Dawn Walker

By Scott MacClellandDawn Walker

ONE WEEKEND when she was playing a concert set with the Monterey Symphony, flutist Dawn Walker decided to investigate auditions for the same position with the Modesto Symphony, and made a daytrip drive to find out. She wondered how many applicants would show up for a job that “pays maybe $4,000 a year.” She was amazed that 35 flute players came to audition, “most from Los Angeles.” Her anecdote underscores a real dilemma for classical orchestra musicians: too many players, not enough jobs.

Robert Freeman, longtime director of the Eastman School of Music, later of the New England Conservatory (where Walker took her Masters in Music degree) and, before he retired, the University of Texas Austin, has often advised “suppress the supply, stimulate the demand,” and expanded on that mantra in The Crisis of Classical Music in America. His book, published last year, offers advice to all affected constituents: students, parents, orchestras, music schools and foundation funders.

In addition to her history as principal flute with the Monterey Symphony and is a regular at the Carmel Bach Festival, including as soloist, and has played principal and section musician with the SF Opera orchestra and for 20 years has subbed in the SF Ballet orchestra. While more fortunate in her career than most, the scarcity of jobs dictates “You keep what you’ve got and you pad your schedule with students,” she says.

“The majority of my life has been about performing. One of my first jobs [in California] was with the Santa Cruz Symphony where I played for a dozen years,” she told me. “Then I had small children. And I was getting more work from the San Francisco Opera.” She explains that one day at the opera she would make as much money as a whole week in Santa Cruz. For the last 25 years she has been the first call sub for the SFO. “The most thrilling things in my career have been playing in opera premieres,” Walker says. These include Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter and Olivier Messiaen’s St. Francis of Assisi. She has also played Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle and many other well-known operas.

A native of Indiana, Walker knew early that she wanted to play the flute. Her family supported her to the extent of moving to Maine when she was 16 in order for her to spend summers in the large flute camp run by Claude Monteux, son of the famous conductor. “He was all about color in the sound,” she says. “A very French sound that I tried to imitate.” She practiced six hours a day. Monteux said she was one of the hardest working players he ever had. “I was his protégée,” she adds. But she also knew that she needed a better instrument and had to save enough money to buy one. After summer her daily routine started at four a.m. and practice, then school all day, and after school a fulltime job at Dunkin’ Donuts until 10 p.m.

“I went to NEC and studied with a teacher who said ‘You’re going to be a soloist.’ He didn’t have me prepare for orchestra auditions which would have been important to do.” Walker then came to the San Francisco Bay Area and started winning auditions that she hadn’t been schooled for. She has been playing professionally for 25 years, and lives in Sunnyvale with her husband Mark, a cellist with Symphony Silicon Valley.

How many flute players can we have in the world? The Modesto Symphony experience only underscored the question. Obviously, her hard work and talent have brought her uncommon success. But, “What happens when there are no jobs?” she asked herself. The answer for her was to teach, not to further add to a glut of players but to nurture life skills. Until recently she was the Preschool Program Coordinator at Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, and, last year coached students of Youth Orchestra Salinas. She teaches advanced high school students at her home studio. “Learning to play an instrument has great value to a student’s life. It changes their learning skills, enriches their cognitive abilities,” she says. “That weekly discipline within the creative process can be applied to other parts of their lives, to anything they do in their lives.” Working with preschoolers is especially important to her. “I really like to spark kids from the start, with enthusiasm. It’s the best way to do it, with lots of support but not feeling the pressure I felt practicing up to ten hours a day to be successful.” The five students who take lessons at her home are there for the same reason she studied with Monteux: color and expressiveness.

Walker has been principal with the Monterey Symphony since 1990 and second flute for the Bach Festival since 2004. “At the Bach Festival everybody treats me like a celebrity. Paul Goodwin [music director] is positive, energetic. Debbie Chinn [festival executive director] has a lot of good ideas. I would love to see a new spark of enthusiasm at the Monterey Symphony.” She fondly remembers the late Joan de Visser, operations FrontCover1director during the Clark Suttle and Kate Tamarkin music directorships, and the early years with Max Bragado-Darmen. “It was my favorite time at the Symphony. Joan and I were very close. She was the artistic heart of that organization. We all miss her terribly.”

While Walker’s playing can be heard in various commercial recordings she recently hatched the idea of making her own CD, in collaboration with Olga Rakitchenkov, principal harp of the San Francisco Opera orchestra. The album, “Lyric Flute and Harp: Musical Offerings,” is set for release next month.