Meet the Musician: Violinist Martha Kaufman

Where did you grow up? 

I was born in Kingsport, Tennessee and lived there until I went to college in Bloomington, Indiana.

Do you come from a musical family?

Yes! Both my mother and grandmother played the violin. My grandmother, who was also from Tennessee, went to New York City in the 1920’s and studied with one of Leopold Auer’s assistants at the Institute of Musical Art (later named Julliard).   She was very musical and loved all forms of music, but I don’t think she was ever too serious about studying. Ladies didn’t do this type of thing in her day and eventually she returned to Tennessee and married. 
My mother is a violinist who helped start the Suzuki program in Kingsport. After doing this for 5 years she decided to move into the school system and started a highly successful string program at the high school level where she worked for 20 years. She had major influences on high school age students and taught us that through working hard we could achieve and expect great things, even if a person was from a small town in East Tennessee.  
I believe my mom was the one who inspired and taught me the most in my formative years with the basic lesson to work hard, work steady and work honestly. During the time period I was growing up in Tennessee I was exposed to a lot of teaching philosophies and met and played for many people like Shinichi Suzuki, William Starr, Paul Rolland, Kato Havas, Samuel Applebaum, Dorothy Delay, Roman Totenberg to name a few. I went to many music festivals and camps so that I was introduced to a lot of different ideas and thoughts which helped me connect with players from around the globe at an early age. Music was the soul of our family and was my guiding force in my growing up years.

What is your position in the orchestra? 

I am a member of the second violin section of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. I joined the orchestra in September of 1999. Previous to this appointment I served as associate concertmaster of the Knoxville Symphony and principal second violin in the Savannah Symphony.

What made you play the violin?

I started taking violin lessons at the age of five. My mom and grandmother played, so I had heard a lot of violin music, but when my cousin started violin lessons I was motivated by jealousy, and demanded that I also be allowed to take lessons. I started in the Suzuki method, which was perfect for a five year old. I probably stayed with this approach a bit too long because I did not learn how to read music until age 10. I learned everything by ear which was sort of ridiculous because I was playing the Bach double and Bach violin concertos completely by ear. I joined the school orchestra in 7th grade and was quite angry that I wasn’t placed as concertmaster because I thought that I played better than everyone, but I couldn’t read music well. Being in the school orchestra taught me to read for which I will always be grateful. Just a side note on this subject, I’m still not great at sight-reading and tend to always fall back on learning a lot of music by listening to it. I do advocate for my students to read music immediately so they don’t have huge gaps in their playing levels.  

Where did you do your musical studies after high school?

I decided to try to become a professional violinist when I was 15 years old. I had won a few concerto competitions and I enjoyed soloing with the orchestras so I thought that maybe I would like to try this professionally. I was wrong about becoming a soloist and I learned quickly that I was going to have to work really hard to be in a professional orchestra. I did my undergraduate studies at Indiana University where I received a Bachelor of Music degree. I then went to the Cleveland Institute of Music and earned a Master of Music degree while studying with David Cerone and Kathleen Winkler. I loved college and enjoyed all the musicians and teachers I met, many of whom I’m still in contact with today. 

What has been your favorite musical experience at the Kennedy Center?

I would definitely have to say that playing the Wagner’s Ring Cycle conducted by Maestro Philippe Auguin was a highlight. The work was so massive and intense. I remembered being in college and saying to all my friends, “I will never be in an opera orchestra and I definitely will never play Wagner.” Guess what? Thankfully, I was wrong again! I am still amazed that our orchestra was so successful with this undertaking. Everyone worked so well together, we were definitely on a musical high and I believe everyone learned so much. The thought of having to start working this prior to our first rehearsal made me very nervous but once we started preparing I realized we were doing something amazing with someone (Maestro Auguin) who had studied the scores meticulously and I was going to learn a lot during this time period. I will always remember this time.

Do you have any hobbies outside the orchestra?

I have always enjoyed teaching privately. I have had excellent students who now play professionally and I have had students who enjoy music and learned a little on their violin journey but don’t play anymore. I have two daughters who play the violin a bit. They will never major in music but hopefully I have taught them to love music. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music “the universal language of mankind.” During these tumultuous times in which we live, music is one thing humans can come together and enjoy regardless of race, gender, intellect or politics. All the walls and barriers can come down for this art form and we can live in harmony.