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Artist Spotlight: Violist Kim Kashkashian

We love celebrating the viola and the talented violists who play it. Professional violists such as Kim Kashkashian prove this vital instrument deserves its rightful place in the orchestra and that violists have just as much right to the solo spotlight as other string players.

You may remember Kashkashian’s helpful tidbit about holds in our post about the 5 Habits of Celebrity Violists. There she shared that working with your body dynamics, combined with solid hold and postural techniques, helps musicians develop a comfortable and personalized playing style and sound.

Kim Kashkashian Originally Dreamed of Clarinets

Playing strings was the last thing on Kashkashian’s mind when she began playing music at age eight in 1960. At first, she dreamed of playing the clarinet. However, with a household firmly anchored in middle-class Detroit, Kashkashian’s mother felt it best to play an instrument they already owned. Thus, Kashkashian put her odes to the clarinet aside and picked up a cousin’s castoff violin they had sitting around in a closet.

Four years later, at age 12, the talented violist attended the Interlochen Arts Academy, host to one of the best summer music programs in the country. While there, Kim borrowed a viola and fell in love with its tone. In an interview with Strings Magazine, Kashkashian told the interviewer,  “…I simply moved back to the register I had wanted in the first place.” Although she still considers herself a “closet violinist,” it is the viola that has accompanied Kashkashian the most throughout her professional life as a musician.

World-Renowned Soloist and Dedicated Teacher

From Interlochen, Kashkashian attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore (one of our Top 10 Four-Year Music Schools). Eventually, she studied with Karen Tuttle at the Philadelphia Music Academy. In a 2019 interview with Meet the Pros, Kashkashian immediately named Karen Tuttle as her role model. In addition to growing her love of the viola and musicianship, this admiration led her to become Tuttle’s teaching assistant, where she simultaneously grew her love of teaching.

For some musicians, becoming a music teacher feels more like a fallback plan than the dream career choice. For Kashkashian, being a dedicated viola teacher is as vital to who she is, as her successful career as a soloist. Her passion for guiding other students has never ebbed.

Kashkashian has held faculty positions at Mannes College School of Music (back when it was called New York’s Mannes School), the University of Indiana at Bloomington, the Freiburg Hochschule für Musik and the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. She has taught viola and chamber music at the New England Conservatory in Boston since 2000. She is also a founding member and music director of Music for Food, a musicians’ initiative to fight hunger in their home communities.

Her Accolades

Kim Kashkaskian’s accolades are many. She’s won awards at multiple competitions, although competitions aren’t her thing. According to Kashkashian, a musician’s preparation for a competition is far more important than the competition itself. Kashkashian has both collaborated with and completed commissions for many of the world’s most renowned string musicians, and she’s recorded multiple solo and chamber albums throughout her career.

Kashkashian is known around the world as one of the most talented violists of the 20th and 21st centuries and has performed as a soloist and in chamber groups all around the world. In 2012, she won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrument Solo. Her recording of Kurtág & Ligeti: Music For Viola is one of the things she’s most proud of (another is her release of the Hindemith Sonatas).

Watch this video of Kashkasian playing some of Kurtág’s character pieces, which begin with her explaining she once spent more than eight hours with Kurtág, practicing a single line, and she still was never able to “do what he wanted.” She remarked, “...ten or 15 years later when I was complaining about having troubles with a certain performance, [Kurtág] said, ‘Well, what did you expect? That’s what we all do. We torture ourselves until we get it right.’”

3 Kashkashian Quick Facts

From the outside, it can seem like a professional string player does nothing but practice, practice, practice, and perform! Most musicians and artists are more well-rounded than you think. Here are three Kashkashian Quick Facts to celebrate the viola-free aspects of Kim Kashkashian’s life:

1. She’s a kung-fu fighter

In truth, she’s more of a lover than a fighter. However, Kashkashian is a self-described “serious martial arts practitioner,” focusing on Kung Fu and Tai Chi. (Did you know that Tai Chi is a great way to calm your nerves, reduce stress, and keep your playing body in shape? Read our post, 6 Ways Tai Chi Can Help You Be a Better Strings Player to learn more.)

2. Loud places and cold weather are her nemeses

When asked about a thing she dislikes the most, Kashkashian's responded with "loud places and cold weather." She shies away from loud places, especially restaurants whenever she can. She finds it ironic that she doesn’t like cold weather as she grew up in Detroit, spent many years in Germany, and now finds herself living in Boston.

3. Empathy is her superpower

When asked what her superpower would be, Kashkashian was forthcoming that she had a serious answer to that question, “I know what people are feeling.” Knowing how people feel inside and what motivates them to do what they do on the outside is part of what makes her such a celebrated musician. She can feel her audience and respond to them accordingly.

We enjoy listening to Kim Kashkashian almost as much as we enjoy getting to know her through her gracious, humble interviews, and the stories she tells between her pieces. Do yourself a favor and add Kim Kaskashian to your preferred music streaming platform.