An interview with Sarah Whitney—violinist, entrepreneur, and educator

I’m so thrilled to bring you this interview with Sarah Whitney.  Sarah has crafted an extremely successful career as a violinist, educator and entrepreneur by challenging “the rules”, creating her own path and following her heart.  Check out her extensive bio at the bottom of this piece! Please enjoy, and be sure to subscribe to this blog on the homepage.  

1) What are some of the ways you work to accomplish changing the public’s perception of classical music?
I think the most important thing to realize is that the definition of classical music is changing drastically. The lines between genres are becoming blurred as artists are evolving and growing, becoming more and more creative. Though the “classical” we knew 50 years ago still exists, it doesn’t necessarily encompass the array of diverse musical creations that are being made today. Many artists don’t clearly fit into a genre so we’re at a point where genres are losing their meaning. We all want to hear good music and as we dissolve these genre boundaries, we are only opening our minds and willingness to experience different things.

2) What inspired you to work to change the perception of classical music through your work with SYBARITE5, Beyond the Notes, Jingle Punks Hipster Orchestra and as a master class presenter?
I’ve always had a tendency to push the envelope of my traditional classical violin performance degrees during my studies at University of Michigan and the Cleveland Institute of Music, whether it was performing a piece with drum set on a recital, studying jazz with a guitar professor or arranging and performing a tune for violin and big band! My endeavors started as a creative outlet and, as I did more of it, I started to notice the excitement and positive responses from audience members. People were excited, many times unexpectedly so, and thrilled about experiencing something new. I felt I was reaching and communicating with people in a new way. This was very powerful to me. I felt compelled to continue to reach these people and bring music to them in an accessible and relevant way.

3) What are the most fulfilling aspects of having a career like yours?
One of my favorite things about being a musician is the universal ability to connect to people regardless of their age, mental state or the language they speak. Music can be a healer, an educator and a communicator. I’m so fortunate to be able to share music with others on a daily basis. Music allows for common ground and brings people together even despite their differences.

4) What are the most challenging aspects of having a career like yours?
The biggest challenge for me is juggling the many different parts of my career. It’s extremely fulfilling to have such variety, whether it be as an artistic director and producer, a musician contractor, a performer, a teacher or masterclass presenter. However, that also means that I am the motor behind everything, which at times can be quite challenging to keep up with. I can hire people to help, and I do occasionally, but at the end of the day, I’m the one who cares the most about all that I do and I am the one who is willing to work the hardest for it.

5) Do you travel a lot?  How can you afford to live in New York and travel so much?
I do travel a lot! When it comes to concerts, I find that I make more money when I’m touring. NYC is an important place to be based and maintain a presence but the city is so saturated with amazing concerts happening every night that few musicians earn their highest fees performing in NYC. I do many other things in addition to performing – teaching, managing, contracting – and the combination of everything is what allows me to make a living as a musician.

6 ) Who are some of the people that most inspired you to pursue a career in both performance and entrepreneurship?
My teacher throughout my graduate studies, Paul Kantor. He unconditionally supported me and challenged me to pursue my varying interests. He gave me courage to pursue a nontraditional career which has in turn lead to all of the many things that make up my career today. Gidon Kremer also had a large influence on me. I remember when I discovered his recording of the Piazzolla 4 Seasons. I was completely fascinated and that CD lived on repeat for days. I quickly researched everything he had done and became obsessed! His creativity, risk taking, and courage to bring such diverse music to the traditional concert hall was unbelievable to me. He made me realize that, even though I am a classically trained violinist, a successful music career did not have to lie exclusively in the traditional classical world.

7) What is some of the most important information you like to pass on to young musicians hoping to have a career in music?
I think in this day and age, we need to approach things with an open mind. Don’t be afraid to try something new or slightly out of your comfort zone! This is how we learn, grown and many times, find out something unexpected about ourselves. In many ways this is how I crafted much of my freelance career without even realizing it. For example, when I was new to NYC, I had a friend offer me an electric-violin gig.  I had never played an electric violin, but I gulped and accepted the gig.  That first electric-violin gig helped to pave the way to my current position as Artistic Director of an electric violin show called The String Angels, a rather large departure from my tradition-based years in college! If you’re in school, your friends and fellow students will be your colleagues in the professional world! Keep in touch with these people – you will all help one another as friends, resources, collaborators and supporters down the line. If you haven’t already, make a website and get a business card! People need a way to find you and remember you. If you’re unsure of what to put on your website or business card, look at what other people have done and gather information. We can learn so much from our colleagues, peers and role models. These things do not have to be fancy, but think of it as an investment for your career. Spend a little extra to get the glossy finish or the sleek template. This will be the first impression you give to many people and they will notice!

8) Can you describe some of the various types of career paths you have seen violinists follow?  What is the most competitive and difficult path, and what type of path would you most encourage?

There are so many career paths and I can’t say that I’d encourage one path more than another. I think the most important thing is to notice what makes you the most inspired and pursue that. As we navigate our lives, it’s easy to let influences and comparisons of others make us think that we should be pursuing a certain avenue or career path, but no one else can tell us what will truly fulfill us. Only we can know that. And if we are truly inspired by the path that we are choosing, we will relish the inevitable challenges and obstacles that come our way.

9) What do you think is lacking the most in performance track college degrees as far as preparing students for the real world?
I think what was most shocking to me after I graduated was to realize the amount of time and effort I needed to put into my career that didn’t involve actually playing my violin. Of course, it goes without saying that we all need to put in the time to play our instruments at a high level. Like most students, I’d spent many intense hours in the practice room refining my craft. When I was fresh out of school, the practicing was the easy part of my career because I knew how to do it. The not-so-easy and wildly more unfamiliar part was realizing that as a musician looking to get hired, I was a product that needed to be marketed, branded and advertised just like any other thing for sale in the world. It would have been very helpful for me to learn and understand this in school and I think degree programs could do a better job of educating students about this necessary part of our business.

10) Do you believe that most musicians should expect to have a correlating career alongside performing?
I think every situation is unique, but generally I encourage musicians to stay within the music field as much as possible.  If you’re pursuing a freelance music career, there needs to be enough hours in the day/week to practice your instrument to maintain the level of playing you need for your goals AND the necessary time for administration, networking, building relationships and PR. Depending on your goals, the number of hours required for this will vary from person to person. I firmly believe that you will get out of it what you put into it so it’s important assess carefully what is realistic with your time.

11) What are some of your favorite mantras or sayings that keep you positive while navigating such a difficult field?
“Success is no the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” -Albert Schweitzer
Maybe not something that keeps me positive;) but something I think is so important to remember: “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” -Brené Brown


About: Sarah Whitney

Praised by the Washington Post for her “marvelous violin acrobatics”, violinist Sarah Whitney is known for her musical versatility and has been heard worldwide across stages in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and the United States. She is recognized as a performer, teacher, entrepreneur and advocate for bringing fresh new ideas to classical music.

Based in New York City, she is a member of the acclaimed string quintet SYBARITE5, one of the fastest-rising chamber-music ensembles in the United States. SYBARITE5 is the first string quintet to win the Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition, giving their Carnegie Hall debut in 2012. SYBARITE5, whose album ‘Disturb the Silence’ reached the top ten on the Billboard Charts, has also performed at Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall, the Library of Congress, the Aspen, Caramoor, Chautauqua and Ravinia Festivals, and on the CBS Early Show. Additionally, SYBARITE5 premiered the world’s first concerto for string quintet and orchestra by Dan Visconti with three orchestras last season.

Sarah is recognized as a pioneer in changing the perception of classical music and the way it is presented; in 2015 she founded Beyond the Notes, an innovative concert series that breaks down the boundaries between the audience and the performers. Sarah also performs regularly in the Seeing Double Duo with acclaimed violinist Julia Salerno, having been featured on the Rochester Chamber Music Society, New York City House Concerts and the First Parish Concert Series. Sarah is co-founder of the Jingle Punks Hipster Orchestra that has been featured on Mashable, Perez Hilton, Revolt TV, as well as with the rapper NAS in Johannesburg, South Africa. Additionally, Sarah has collaborated with the Alvin Ailey and Jose Limon dance companies, as well as featured on-stage with Adele, Ellie Goulding, the Transiberian Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Anne Murray, Andrew Wyatt, Tommy Lee, and with Father John Misty on The Late Show with Dave Letterman. 

Active as a recording artist, Sarah has performed on albums with Darlene Love, Josh Ritter, Stephen Kellogg, Mark Geary and Etienne Charles and can be heard on William Bolcom’s Grammy-winning album ‘The Songs of Innocence and Experience’. She has performed electric-violin with renowned DJ’s Doug E. Fresh and DJ Spooky, as well as opening for Jennifer Hudson and Diana Ross.

Sarah has extensive teaching experience and regularly gives master classes and workshops to students of all levels. She has given guest master classes at University of Arizona, Grinnell College, Ohio University, University of North Florida, the Walnut Hill School, among others, and has been the guest artist in residence at Eastern Washington University. She is currently a Music Director and coach for Lincoln Center Stage and has served as faculty at Music in Chappaqua, The Music School of New York City and the Walla Walla Suzuki Institute. Her Suzuki training was under the leadership of pedagogue Kimberly Meier-Sims and she was named co-director of the Sato Center Outreach Group at the Sato Center for Suzuki Studies in Cleveland, leading the group in concerts throughout the city. Her reputation and devotion to sound practice techniques led STRINGS magazine to feature Sarah in an article, ‘The Art of Mindful Practice’, in February 2015. She has also served on the New York State Presenters Network Panel in discussions about progressive programming and innovation.

Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree with honors from the University of Michigan School of Music, as well as Master of Music and Professional Studies degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music. She has been a scholarship student at many music festivals including the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Music Academy of the West and the Meadowmount School of Music. Her teachers include Paul Kantor, William Preucil, Kathleen Winkler, Aaron Berofsky, Cyrus Forough, Stephen Shipps and Irina Muresanu.

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