In this series, KMFA Story Seeker Natalie Zeldin explores Austin musicians and groups that are "on the edge" between classical and...something else. This is her tenth article in the series. For more, see her last article where Brent Baldwin celebrates indie and classical in Austin.
Christabel Lin is a violinist who spins a lot of musical plates: she performs regularly in a chamber music group, acts as a chamber music coach for ACMC, and jams with her band, Flamenco Symphony. She also organizes a monthly series of “Classical Jams,” an open musical event that takes place in a bar in an effort to bring classical musicians into the Austin live (but usually non-classical) music fold. Originally from New Zealand, Lin then worked for the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra in Vienna before crossing yet another pond. Austin is lucky to have her!
The next Classical Jam is on August 24th. Click here for more information.
KMFA: How did you start playing the violin?
I was at a market with my mom when I was about two or three years old, and there were some tiny children busking: a brother and sister playing the violin. Apparently I was transfixed, so my mom took me to Suzuki. We actually met those kids there, and they are still my friends now.
KMFA: You used to play in a professional orchestra in Vienna, which for most classical musicians, is a dream come true. Why’d you leave that and come to Texas?!
Well, I gained a great deal from that one year in the symphony. It was a great experience to play in those beautiful historic halls and working under renowned conductors and colleagues. But my first love had always been chamber music, and at 26, I wasn’t ready to commit to an orchestral career. So when the opportunity came up to audition for a permanent chair in the symphony, at first I signed up but then pulled out and began thinking of going back to school..
KMFA: What was it about chamber music specifically that pulled you in?
I did a chamber music program under the mentorship of the New Zealand String Quartet. I’ve always loved chamber music, but the things I learned in New Zealand helped me develop that. It’s such a small-knit community, with a strong taste for it. That dynamic push-and-pull between colleagues and the expression and freedom that comes with playing with sensitive musicians...there’s really nothing like it.
KMFA: So how did you end up in Austin?
I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship for my studies for my Artist Diploma. I was also attracted to the colorful reputation of the live music scene here. My interest in non-classical music in general seemed like an opportunity.
KMFA: Have you always been interested in non-classical music?
Yes. I listed to a lot of rock music in high school and I’ve always been interested in improvising, so I took some classes in jazz piano and improv.
KMFA: You play in the band Flamenco Symphony. Tell us a bit about that.
When I first got to Austin, I tried to collaborate with as many people as possible. I went on Craigslist, and I ended up playing with a bunch of pretty bad country bands! Then I saw a flyer up at UT, and this one was the first one that worked out. My bandmate David was originally a blues musician, and his music is very fast and virtuosic. The combination of our different musical backgrounds makes a pretty good pairing.
KMFA: What’s surprised you as a real challenge of playing in a band?
It’s been an amazing learning experience for me. I had to quickly let go of perfectionism and be more comfortable with being thrown into situations, like playing requests that audience members make and going with the flow.
KMFA: What do you think classical musicians have to learn from “the other side”?
There’s definitely a lot of self-judgment in the classical realm that stems from a place of insecurity which kids growing up playing band instruments don’t necessarily have. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that it’s just music. Other than providing joy and catharsis, it’s really not that important, so we should just all relax!
KMFA: You’ve started a monthly open chamber music reading in a bar. What are your goals with this project?
Growing up in my small community in New Zealand, I was lucky to have many performance opportunities since I was a tiny child. I didn’t realize until I left New Zealand that so many musicians--even those more skilled than I was--had a lot of performance anxiety. I felt that there was something missing in Austin, particularly in the classical music community. I wanted to give musicians an opportunity to have fun and come together and take music back to a place of enjoyment.
KMFA: What is it about sight-reading that makes it more enjoyable for the musicians?
It’s almost like a zen thing. When you’re sight-reading, you aren’t going to be successful unless you free your mind of clutter, which includes self-judgment, and anything else that might get in the way of enjoying music.
KMFA: How do the Classical Jams differ from a conventional chamber music performance for an audience member?
It’s in a popular Austin bar where people come to have a drink on any given night. I like the element of surprise for people who weren’t expecting us. The setting alone creates a more relaxed atmosphere for both the patrons and the musicians. The biggest difference for listeners is that it’s a much more accessible space to enjoy classical music. Because of the sight-reading, the demeanor of the musicians is completely different. There is more of an ease about them, as opposed to a very prepared string quartet concert where hours of work have gone into it.
KMFA: Who is encouraged to come?
Everyone is welcome to read, or anyone who is curious about classical music but hasn’t made the step to buy an opera and symphony ticket. Austin’s live music scene seems separate from the classical music scene. This is a step in making that connection and letting classical music step up into popular Austin culture.