20 Stories: Sara Stalnaker







Sara Stalnaker

In 2001, fresh out of Rice University with a master’s degree in cello performance, Oregon native Sara Stalnaker followed an impulse for adventure and drove East. She thought she might find work as a waitress in Maine. But then she heard about a job for a cellist in Providence and found “what I had been yearning for– something really new, exciting and energizing.” After serving as a CMW resident musician for fourteen years, Sara now pursues a solo practice.

Almost everything that CMW does– from chamber music to the administrative side, the brainstorms, the teaching, the teen group–are all about improvisation. I do love that about it, especially when you take a medium like classical music. That culture sometimes is the antithesis of improvisatory. CMW takes the amazing quality that classical music brings–all of the rigor and all the beauty–but also takes out a lot of the staid qualities.

It is a real treat to be part of an organization that is willing to make up their own rules and then break them and make new ones. CMW sent great messages into my neurons and my pathways. I was in my mid-20s, and that’s where you’re learning to be an adult. To segue from being in school my entire life and following the rules,  being a good girl, not really ever thinking a lot for myself–to go from that system into this very new, fresh system that CMW was starting–was powerful. I could improvise my own life. I stopped looking around for the answers and started throwing stuff out there. And I think that’s how you build a life that you love, by following that intuition, that instinct to create.

Whether it was making decisions in staff meetings or trying a new angle in teaching or having this interaction with families that you never thought was possible, they’re all in this category of trying something that you’d never tried before. There was never a blueprint the way so many people want in their lives when they’re young. It’s exhausting to be outside of your comfort zone because you don’t always know where your foot is going to fall next, but that keeps you alive and raw. You really do feel the highs in such an extreme way that you wouldn’t otherwise. Whether it was a performance party or a quartet retreat– millions of different ways–I would just be hit that this was a powerful moment and felt something very strongly that I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity to feel on a regular path if I had taken it.

Sometimes people want that blueprint we were talking about: “What is it exactly that you guys do at CMW and how can we replicate it?” and I think that that’s a mistake. Without the spirit there’s none of it. It’s just a music school in an urban neighborhood. That desire to be fresh and responsive and almost young, always young, even though it’s in its 20th year now, is something that I wish we could figure out how to replicate easily. It clearly is a positive influence in everyone’s lives, whoever is involved, and we can use that everywhere.

If I had to describe CMW as a piece of music, it’s the standard improv big jam tune, which is, “What’s the answer to my question?”  The students and the teachers all stand in a circle. Each person gets to create their own melody. There is the baseline, which is CMW, basically. CMW provides the environment for the improvisation–safety and  a little bit of a structure–but then there is that freedom above it to wind your melody around. It captures the essence of what CMW strives for and does accomplish with not only the kids, but with the teachers and the musicians and the many staff members now running the ship who aren’t musicians but are still improvising daily, and then the community who comes around to offer that support. Everything that was satisfying and that fueled me in my work was about connecting to my colleagues and with the kids and the families.

We’re teaching improvisation, which is amazing, because it teaches a student right off the bat to have faith in their voice. You’re moving around and playing your tune, and if you find a note you don’t like you just turn into a passing note and get onto the next one. And that’s so CMW. You just keep creating.

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