Karissa Shivone began playing the cello at the age of seven; today she is a section cello with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where her work ranges from classical concerts to pops programs; from European tours, to a quarantine concert with her husband and fellow musician, Thomas Shivone. I spoke with Shivone about the joys, challenges, and day-to-day work of being a classical musician; learning to set aside fear and trust her musical instincts; and some practical ways anyone can begin listening to and loving classical music. 

What does the day to day work of a section cello look like?

We have rehearsals usually starting on Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the program. And then our performances typically fall on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. But sometimes we’ll have children’s concerts or outreach performances sprinkled in during the work week. So, each week is a little different. It keeps me on my toes, because I can’t always depend on it being exactly the same. Sometimes there will be a rehearsal in the evening if there’s a chorus working with us (the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh).

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It’s definitely different from your typical 9 to 5 job. Also, no matter what the rehearsal schedule is, I have my own personal practice at home, which is either getting ready for the following week’s music for the orchestra; my own solo music; scales and foundational practice; or chamber music if I have a chamber music concert coming up. It’s a very diverse schedule between practicing at home quite a bit and getting ready for everything coming up.

It’s starting to get easier though. Now that I’m in my fourth year, I’m slowly starting to feel like I know what the PSO does; I can kind of predict tempos and things like that.

You started playing when you were seven. When did you decide you wanted to pursue cello as a professional career?

I actually come from a family of classical musicians, so music has always felt like my mother tongue in a way; I grew up hearing it all around me. My parents are violinists and my brother is a double bass player. At first it did take me a little bit of time to figure out which instrument really called to me. I started on violin and piano first when I was about five. Neither of those felt quite right though; I wasn’t good about practicing either instrument. Even though my mom was my violin teacher, I just wasn’t totally engaged in it. The violin felt too high pitched, and my brother’s instrument felt too big and low pitched. But eventually I went to enough of my dad’s Seattle Symphony concerts and discovered the cello section and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t stop watching them.

I remember the moment I was sitting at my parents’ breakfast table when I mustered up the courage to ask them if I could start the cello. They thought about it and knew exactly who I would take lessons from because my brother’s bass teacher at that time is married to a phenomenal cello teacher. It fell together beautifully. And the cello felt so natural right away too; it clicked quickly. I knew pretty early on that it was my lifelong calling.

I wanted to work as hard as I could because I watched my dad play in the symphony, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps and perform in a world-class orchestra. Then my brother got a job with the Cleveland orchestra when I was in high school, that gave me even more inspiration to follow that path. Watching him go through the audition process gave me such a clear picture of how it would work, and how I would pursue that.

What was the path from taking up the cello at age 7 to becoming a cellist for the PSO?

Practice. As the phrase goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” In middle school and high school I took as many lessons as I could. I started taking 90 minute lessons, and then supplemental lessons with other cellists. I went to as many summer music festivals as I could and entered all the local and regional competitions. I played with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras and chamber music programs. It was non-stop music, every day all day.

Going from there to the Colburn Conservatory of Music in L.A., felt like a natural progression, because it was a constant focus on music all the time. I feel very lucky that I got to study with “Mr. Leonard” as we called him, Ronald Leonard, who is a legendary cellist, and he retired right after I left. So I got his last couple of years, and I’m very thankful for that. My time at Colburn was super important. He was such a great teacher in terms of balancing solo, chamber, and orchestral skills. He really knew how to work on all of those with me so well. Then, I actually won the PSO job when I was 21 and at the end of my third year of school. So I bounced back and forth between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles for a year, which was pretty crazy.

How do orchestral auditions work?

You submit a résumé first. And then from hundreds of résumés they’ll pick a pool of people to come for a preliminary audition. Then typically how it works, is you walk on a carpet on the stage, and there’s a huge screen blocking you, so the audition panel can’t see you, and you can’t see them; they can’t tell how old you are, your gender, race, anything, so it’s totally a blind audition. And you play from a very short list drawn from a longer list that they’ve given you. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a statement of what your musicianship is like. It’s pretty intimidating; you have to just give your very best for that first round and hope you made enough of an impression to move on to the semi-finals. Some orchestras may have blind semi-finals as well, and then they go on to finals and sometimes there’s what’s called a “super-final.”

It really shows the competitive nature of the field. Did you ever have any fears about going “all in” in pursuing this career? Or did you have a backburner career plan if this didn’t pan out?

Funnily enough, I did not have a backburner option for myself; I was totally all in. But it’s true that there were so many doubts along the way, and stress and struggles. But I think eventually I learned to trust my musical instincts. And rather than worry about where I would end up, I just kind of let go, and trusted that I would end up somewhere, in the right place, where I was meant to be. It’s so important to realize that if you have been working hard and practicing diligently, you just have to sink in and trust that that’s there for you during those stressful performances or auditions. My PSO audition actually felt really relaxed, because I had learned to let go of worrying about it and to just enjoy myself.

It is a highly competitive field, and if you think about that too much, I think you’re already behind. The key is to just let go of the fear. Music making is so personal, and if you are fearful, the audience will feel that too. So you have to really commit to trusting and making music. At the same time, I had such a wonderful, supportive community around me in terms of my friends at school and my family.

What has it been like to transition from being a student to a professional? As a professional musician, is the responsibility to continue learning and improving all on you?

It really is. Once you’re out of school, it’s totally on you to make those improvements, and continue to work to get better. That’s something I’ve really looked into as I graduated from my undergrad four years ago now. I think the year I spent at the PSO while also finishing my studies was really good for me; it acted as a bridge. Since graduating, I’ve continued to focus on, “What would I do if I had a lesson next week?” “What would my teacher tell me?” I think it’s really important to have a kind of student mentality. It helps so much in terms of keeping you accountable for your practicing and diligent about your fundamental practice so that bad habits don’t sneak in.

A concert with Yo-Yo Ma and the PSO cello section.

A concert with Yo-Yo Ma and the PSO cello section.

What are some of the things you love most about your job?

Oh my gosh, touring is my favorite. It’s truly the most amazing reward for all that practicing and hard work. There’s just something so thrilling about performing on those greatest stages in the world, in those cities I always dreamed about visiting: Paris and London and Vienna. And the PSO has this particular energy about it on tour, that just blows my mind. It’s like the orchestra is saying, “Hey! We’re Pittsburgh, and we’re going to knock your socks off!” They’re such great ambassadors for the city of Pittsburgh, and they show what heart and soul the city has.

Seeing those European halls erupt in standing ovations and cheers—it’s so exciting. Because you know that these audiences know what excellent classical music sounds like, since oftentimes that’s where those pieces were written.

What are some of the things that are hardest about your job?

It’s a lot more mentally and physically draining than I thought it would be. Prior to being in an orchestra, I could sit up and stand, stretch, grab some water. But when you’re in a rehearsal or in a concert you can’t just get up in the middle of a concert and leave for some water. And it takes a lot more focus; you have to prepare for the marathon rather than a sprint when it comes to the orchestral schedule because there is just so much repertoire that you always have to be on top of, not letting your muscles get worn out or not eating well enough. So I try to keep a balance of getting out and seeing friends and pursuing hobbies that take my mind off some of the day to day stress of it.

Given that your performances are on the weekend, how do you balance life outside of work when your work hours are usually during other people’s weekends?

Mondays are kind of our weekend. We always have Mondays off, except for very rare occasions. We joke that it’s the “musicians’ Sabbath.” But we’re thankful that our friends outside the orchestra are very gracious about letting us schedule a gathering on Mondays.

One thing that’s really fun is that many of the musicians after a concert will go out to get a drink to celebrate the concert. That’s often our fun social hour, just going out and celebrating with the musicians at a spot across the street to talk about the concert. It’s sometimes really hard to unwind from an exciting concert, so collectively, we’ll all hang out and relax together.

Could you tell us a little bit about the community of the orchestra itself?

In Pittsburgh I feel so lucky. It’s such a wonderful group of people; it really is like a giant family. They’re just such a generous bunch, and I felt so welcomed right away. It’s amazing how they all take care of each other too. As soon as I started moving to Pittsburgh, I had all these people who were bringing me furniture and soup. They really made me feel like I was part of this extended family. We also have our own Musicians’ Instagram page and Facebook page because we want to try to break down that wall, so that people feel like they can get to know us a little better.

Maestro Honeck is also so kind and always wanting to have gatherings with the musicians. For example, there’s a tradition when we’re on tour that he’ll invite the whole orchestra to a dinner. There’s a lot of collegiality, which is important too for making music. I think that’s one thing that really shows in this orchestra: there’s so much heart; people really care about making good music together.

Your husband is also a musician. Do you ever work together? And what’s it like to navigate the interests of both of your careers?

Yes! He’s an opera singer; he’s fully trained as a concert artist/opera singer/guest artist. He’s amazing! I’m totally in love with him as a person and with his voice. His voice had me as soon as he said, “I’m Thomas Shivone.”

And he’s been amazing. Right when we first became a couple he dropped everything. He was working in Philadelphia, doing a lot of freelance work. He kind of put his career on hold for about a year and let us settle into our lives together. But he had really wanted to find some kind of foundational job. So, he teaches at Point Park University in downtown Pittsburgh and has a great studio of students there. And then he can take on things that interest him but not have that be his sole work. I’ve always felt similarly: I wanted to be in an orchestra and then be able to do performances that really intrigued me like chamber music and solo performances—but not have to do that all the time because I knew that wasn’t the lifestyle for me

I wouldn’t say our goals have conflicted at all; they’ve really complemented each other. Actually, we had this really beautiful experience earlier in the season where he had a small solo role with the Pittsburgh Symphony. So we were both performing together on stage for the first time for a production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. That was amazing; we had so much fun, just getting to look across the stage and see each other.

Can you tell us about your instrument?

My cello and my bow have a cool little story. I was on my first European tour, and we went to London. I had wanted to see if I could find the place where I knew my cello was made. It said on the inside “Avery Row, London.” I typed it into Google, and it turned out I was really close to where my old cello label is from, from 1813. I went down with some of my friends, and there was this beautiful little alleyway filled with cafes. You could look up and see what are now apartments, but I was thinking to myself, “I think my cello had to have been made in one of these shops up there over two hundred years ago.”

Then maybe a year-and-a-half, two years later, I started looking for a bow that would be more well-suited to my cello. Thomas and I drove to Philadelphia to try out bows. After trying out maybe thirty bows, there was this one that really stuck out. It had this rich, chocolatey sound that complemented my cello so well. It felt like, “Oh my gosh, this is the bow!” I didn’t know anything about it and asked, “What is it?” He said, it’s a Louis Panormo. On the ride back to Pittsburgh, my dad called. He’s a violin aficionado and loves looking into different violin maker books. He looked up this bow maker, and it turned out it was made by a man named Thomas Tubbs, who bought the violin shop where my cello was made. So, it turned out the cello and the bow were made in the same little shop in London, not too far apart in time in the early 1800s. I call them soul mates.

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How has your work and the work of the orchestra changed due to COVID-19? How do you think live classical music might return?

So much of that is still getting worked out right now! But as to the immediate response: as soon as the shutdowns happened, everyone was asking: “How do we still get music to our audiences right away?” And the answer was in short videos. The PSO started making something they called “Bright Spots” where the musicians submitted short videos of meaningful pieces of music that they wanted to put out there, either as something joyful and lighthearted or maybe something more reflective of the difficult times. That was a really wonderful way for us to stay connected, but long term we have to look at what we’re going to do in the fall.

I think that’s going to look different everywhere honestly. It depends on what each state allows for. There’s been a lot of discussion about smaller groups with people socially distanced, wearing masks, having smaller audiences. One thing that is going to be important is having safety protocols in place. I know there are a lot of questions about wind and brass instruments because of the aerosols that might go out. So, they’re starting to really study things like, “Okay, how much does a flute really project in terms of the aerosols?” Once all the orchestras have that figured out, discussions will be able to move more into outdoor concerts or very small indoor concerts without intermissions or with Plexiglas shields. Maybe people can find a way to perform in front of subscribers’ homes. It is a very interesting time to be a classical musician for sure!

Normally, I ask what would motivate someone to consider your career, but since few of us could make a mid-career pivot to professional cellist, I’ll ask instead: what might motivate a woman to take up an instrument even if she won’t pursue it as a profession?

It’s an interesting idea. I think there’s a lot of value in at least taking a couple of lessons and playing around with it. There’ve been amazing recent studies about how good music is for brain clarity and emotional wellbeing.

It’s fun to do too. For example, my dad is learning the guitar right now, and he’s been a professional violinist all his life. And he really loves it. It gives him such joy to figure it out. You don’t have to know too much to really enjoy picking up an instrument; I think once you have a basic understanding of how to read music, you can go pretty far with it. I’ve always thought that I want to one day learn how to play a small harp because I kind of wanted to play the harp when I was little. Maybe one day I’ll get there.

Classical music can be an intimidating genre for people to get into. Do you have any advice on how to dive into classical music?

Yes! This is something that Thomas and I are really passionate about, because we think it’s so important to make classical music accessible to younger audiences. We’re on the board for what’s called the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Young Professionals Club. It’s an amazing way for people to get interested in classical music and make it more relatable through events that are more tailored to younger audiences. For example, there are happy hours where people will get to know other people in the professionals club and discuss the program they’re about to hear. There’s also a new series we’ve been part of called “Discovery and Drinks.” We had a curator who walked through the history of each piece before we played it and tied it to the history of what was happening in Pittsburgh at the time. That gives people something to grasp on to, so that it doesn’t feel as distant anymore.

I would recommend seeing if there’s a young professionals club with the orchestra near you. Often they come with great little packages and perks, like getting to meet the musicians backstage, getting discounts on concerts, getting invited to special events. I think it’s important for people to not feel intimidated by classical music, because it really is relatable. There’s so much beauty to connect to once that barrier is broken down.

Connecting classical music to art from the same period can be very helpful too. If you’re looking at, for example, an Impressionist painter, then suddenly Ravel and Debussy make a lot more sense. Typically, music is a little bit later than art, but you can always make those connections. Also, any research you can do before a concert helps. If you type “program notes” for any of the music that is on your concert in Google, you can learn so much.

At Verily, we love our “Daily Doses”—quotes or phrases that motivate or inspire us. Do you have a mantra or phrase that you love or live by?

I have three:

I love this quote from Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” As a classical musician it’s easy getting caught up in trying to perfect things, and we build up performances in our head. That quote keeps me humble and prevents me from taking things too seriously. It helps me remember that for me, bringing love to people through music is the most important thing.

That leads to my first cello teacher, Leslie Marckx; I have a whole book of my favorite Leslie quotes. But there are two of hers that go hand in hand for a classical musician. The first one is: “Don’t try to impress people when you perform; try to move them.” The other one is, “Sincerity is the most important mood to portray.” Always try to really feel what you’re hoping to bring to people rather than something fake. If you’re half-hearted about something, people won’t be moved. If you’re truly joyful about it, people will feel it.