

Venues are extremely important, especially when they are locations people have heard of, and many times they are difficult to get booked into. As a soloist, it would have been very hard to play at any of these places. But as a part of a group, you are much more likely to play in these wonderful places, and there is a certain status you attain by playing in the largest venues in the largest cities in this country and in Europe. It looks wonderful on your resume, and impresses potential employers.

Most recently, you performed in the Central American country of Belize. Tell us about how this experience is now shaping your musical career.

The experience of playing in Belize changed everything in my life. There is absolutely no music education in that country, so most of the children we played for had never seen a flute or clarinet or violin before. I was a part of a small ensemble - flute, clarinet, oboe, violin, viola and cello, and we played about 3 concerts a day for 15 days for the children of Belize. Each concert had 150 to 300 kids, so you can imagine how many people we reached. The eagerness in the kids, the way they would sing along with us as we played, run up to the stage and beg us for just one more song, is the true essence of what I believe music can do. One of the members of the ensemble and I are actually returning to the country to set up fundamental music programs in the schools. So, yes, perhaps more than anything that has ever happened to me, going to Belize has completely changed my life.

What musicians inspire you the most and why?

All classical musicians inspire me, the truly great ones, some of whom I know personally, others whom I have seen perform. One of the most inspiring to me is Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a pianist whom I have known for many years. To watch him play, the perfection, the concentration, the beauty he can draw from every single note, is amazing to me. All the great artists inspire in this way, but to actually know the person who is playing makes it much deeper and more meaningful. It takes such a deeper level of commitment than anyone knows, and to see it come to fruition so beautifully is inspiring again and again. Also I am inspired by classical musicians who are on the more experimental side of the craft, violinists Nigel Kennedy and Gideon Kremer, the Kronos Quartet, flutist Robert Dick. These are players with all the classical training in the world, who are so comfortable in their medium that they can push the boundaries and experiment and go to entirely new places with their music.

The Actual Work

How would you define your style of music?

My style of music is definitely classical, and I tend to drift towards contemporary, minimalist and eclectic music within the genre. The works of Philip Glass, Arvo Part, and Steve Reich particularly move me. Complex and driving rhythms, new and innovative harmonies and tonalities, innovation and creativity all are in my range of interest. The music of Mozart and Bach, while certainly valid and exquisite, has become a bit predictable for me, in that I have played so much of it, the patterns and the chord changes are all generic to me, and expected. But to play or hear something that is a departure from the norm while retaining authenticity is what I am most drawn to.

You are a music teacher, working privately with children. How did you build your clientele? How do you keep it going and growing?

I moved to California into 1996 knowing one only person. In the spring of 1997 I began cold-calling band directors in my area - probably about 20 junior high schools and 20 senior high schools, and introduced myself and asked them if I could come into their band classes one day and do a 15 minute demo that I wrote involving playing and speaking, giving a brief history of the instrument and finishing off with why the kids should study with me. Once I had my name in the schools, and posters and pictures of me in the band rooms, the ball started to roll. Within two years I had a full studio (35 kids) and a wait-list (20-25 kids). To maintain it is relatively easy due to word of mouth and the networking within communities. I also work closely with some of the band directors, holding masterclasses and coaching sessions at their school. My students do nearly 10 competitions a year, and sit in all the youth orchestras in Southern California, so really really good hard work at what I'm doing, I think, is a huge part of it all.

You still actively perform throughout the greater Los Angeles area as part of several chamber groups, too. How do you find this kind of work?

Of course this kind of work is wonderful. I play weddings and parties professionally, getting paid nicely and working oftentimes with people I've never met before, sightreading and not rehearsing as a group. However, the music for these events is usually all the same, light classical that is predictable and popular. The real enjoyment for me is to play with a group contemporary music, really rehearse, and put on recitals where the audience is actually listening. I have actually performed about 6 concerts in the past year as a soloist, and have done collaborations with other musicians in private homes and at college campuses, playing challenging, new, interesting music. That is what is really gratifying to me. However, those are the performances for which I get paid the least! Very ironic. The other stuff, while fun, is sort of the meat and potatoes of the music business.

What are some of the rewards and difficulties of the performing arts career that you have?

The rewards I believe are pretty obvious: I get to play music all day long (practicing), and then I go play music with children (teaching), and then I go play music with friends (gigging). I think that gratification is pretty self evident. The downfalls include very little stability, no vacation pay, no health insurance, a wacky schedule with no weekends off, teaching late till 9 pm or so every night, and having your days free, which is great, but completely off everyone else's schedule. Don't plan on having dinner at night, I never do. And if you're married, don't plan on spending a lot of time with a 9-to-5-er. But the flexibility, and the control you have over your own schedule, and the ability to cut any student you want (impossible in the public schools) or say no to any job you want (impossible in the symphony orchestra circuit), that kind of freedom, is wonderful.

You are active in several professional organizations, including the Music Teachers' Association of California and the Musical Arts Club of Orange County. What are some of the major professional organizations for musicians in the United States? How important are they and how have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

There is the Music Teachers National Association, of which I am not a member, and of course there are unions throughout the country, for orchestral players who need all the benefits they offer. The groups I am a part of are essential for the competitions and activities I have my students do. The Music Teacher's Association of California, hosting 3-4 competitions a year including a Certificate of Merit program, which is a standardization of theory and ear training testing, plus gets them playing in front of a judge and getting evaluated. From there they can be eligible for state conventions, honors recitals, and more. The other competitions are great too, and that's the main reason I'm in those organizations, and is probably part of my success, having a competitive, active studio participating in all these events. It's a real community in the teaching world, and I see the same teachers and the same students at all the different events.

What's the difference between the typical expectations and the reality of a career in your line of work?

I think a lot of young musicians think that coming into the music world, they only need to sit back and wait for the calls to come in, that if they really can play well, then they are set and will do that for the rest of their lives. The truth is that the music life is a lot more entrepreneurial than that. There is an obscene amount of hobnobbing and small talking to be done with rich and clueless patrons of the arts, you will playing mainly music that you do not have to practice and that you would not choose to play, and you really have to get out there and figure out a way to make your money. The orchestral jobs are simply not out there. I was reading a union paper just the other day, and there are probably under 20 positions open this season throughout the country, and I believe I only saw one ad for a flute job!

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education in music, including schools attended and degrees earned. What did you like and dislike?

I attended public school in Vermont, supplementing it with All-State, All-District and All-New England festivals every year. In the summers I attended Kinhaven Music School, Crane School of Music, Luzerne Music Center and the Governor's Institute for the Arts in Vermont. I went to college at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem, NC. One of the best things about this school was their Applause program I mentioned earlier. It was really a great way to get my feet wet in the free lance industry. Also at NCSA was a career seminar, full of great and useful information on taxes, publicity, career planning, and all the details that otherwise young players have to figure out on their own. There was also a wonderful class on recording techniques. The practical things, I guess, stick most in my kind. Of course their was the traditional education as well, with the music history and the repertoire, but it's almost as if these teachers are living in a fantasy world where we're all going to go off and just practice our orchestral excerpts and read our history and we'll be taken care of. These are wonderful and interesting and gratifying pursuits, but practically have done very little for me. I have not played an orchestral excerpt for over 10 years. And when I hear college kids working and working on them I shake my head and smile.

How can prospective music students assess their skill and aptitude for the field? What are some of the basic skills and/or personality traits required?

Well, you need to be heard by real professionals and get their opinion. Music is such a highly specialized field that to judge yourself is ludicrous. Get the opinion of someone who knows the field and play for them. Tell them what your plans are, and ask them for their honest opinion of your chances. Beyond that, the personality traits I think are the same for success in any field. You need to want it so badly that you will work and work and work until you get it. And you need to enjoy doing it, moreso than other jobs, because you won't make a ton of money, and people will not understand your passion and zeal for this, the "luxury" of our society. To work in a field that most of society considers background entertainment is very difficult. Only if you can really see yourself doing nothing else, and only if you are willing to work harder than anyone you know, should you go for it.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a performing arts school?

Teacher, teacher, teacher. This is your ticket to the level of ability you will have. First find out who the teacher is, then meet with this teacher. If the dynamic is not 100%, do not go. Your private teacher will be your mentor, counselor, career advisor, the gauge for your improvement, everything. Secondly is location. If you're planning on building a career, you will need all the help you can get and all the connections as well. Pick a place where you can see yourself making a base once you graduate, because unless you come from a big town, once you graduate you will have nowhere to go. There was no way I could go back to Vermont, and thankfully the town I went to college in had a wonderful arts life and I was able to make steps there. Many of these colleges in the middle of nowhere, while beautiful and calming and restful, offer nothing once the students graduate, and to go back to their hometowns is impossible, and to go to a big city where you know no one is too daunting. Thirdly, a free-lance program like the Applause program at NCSA is ideal, to provide a stepping stone into the next stage of your career.

What do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for music in the US? Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in the field?

Juilliard School in New York, Curtis in Philadelphia, Oberlin College in Ohio, Eastman School of Music in Rochester, Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and Indiana University are all wonderful, but again, the teacher at the school is the most important thing. Yes, the prestigious schools are better box-tops on your resume, but ultimately it comes down to how you play and that depends on your teacher and the dynamic between the two of you.

Based on your own experience, what advice can you offer future students about how to get the most out of their music education?

Attend all your classes, play as much as possible - don't turn down an opportunity to play, ever, go to as many performances as you can and practice, practice, practice!!

Jobs/Career Information & Advice

What kinds of jobs can graduating music students expect get in the field?

Well, that depends on whether you are a music education major or a music performance major. Music ed majors have more of a chance to get jobs right away because they are qualified to work in the public schools As a music performance major, which is my field and degree and experience, nothing is assured. You have to build up your own studio, you have to take every audition you can to try to get into an orchestra, which is unbelievably difficult, and you have to get your own name out there if you want to free lance. It's a real Catch-22, because in order to get gigs, you have to be heard so people know you and your playing, but in order to be heard so people can get to know you, you have to get the gigs. It's a very slow process, but it can happen, however, it is probably one of the, if not the most difficult start-up careers. People have told me that it takes 6 to 10 years to establish yourself as a full-time free lancer in a town like L.A. That's 6 to 10 years of trying and trying with no assurance of success!

What advice can you offer regarding establishing oneself in the music industry?

I think the most important advice I could give is that you should never turn down work, you need to always play beautifully - one false move or one sloppy performance and you will be replaced. Be nice to everyone, never be late, all these things I think relate to any other career as well, absolute professionalism, all the time.

Is professional success based more on one's ability to play their instrument? Or are there so many talented musicians today that success is more based on the ability to market themselves?

This is absolutely true. Being able to play is just the tip of the iceberg. To market, manage, do accounting for, do publicity for yourself, is the only way to assure any success at all in this field. There are a few players out there who I know have made it on their ability, but in fact largely those performers have some sort of very strong support behind them. Being able to play is only the beginning.

You live and work in the Los Angeles area, in the heart of the entertainment industry. How important is location to finding work as a musician? Could you be as successful if you lived somewhere else?

Location is huge, and is absolutely a deciding factor in your success. To be in an urban area is most prudent for young musicians. The density of population will ensure a market for their services. For example, where I live in Orange County, there are probably 50 junior high and high schools within a twenty mile radius of my house. Those are good odds that I will be able to have a full studio and pick and choose only the best students. In a town with 1 or 2 or even 10 schools, you just don't have the pool of students to work from. And the same goes for the other half of my career. Sheer population density dictates that more people will be getting married, and I will have more work than in some remote New England town. It's true LA is the entertainment capital of the country, and I do know that there are huge circles of musicians who work the studios and the sets of the shows, and I know that the money they make is better than anywhere else in the country except perhaps one or two really choice gigs in New York City.

How is the job market now for musicians? How do you think it will be in five years?

There are a lot of musicians out of work, this I know, and there are a lot of musicians doing other things, but I think first of all it's hard to know and second, it's 100% what you make of it. This biggest hit the music industry has taken is of course recording. We as players are being replaced by digital and electronic studios due to sheer cost, and it's driving large numbers of players out of work. As far as teaching, I can't see that industry failing, but keep in mind as these former studio players find themselves out of work, they come into the teaching circuit and take work from the teachers too. The repercussions of this change go no and on.

What can you tell us about how to handle resumes?

I would say that first of all I have about 5 resumes that I use for different circumstances. One is for my serious recitals, listing where I've played, with whom I've studied, and what I am doing currently. For the more casual concerts, where the audience may not be interested in master classes and professors I've had, I include interesting things and names that they will recognize, like that I've played pops concerts with Judy Collins and Marvin Hamlisch. For teaching positions, I include very little about playing and focus on the different organizations I'm a member of, how long I've been teaching, and what my students are doing, things that don't need to go no a performance resume.

As a self-employed musician/teacher/performer, how do you deal with taxes?

Make sure you get yourself an accountant that is used to dealing with the self-employed, even with primarily musicians. I remember one tax man that did the taxes for the entire Winston-Salem Symphony! There are so many things you can deduct, and so many charges you can avoid by having the right person doing your taxes.

Industry Trends

What are some of the recent trends that you see in the field of music which could help students plan for the future?

As I said, one of the biggest trends unfortunately is the emergence of electronic and digital music, which means that we as performers are being pushed out of the industry more than ever before! This means that my advice for professionalism and always being at the top of your game, is even more necessary. Orchestras are folding all over the country, and studio musicians are out of work too, due to the loss of interest in our art form. Perhaps in the pop music industry things are more optimistic, but the classical music industry is really not a growing field at this time.

What kinds of musicians are in the greatest demand today? Is it "easier" right now for musicians who play a particular instrument or genre?

I would think that musicians going into the pop or commercial aspect of music would have an easier time finding work, but in LA what I have found is that those circles are very very small, and the people who are doing that kind of studio work first had to go through the gauntlet of music school, then teaching and free-lance gigging wherever they could find it, then subbing in with second-string orchestras and finally making it large. There are so many petty gigs and awful music you will have to play to be able to that one interesting performance. Probably the ratio is near to 40 to 1 as far as bad music to good music you will play in your career. And the best performances I've done in the past 5 years have been for free!! They only pay you for the "My Heart Will Go On" and "Fly Me To The Moon" jobs. Believe me, it's unfair but very true!

What are the greatest challenges that artists in your profession face?

I think it's pretty clear from past questions that the biggest challenge is finding a way to make money, start a career, make yourself known, and then play things that are gratifying as well as monetarily lucrative!

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in music?

I think one of the most helpful things I learned in California is the importance of community in the music world. Find other musicians, especially ones that are older and more experience than yourself. I was lucky to find a real mentor, who helped me again and again with judgement calls, decisions, career choices. You know so little going in, and you need all the help you can get, and to try without the guidance of someone wastes a lot of time. Know the other people in your community, because you will see them over and over and believe me, you will need their help!

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