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Alumni Story: Catherine Baker on Training the Next Generation of Young Musicians

Alumni Story: Catherine Baker on Training the Next Generation of Young Musicians

Written by: Mandy Matthews, Manager of Community Engagement

For AYS Alumna Catherine Baker, being a professional musician is equally as important to her as offering quality music education as a flute instructor. Since leaving AYS, Catherine has dedicated most of her time teaching flute to young people and has even found creative ways to continue instruction during the pandemic. Hearing her speak about her journey to becoming a professional flutist and dedicated teacher gave me a new appreciation for the long term training of musicians and the benefits of learning music. Our conversation also reminded me how important it is that all people have access to the amazing qualities that music teaches us. 

Catherine grew up in Houston, Texas and lived there until she went to Austin to pursue her master’s degree. She started to play the flute at the age of eight during 2nd grade and was immediately enthralled by it. “I don’t know why I wanted to play the flute. My parents are not musicians. I just remember being in the living room and saying ‘I want to play the flute now!’” 

Music education is lively in Texas statewide, so Catherine was able to participate in music classes at school and joined her first band class in fifth grade. “I was in marching band, which was my favorite thing to do. It provided an awesome group of friends and a sense of community that was unmatched.” Catherine’s love for marching band continued throughout high school and college. 

When it came time to start making plans for college, Catherine decided to pursue music because that’s what she loved and spent most of her time doing. “In high school, I used to go to the movies frequently with my best friend and his mom and I would always leave the theater being so excited about the music. At the time, I really wanted to be a film musician. I had no idea what it took, but I was ready to start pursuing flute further.”

Catherine decided to attend the University of Houston for her undergraduate studies and majored in flute performance. She studied with Sydney Carlson, Kim Clark, and Jennifer Keeney, who helped point her in the right direction for her music career. Catherine explained that her first orchestral experience was not until her junior year in college, which was very minimal. Upon graduating from the University of Houston, Catherine decided to continue her studies in flute performance and applied to the University of Texas at Austin to obtain her masters degree. She studied with Marianne Gedigian.

At UT Austin, Catherine started to have more opportunities playing in large ensembles and realized that she preferred playing and collaborating with other musicians. “The thing that is so special about playing in an orchestra is that it is a large group of people coming together to produce something beautiful. This feeling is really appealing to me. I see myself as a more collaborative person and an ensemble player.” 

As someone who really values education, Catherine decided to continue her musical studies and move to Los Angeles to attend USC and study with Jim Walker. At USC she had the opportunity to play in ensembles and expand her musical network in the city, including an introduction to AYS. “During my first semester at USC, one of my classmates told me how important it was to build a community in LA and that joining AYS was an important step in building that community.” 

Catherine auditioned for AYS a few times, earning a spot on the sub list. Oftentimes while she was subbing, she was asked to play principal when AYS’ principal flute was unable to play a concert. Catherine ended up playing principal for much of the season! The next year when the principal seat was open, she reauditioned and won the principal flute chair for AYS. Catherine played with AYS as a substitute and official member for a total of four years from 2014-2018.

“Many opportunities opened up for me during my time at AYS. I played Firebird for the first time in my flute career, which is a big deal as a flutist! It was refreshing to play the piece with an orchestra after preparing the Firebird excerpts for years.” Along with playing great orchestral works, Catherine played the score to one of her favorite films, Back to the Future, with David Newman as conductor.

“The "Back to the Future" concert almost made me feel like I was at a baseball game. The audience was so excited to hear the score live and was really reacting to the music. Their energy made playing the score that much more fun and memorable.”

During her time in AYS, Catherine also had the opportunity to be the organization’s first Orchestra Management Fellow. Catherine worked for two years under the wing of Isabel Thiroux, Director of Orchestra Operations, learning how to rent sheet music, secure rehearsal and performance spaces, and the behind-the-scenes production experience on how to manage orchestra musicians. 

“I gravitated towards the Orchestra Management Fellowship because I’m naturally organized and was curious to explore orchestra management as a career path. I’m grateful to have had this experience with AYS. It ended up opening a lot of doors for me!”

Catherine and Isabel Thiroux, AYS Director of Orchestra Operations

During her time in AYS, Catherine also had the opportunity to be the organization’s first Orchestra Management Fellow. Catherine worked for two years under the wing of Isabel Thiroux, Director of Orchestra Operations, learning how to rent sheet music, secure rehearsal and performance spaces, and the behind-the-scenes production experience on how to manage orchestra musicians. 

“I gravitated towards the Orchestra Management Fellowship because I’m naturally organized and was curious to explore orchestra management as a career path. I’m grateful to have had this experience with AYS. It ended up opening a lot of doors for me!”

Another connection that Catherine made was with our current Principal Oboist, Laura Arganbright, who introduced her to the Bakersfield Symphony. “After hearing that Laura was Principal Oboe of Bakersfield Symphony I knew I wanted to audition too! I’m so happy I did because I’m now Principal Flute of the orchestra. Now, we play together all the time in Bakersfield!“

After Catherine left AYS in 2018, she won the Principal Flute position not only with Bakersfield Symphony, but local chamber ensembles, and more recently, Orchestra Santa Monica. Though playing flute with ensembles is one of Catherine’s biggest passions in life, she actually spends most of her time teaching.

“I didn’t go to school to be an educator, I just kind of walked into it naturally starting with private lessons and moving to group teaching from there.”

Catherine with seven other AYS Alumni after playing at a Bakersfield Symphony concert.

Catherine was an intern for the YOLA program at their EXPO site, doing mostly administrative work, and was asked to teach the flute class on occasion when the primary teacher was unable to make it. What started out as an occasional thing ended up being a life-altering experience that launched her teaching career. “I soon realized that this YOLA community of musicians was really special, and I wanted to spend more time with them as a teaching artist. I have now been with YOLA at the Heart of Los Angeles as flute specialist for two years and spend most of my teaching time there.” 

Because Catherine is naturally collaborative, she found that teaching really brings her joy because of the long-term relationships she has built with her students. “I’m not just teaching them how to play an excerpt on the flute, but also really important life lessons and social-emotional skills that they will take with them in whichever career path they choose, even outside of music. This part of teaching is super rewarding for me.” 

Catherine also teaches with the Young Musicians Foundation (YMF) and Musicians at Play through a variety of schools in Los Angeles. For both YOLA, YMF, and MAP, all teaching had to be done virtually this year over Zoom. “Although I miss seeing my students deeply, I came to realize many benefits of teaching on Zoom. I was able to teach more students because we didn’t have any space or travel barriers, and I ended up seeing a lot of development that I normally wouldn’t see. Because I wasn’t able to help my students in person, they learned that a lot of their improvement is based on their personal efforts and it helped them to learn how to be their own teacher. It was amazing to see!” 

The music programs at YOLA and YMF focus on communities that wouldn’t normally have access to classical music, which is really important to Catherine. “I think it’s crucial that these music education programs exist, so children and their families can have access to the human skills that music teaches us, such as communication, responsibility, and finding your own voice. We need to ensure that there is equitable access to quality music education and experiences.”

Catherine teaching her YOLA students.
Catherine with her students at YOLA camp.

As Catherine remains committed to her students, she continues to find time to play her instrument and collaborate with the broader Los Angeles music scene. When asked about what she hopes for the future of classical music Catherine said, “I want musicians and organizations to take a more collaborative, modern, and creative approach to concerts. Let’s get outside of the concert halls and bring music out to our communities. Let’s make classical music less serious and more about experiencing something beautiful together.” 

I, personally, couldn’t agree more with Catherine, and think that with her impressive playing skills and drive for teaching, that this future is not that far from reach.

More about Catherine:

Catherine Baker, a Houston native, has most recently been named Principal Flute of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra Santa Monica, and additionally the Second Place Winner of the 2019 National Flute Association Orchestral Audition and Masterclass Competition. She has also been named First Place Winner and Murray Panitz Memorial Award Winner of the 2018 Flute Society of Greater Philadelphia Young Artist Competition and received honorable mention at the 2018 San Diego Flute Guild Young Artist Competition. She actively performs in groups and orchestras throughout the Los Angeles area.

Catherine regularly teaches young aspiring flutists, passionately developing the students’ abilities to produce a strong sense of musicianship, beautiful sound, and fluent technique. Currently, she is a flute teaching artist at the LA Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at Heart of Los Angeles (YOLA @ HOLA), Musicians at Play, and the Young Musicians Foundation. Catherine’s students have consistently been given honors in regional, statewide, and national competitions/auditions.

Outside of her musical endeavors, Catherine has fused her interest for graphic design with music by designing posters, invitations, and programs! She also enjoys baking pies, walking her poodle, and exercising on a regular basis! To learn more about Catherine, visit her website at www.catherinebakerflute.com.

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