KRISTEN THOMPSON knows what she wants, and goes after it. It’s in her genes. For example, she proposed marriage to Jeffrey Thompson, a recent divorcé and chef/owner of Jeffrey’s, a popular café in Carmel Valley. Her father, an electrical engineer who designed the early Atari computer game Pong, departed the family ranch in Boise for greater fortune when Kristen was an infant. (He didn’t endorse the marriage until he tasted Jeffrey’s eggplant parmesan.)
Thanks to an extensive musical education in public schools—she began piano lessons at age five—and BA (percussion) and MA (choral conducting) degrees from San Jose State, Thompson has been a full-time musician and music educator ever since. She plays all the woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. “I used to carve my own oboe reeds,” she is pleased to say. She is also a certified Orff-Schulwerk Specialist. She took additional credits at Mills College and, about ten years ago, took a master class and jazz course in San Francisco.
When she was 15 her mother told her she had outgrown the ranch and, anyway, “it was time to meet your father.” In high school, she fell in love with the marimba, which became part of “a downhill slide into owning just about every percussion instrument there is.” (She told me that you tune a marimba with a belt-sander.)
“I’ve spent 30 years teaching band, choir, orchestra, music appreciation and general music in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties,” she says straight out. (She gained her great confidence, she says, from riding horses and working with large farm animals while a child. “I was raised in the saddle.”)
She began teaching high school and middle school music in San Jose. At the time, she was living with her dad “in an Italian villa” on Summit Road atop the Santa Cruz Mountains. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake did so much damage to the “villa” that she, and her son by her first marriage, moved into Santa Cruz. One day, while teaching music at Harbor High, someone from a local barbershop quartet offered to sing to her class, for free, and to help build her choral program. “We had eight girls and one boy. I thought it was the craziest thing.” (When she left after six years, the chorus had grown to 40.) Two things came out of that experience: boys suddenly found singing was cool, and Kristen Thompson became a lifelong lover of barbershop singing. “That bug bit me and I had so much fun I directed the Surf City Chorus from ’92 to ‘97.” In 2002, she founded the Monterey Bay Belles, (pictured) “The Monterey Peninsula’s Only Women’s Barbershop-Style Chorus.” (On March 14 they hosted an invitational “A Cappella Showcase” that included nine other groups.)
As a performer, Thompson is often seen in pit orchestras for musical comedies and other casual gigs, parades, fiestas and “Valengrams.” She started playing in Monterey County while still a student as San Jose State, mostly percussion. She and a colleague from San Luis Obispo were getting calls from The Western Stage in Salinas. Later, she played with the Monterey Bay Symphony (which today survives as the Monterey County Pops.) She got a call from the Monterey Peninsula Choral Society. Then, in the late ‘90s, she began playing shows at Carmel’s outdoor Forest Theater. It was there that she met Jeffrey. “He was in Man of La Mancha, and married at the time.” She returned the following year. “He was in Camelot, and was unmarried. The relationship took another year to grow and we got married in 2001.”
Today, Thompson teaches general music at Chartwell School in Seaside, choir at Buena Vista Middle School in the Spreckels Union School District, and Orff training at La Mesa Elementary in Monterey and Marina Vista in Marina. (The latter two are supported by grants from the Monterey County Arts Council.) She says her work in the schools is tailored to specific needs. She creates her own curriculum and materials. Her strategy is to get students turned on to music by making it, including lots of work projects.
With no expectation of anything less than a strong opinion, I asked Thompson for her views on performing the classical canon. She took the bait. “I am a style and performance-practice freak!” Be it music from the renaissance, baroque, classical or any other style period, she said “Execution is what really gives it its feel.” Painting baroque music with a romantic brush makes it romantic. Playing 19th century music with instruments set up according to 18th century practice makes it sound 18th century, she asserted. “When it’s done right, I love it,” she says. But, as a percussionist, “My heart goes to Aaron Copland. He always gives something important for the percussion to do, and I need that.” Gershwin is “fab,” Mozart is “great.” As a performer, “The right style and performance practice is the most important.”
Solo portrait by Bob Stone