Elisa Kohanski

April 15, 2014


How would you describe your career? What are the challenges of being a freelance musician in today’s environment?

In a word, busy! This is going to sound ridiculous but here is a list of my regular jobs: Principal Cellist of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater and the Wheeling Symphony, section member of the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra and the Erie Philharmonic, member of Trio Nova Mundi  (Ensemble-in-Residence at Grove City College), member of IonSound Project  (Ensemble-in-Residence at the University of Pittsburgh), musician with Music on the Hill Festival, Trio Una Voce member, Adjunct Faculty at Grove City College, Private Cello Teacher, and Faculty for the Carnegie Mellon Summer Strings Program. This does not include performing solos with orchestras, subbing with the Pittsburgh Symphony, touring overseas, etc. I have also been called on to wear ‘different hats’ so to speak, including acting as a member on orchestra committees, acting as a board member, and taking on roles as Personnel Manager, Treasurer, and Executive Director to name a few.

It is a crazy life, to say the least, but in it I find great satisfaction and joy. For most people, gone are the days of “showing up and playing”. The beauty of a greater participation is that I can take pride in the creation of each and every project. I have ownership in many of the groups that I work in and fortunately, there is a joy that comes from this that I wouldn’t experience if I were to just show up and play. Being involved in smaller organizations grants the opportunity to start from the beginning of every process and see it all grow and develop into something that then takes on its own shape. Of course, practically, this means; setting up chairs, writing and printing programs, shopping for and setting up receptions, coming up with creative programming, commissioning new music, finding collaborations and collaborators, planning tours, advertising, networking, fundraising, hiring and firing, calculating taxes, keeping records, and applying for grants (to name a few!). All this is required in addition to managing a full teaching schedule and performing in many orchestras.

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge for me is finding the balance between professional and personal life. Arguably, I have no balance! My friends say that I am the quintessential workaholic but when you love what you do, is that such a bad thing? Somewhere along the way in my career, I made a decision that I wanted to perform and teach, so I stand by this and continue to enjoy both. So far I’ve learned that teaching has made me a better musician, and maintaining an active performing career has made me a better teacher. I’ve also found that the only way to do so much is to be very organized and to manage time extremely well. I set priorities and work with efficiency (most of the time)—I really do practice what I preach. My goal is to make my students efficient so that they can practice less and play more. For them I think this expands to mean “play” outside, “play” video games, “play” sports! But seriously, learning efficiency enables them to become more disciplined in other aspects of their lives.

In what ways was your time at Eastman a formative experience?

At the time that I attended college, Eastman had the reputation of being the friendliest conservatory. It was a nurturing, non-threatening environment to explore every aspect of music but at the same time it was constantly challenging. As a participant in the Arts Leadership program I was pushed to explore diverse career possibilities as well as the administrative aspects of non-profit arts organizations. In addition, I was exposed to the challenges that I would encounter as a professional musician. These lessons included interpersonal dynamics of artist groups, financial management skills for self-employed musicians and non-profit organizations and how to best engage audiences. I have always been someone who has enjoyed having variety in my working life, and my time at Eastman laid the foundation for the diversity of my current career. It is not just a job but a vocation.

As a student, how did you develop an entrepreneurial mindset? In what ways do you continue to develop that mindset as a professional?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

When I arrived at Eastman, I think that I knew that things were changing in the music world and that having a traditional career in the arts was unlikely. Between the (at that point brand new) Arts Leadership Program and my teacher, Pam Frame, I was encouraged to explore the various career paths I could go down. In the classes that I attended we discussed the reduced funding for orchestras and the financial difficulties of non-profit arts organizations. We brainstormed solutions for a shrinking market. I enjoyed an internship with the Rochester Philharmonic where I worked in the education department planning educational outreach programs. This experience affirmed that if we want to perpetuate the tradition of classical music, we have to have to cultivate a fan base that appreciates it.

In addition, I had the incredible support from my teacher who helped my cello trio, Trio Twazami, find nontraditional performance venues. I remember playing many times in the local Wegmans, Strong Memorial Hospital, nursing homes and schools, and ultimately, the trio was engaged in a rural residency in south-central Kentucky. During the residency, we not only performed in schools and in concert halls but we incorporated another art form into our workshops, the art of tapestry. In addition to creating the tapestries which were our pictorial representations of the music being performed, we also developed programs, sent preparation materials (vocabulary lists, suggested listening, projects), and wrote follow-up materials.

These experiences, along with all of the traditional classes of orchestra and chamber music, helped me to realize that I could create my own path. This directly applied to my work with the chamber group I helped to start in 2004, a contemporary music ensemble called the IonSound Project. Our core mission remains the same today, carried out by featuring collaborations with every concert and a continuing goal of commissioning local composers. In the 2012-2013 Season, IonSound was awarded a Spark Grant from the Sprout Fund, which allowed us to construct a season on a whole new scale. This project involved commissioning local composers, collaborating with roboticists and their robots, presenting workshops and concerts in two local schools over the course of the year and performing two concerts bookending the entire season. In the process, every child ultimately made a robotic instrument and wrote basic music. That season proved more challenging than even I could have imagined, but seeing it through to completion and taking note of the educational impact made it all worthwhile. This project would certainly fit the definition of thinking outside of the box!

In a way, I am constantly reinventing myself because my interests are so wide. My activities involve chamber music, new music, symphonic music, opera, ballet, and teaching people of all ages. Every season is different in its focus and balance and when opportunities arise, I have the freedom to make adjustments to accommodate them. There is never a dull moment. I count myself very fortunate to have so many fantastic options!

You recently went on a tour in Africa with your piano trio, Trio Nova Mundi. How did this influence your career and perspective? What did you learn most during this trip?

This trip was life-altering in many ways. The motivation to make this journey was sparked by a love that I have for Africa after traveling there several times. Every detail of this tour was completely planned by the group from the beginning to the end. The most difficult part of this endeavor was the fundraising. We used grassroots methods to raise all $15,000 needed for this trip. These are the challenges that we face as small groups and these are the incredible rewards that we are graced with…

After our second concert in South Africa (two days after arriving on the continent), an older man approached me and began to explain how much of a joy it was for him to hear our concert. He was so touched by the experience that he actually said, “You have changed our lives forever and we will never be the same. How could you make me fall in love with you and then leave me”. He had tears in his eyes and explained that the music brought back memories that he hadn’t had in years.

Part of our three country tour was to a few cities in Zimbabwe. In Bulawayo, after playing several school assemblies, including one with 900 girls, I met and taught Emma, a beautiful, energetic 8 year old.  Emma was taking lessons from an amateur cellist in her 80’s who, to her credit, helped Emma find a voice. When she played for me, I was blown away! There was more music coming out of this child than anyone I had ever seen anywhere close to her age. Her pitch was incredible and she just played her heart out! I spent almost three hours (all of the time I had) helping her revise her technique. Her mother took extensive notes, videos, and pictures while I was there and she explained that Emma was really not excited about playing the cello lately because she was experiencing a lot of pain. When I left Bulawayo, I wasn’t confident that Emma would get the long term help that she needed. A few days later we gave a concert in the city of Harare. After the concert I spoke with Amy, a fantastic cellist I knew from a Symphony near Pittsburgh. She and her family recently moved to Harare and are going to be there for several years. I knew what I needed to do. I followed up with both Emma’s mom and Amy and I have just heard that they will be meeting for lessons in December. It is a small, amazing world!

This was not a new lesson learned but it certainly was confirmed over and over… the more you travel, see, and experience, the more you bring to your art. As I play for audiences around the world, the more that I realize that everyone yearns for the same things… beauty, love, connections, and happiness.

How do you feel Eastman has helped to prepare you as an educator?

I entered the Eastman School as a double major (education and performance) but after the first semester, I decided that teaching in the classroom was not for me. For me, there is no separation between being a performing musician and an educator. Everything that I did before, during, and after Eastman has prepared me for a life in music. Sharing my experiences is one way that I educate my students. Eastman fostered and encouraged my ability to effectively communicate with my colleagues, follow directions, compromise and learn diplomacy. These skills all directly apply to music and to life.

Your bio mentions that you teach students from ages five to sixty. What do you feel makes an effective music educator today?

My goal with my students is to teach them to teach themselves. I want them all to be excellent problem solvers, goal-oriented and focused workers, and music lovers. I try to instill this in my students as I help to prepare them for ‘the real world’, whether or not they choose music as a career. In order to keep music alive, educators have to reiterate the importance of making music relevant. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t listen to music. Connecting through this medium is so rewarding.

How would you advise students to seek out a variety of musical and professional experiences in order to enhance their marketability?

Make connections! There are many ways to network; new music organizations, collaborations with other artists, music organizations and clubs, local concert series. The important thing to remember is that you have to be honest about what you have to offer and play to your strengths while developing your weaknesses. Go prepared and be open to new experiences.

What do you feel is the single most important thing that graduating students need to know about creating their own careers in the twenty-first century?

I would advise students that whatever they choose to do, they should do it absolutely wholeheartedly. What is marketable these days is someone who has a range of skills, who is an excellent musician, and is reliable, kind, and a team-player. Being passionate about music and having the skills to communicate with others about music and what they do is essential.

I never doubted that I could have a career in music. If you love something enough, you make it happen. I didn’t know what it would look like, but so far it has made my life a beautiful and incredible journey.