“I’m both a professional violinist and a farm girl – it’s a concept that many people haven’t considered, but it’s what I am.” During her earliest days at Boston School, Caroline Klemperer’s stage fright was so overwhelming it made her physically sick. Fast forward to now as Caroline joins Kate to talk about performing and teaching all around the world while maintaining her roots are in Indiana, pointing to “music, family and farm” as being at the center of her life.
Caroline Klemperer: I’m Caroline Klemperer and I’m a founding member of the Chanticleer Quartet.
Kate Jetmore: From Civic Spark Media and the Western Wayne News in Wayne County, Indiana, I’m Kate Jetmore. As a native of Richmond, Indiana, I’m excited to be sitting down with some of our neighbors and listening to the stories that define our community.
My guest today is a violinist, Caroline Klemperer, an Indiana native. She has performed across the US, in Mexico, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. She tours every summer with the Chanticleer String Quartet, which she founded in 1977. She writes and performs children’s programs, teaches privately, and has combined nature, music, and group activities in summer camps on Chanticleer Farm. Caroline writes poetry and has written the children’s book, Caboose, the Pot-Bellied Pig.
Welcome, Caroline. Thank you so much for joining me on the show today.
Caroline Klemperer: Thank you, Kate. It’s wonderful to be here.
Kate Jetmore: It sounds so clean, easy, and simple to describe you simply as a violinist, but in fact you wear many different hats. Let’s begin with the work you do as a teacher, which seems to be a big part of your identity as a musician. Why is music education so important in our children’s lives?
Caroline Klemperer: Well, I must say first, I love children and I love music, so it makes a great combination. Music education itself builds confidence and it gives children a voice and a way to connect with others and to be creative, and it’s a universal language. Through music, we express our emotions and we tell stories and we share ourselves with others, and we connect with other cultures as well.
For instance, our son, Aaron, and I went to Cuba. He had his guitar, I had my violin. We were invited to come to the schools to share our music. Once in the schools, we brought to the children, the Cuban children, letters from middle schoolers in America, in Wayne County, and they loved it. They looked at the pictures.
They wrote letters back both in English and in Spanish. I brought those back to our middle schoolers who were absolutely entranced by this whole thing. Some had to be translated and others could read the English, but it was a very exciting experience and it was because of music that we had that exchange.
Another time I went with the Chanticleer String Quartet to the Soviet Union. We went to about eight different cities. We did many performances, with the Chanticleer Quartet and two mimes, so there wouldn’t be any problem with languages.
And the story, it was called Building Bridges, and it was about two people or two countries who didn’t know each other yet. It was back in the day when we didn’t have all the connections we have today, and gradually through the years, they came closer and closer until they had to deal with each other. And at first these two mimes representing the different countries were very skeptical and little by little, they built masks.
They actually had masks. They built these masks so they didn’t have to show who they really were and they were afraid. And through the music and the quartet, we were able to lift these masks off of the mimes, off of these two countries or two people. And they learn to listen to each other, to share with each other and to be friends.
Kate Jetmore: It sounds like what you’re saying is that you believe in the power of music to reach across that gulf between people, between cultures, between languages. But I also hear you saying that when we add an element, the element of the letter writing, or the element of the masks, an added element that goes beyond the music, that it can be even more enriching. Is that what you’re saying?
Caroline Klemperer: You’re absolutely right. And each of the programs I do tells a story, and this was the story about building bridges, and it brought tears. It brought tears from the people in the Soviet Union because they said, “Why can’t we do this? We want to be friends.” And yes, I do include a lot of other things besides just the music to make it available because people can be reached in so many different ways. We all have our different ways of learning and of sharing.
When I came back to Wayne County, I did this program, Building Bridges, with the children in the schools, and I also brought honey cake, or made some honey cake with a recipe. That was another way of connecting. And I brought instruments from the former Soviet Union for the kids to play in Wayne County. I also brought paintings which were made by the children in the Soviet Union for the children in Wayne County.
And the kids here said, “Oh, look, they’re doing the same things we do.” You see them sledding. You see them climbing trees. They’re eating with their families or friends. And they suddenly felt like, “Oh, we have a lot in common.” And it was of course, through, originally, the music of the show, Building Bridges, that allowed all of this to happen.
Kate Jetmore: Would you say, Caroline, that that’s at the center of your work as a musician and as an educator that you want to bring people together or are you just describing one element of what you do?
Caroline Klemperer: I always want to bring people together, and music is one of the main ways I do that. I write a lot of children’s programs. Building Bridges was just one. I’ve written about 26 of them through the many years of being a violinist. And they have combined, not only violin with other string quartet members, but I’ve gone off in different directions.
I’ve done children’s programs with African drummers, a prince from Nigeria, oh my goodness, dressed in his full garb. And the kids were so excited to see a prince and he was bringing his music, he was playing his drums. He’d bring children up and put their hands on his and let them play the drums.
I brought in a double bass from the Indianapolis Symphony. I brought in clarinet, saxophone. I’ve combined the music with dancers, with mimes, with a magician that I found in a circus who was bringing the message that we all have magic in us.
Every children’s program has a message, which to me is very important to relay, whether it’s about non-violence, that every child has a story to tell, about the environment, about emotions, which has been a very important one, especially during COVID, talking about emotions, using music to understand one way of expressing emotions.
And the children are always involved, whether they are actually dancing or playing a little fiddle or dressing up like Mozart with a white wig or making pictures of music that I share with them.
Kate Jetmore: Where does healing fit into all this? Because at first I thought I was hearing you talk about elevating the musical experience or lifting up the everyman or the every-child, but then you started talking a little bit about nonviolence. I don’t know if you’ve used the word trauma, but I’m wondering if you work with any populations who need these workshops or these experiences in order to heal?
Caroline Klemperer: I have indeed. I think we all need these messages, but yes, I have gone specifically to homes where children are living because it’s a way of avoiding jail time. I’ve brought the program about emotions in New York to prisoners on parole several times. And they take part in it and they open up and they share. Yes.
I’ve brought it to nursing homes, of course, where they’re dealing with their physical and mental disabilities. Two hospitals where children, they’re there with nothing else to do but try to get well, and their parents are with them and they need something more to share, and we’ve brought that. There are many situations in which I bring different programs, but I think they apply to all of us.
Kate Jetmore: I want to move now to performance, the part of your career that’s more performance-based, whether you’re performing with an orchestra or with your quartet or a different chamber music group. And I’m wondering how important it is to you to play in front of a live audience, which is such a gift, for you and the audience? But I’m also wondering, given that wonderful answer to the first question about teaching, if there really is a line between your teaching work and your performance work?
Caroline Klemperer: Yes. I wanted to say first that as far as children are concerned, children of every age, I give violin lessons. You asked about teaching, and I am a trained classical musician, but I encourage students to explore all different kinds of music. And I thought it would be fun to share with you that one of my students specialized in jigs and reels, and I could go into a long explanation on each of these children.
But another one who was a wonderful violinist as a professional decided to play the viola da gamba, turned the fiddle around and went back several centuries, and she’s quite well known in our country and in Switzerland playing the viola da gamba. Another student, a young man joined a Scottish band, became the fiddler in a Scottish band with which he’s played around this country, as well as being invited to Scotland.
Another violinist was a professional violinist in a string quartet in a university, and he has become a conductor. He still plays the violin, but he is a conductor. And another one joined with her fiddle, a rock band. To me, it’s so exciting to open doors, open doors, and in every way let the children know that there is endless possibility.
I also integrate music with nature, and nature is very much a part of my life. Being raised on a farm and raising three boys on a farm, our son, Aaron, and I started Fiddle on the Farm, which was a summer camp for high school children, students, and we had a lot of outdoor activities combining music with nature. We had a lot of trust games. We cooked together, which is like making chamber music. And of course we made a lot of music every day.
And then when Aaron went on tour with his band, I went back and did Camp Fiddle Faddle for younger children, which incorporated a lot of the same ideas. It was all on Chanticleer Farm in Richmond, south of Richmond. And it just was a way of helping the kids to blossom in so many ways and using music as that core to allow this to happen.
So performing. Performing is very important to me. My violin is my voice. It’s a way of having meaningful conversation with other musicians and with audiences. It’s my way of sharing and of reaching out, and it also makes me a better teacher.
I’ve been performing since I was a child, but I must say when I was a little girl in Boston School, I was very shy and Boston School with its tiny orchestra had a performance and I was scared to death. In fact, I was afraid of playing in front of people. In fact, I wouldn’t even play in front of my grandfather and he was half deaf. So that shows you where I was as a little kid.
So when this concert came up, I got sick. My sister went off with her cello and played for this little orchestra, and I just had to stay home because I wasn’t feeling well. Of course, as soon as the concert was over, I felt fine. So it took me a while to grow into being a performer and saying, “You have something to share.”
And to me, that’s very important in my teaching because I encouraged children from the very beginning to realize they have something to share. Even if you’re playing twinkle, or even if you’re playing the rhythm to twinkle, not even the fingers yet, you have something to share. Little babies, when they go, “Mama. Dada,” they have something to share, and we listen and we love it. And it’s the same thing with violinists or anybody else who has a way of wanting to speak, wanting to speak out and share with others.
So anyway, I grew out of that shyness luckily, but of course it took four years of Peabody Conservatory and two years of graduate school. And then I grew to love performing and I performed in Germany, in Mexico, the former Soviet Union, all over the US.
And I also grew into loving to share with my students and helping them to not have to go through that feeling of inadequacy as a violinist, because we’re not inadequate, we have something to share. And you don’t have to be perfect every note. You don’t. You just work hard, you do your best, and you know that you are speaking and sharing back with the audience, and it’s a beautiful experience.
Kate Jetmore: I love that word share, and I want to ask you more about that because musicians spend a lot of time practicing, a lot of time doing drills and exercises, just you and the music and your violin. And when you add a witness to that or a whole bunch of witnesses in the form of an audience, now you’re sharing. It’s not just you in the practice room, it’s you sharing, as you said. Can you talk for just a minute about what that’s like when you step out of the practice room and now there’s a witness in the form of an audience?
Caroline Klemperer: Yes. As you said, it takes a lot of practicing every day, and sometimes 10 hours a day if you count rehearsals, performances. It’s a very important discipline. You have to love it, you have to want it, but then you have people to share that with. It’s very stimulating. It is a joyful experience, especially for me with string quartet, and I love with violin and piano, that my voice, it becomes one with the person with whom I’m playing. And that in itself is a wonderful experience to share with one other person.
As it is in conversation or doing any other thing with someone else or a group, you learn to work together and to find joy in that give and take, and then taking that and going out and sharing with a larger audience, it’s thrilling. It’s thrilling. And to get the responses, to feel. There’s a feeling between the performer, between me and the people I’m sharing with, or with our string quartet and the people we’re sharing with, that is so rewarding because they’re giving to us as well as our giving to them. It is a very mutual experience.
Kate Jetmore: And to me, it sounds like you’re describing connection, which I think is what you were getting at, at the beginning of our conversation. It sort of all comes back to that, doesn’t it? How can we bridge the gap? How can we make the space between us smaller? How can we come together and connect?
I hear some interesting sounds in the background. You are now back in New York City where you spend about half the year. You’ve established quite a presence in New York City as a working musician and an educator, but even so, you still seem to be very firmly rooted in Wayne County. Why is that?
Caroline Klemperer: My roots are in Indiana. My family moved to Chanticleer Farm when I was six months old, so I was raised there in the country. Bob and I raised three sons on our farm, Chanticleer Farm. I played in the Richmond Symphony for 24 years, and Richmond’s Opera, played in the Dayton Symphony and the Dayton Opera, Muncie Symphony, played in Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, and I formed the Chanticleer String Quartet, which is going into our 47th year.
And we are based on the farm for two weeks, and it’s very exciting to share our music, full time, but also to have the farm. Our first violinist loves to go fishing, and he’ll make dinner. When he has a break, he’ll go out there and he’ll catch fish and bring them home and make dinner. We can go biking when we have a little time off. We can go hiking in the woods. And for me, that’s all a part of bringing my roots together, which are music and family and farm.
I lived in New York before I was married, and I love New York. And so when our kids were all either out of college already, or in college, I talked to all four of them, our kids and Bob, and I said, perhaps this is a good time for me to go back and make music in New York. And they all said, “You’ve always told us to follow our hearts. You should do the same.”
And so I came back to New York, which I had loved so much in the ’60s when I lived here. And I come here for part of the year, as you’ve mentioned, and I go back to Indiana for part of the year. But New York has so many musical opportunities and different venues for performance, and I’ve taken advantage of all of that and loved it.
And I love the energy of New York City. I love that it has 800 languages and an incredible cultural diversity. I soak all that in and it becomes a part of the music I play when it all pours out of me. Whether I’m in New York or Indiana, both of those experiences become a part of who I am and what I have to share.
Kate Jetmore: Well, and what comes to me, Caroline, is this question, how do each of those environments and communities, your community in New York City, your community south of Richmond, how do they each benefit from you living in both of those places and bringing your New York experiences to Wayne County and bringing your Wayne County experiences to New York?
Caroline Klemperer: That’s a hard question to answer.
Kate Jetmore: Do you think they do?
Caroline Klemperer: Well, the link of course is I’m playing in both places, I’m teaching in both places. I’m soaking in everything about both places, which I share wherever I go. I think New Yorkers have learned a lot about the Midwest. It’s not just some place out there that nobody knows about.
But for me to be a professional musician and to be a farm girl, it’s kind of hard for them to understand how can you be both, but then they see you can. And on the other hand, coming back to Indiana and being a professional musician in New York and being a farm girl, it’s a concept that a lot of people haven’t considered, but it’s what I am.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah. Well, I can share that on a very personal level, watching you and observing these choices that you’ve made from afar, just as someone who knows you from an earlier point in my life, just knowing that you have made the choice to follow your dreams back to New York, but to maintain your roots in Wayne County, I find really inspirational because it just goes to show that that’s an option. It’s a choice that you have made and that other people can make if it’s the right choice for them.
You already have so many experiences. I wish that we could talk about more of them in detail, that you already have so many experiences and credits to your name, Caroline, and you don’t seem to be slowing down at all. I’m wondering what’s next for you?
Caroline Klemperer: Well, I feel that each day is like a new project. No lesson is the same. No performance is the same. I love what I do, and I want to just continue what I do, and to be open to new ideas and new adventures. And by the way, I write poetry too, and so that all fits in with the whole story. And I hope to just continue doing the things I love.
Kate Jetmore: Well, Caroline, thank you so much for agreeing to be on the show today. It’s been a real honor to sit down with you. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you even better, and I want to wish you and your family all the best.
Caroline Klemperer: Thank you, Kate. This has been a joy for me too.