Weekend Profile: A Champion Cellist Helps Celebrate the Arts

April 18, 2009
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kylechampionLa Verne resident and globetrotting cellist Kyle Champion has played a lot of venues – Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt, Mexico City – but on Saturday, May 2, he and his bello cello will perform at the Celebration of the Arts hosted by the Church of the Brethren, in downtown La Verne. Don’t miss this free performance.

As for Champion’s musical selection, it’s still a secret. “I’m not going to play some big heavy sonata or something so contemporary that would be scratch-on-the-blackboard kind of music,” Champion teased. “It may be some flashy, showy kind of piece to demonstrate the cello and to entertain people.”

Champion has been entertaining people a long time. He started playing at age 8 for his elementary school orchestra in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His choice of the cello was mostly by default. “It sounds silly now, but I didn’t want to stick anything in my mouth,” Champion recalled, referring to the spit-soaked valves his brass-playing classmates had to deal with. “That was one reason. The other was there happened to be a cello in the family. Both my mom and aunt had played.”

When it was college-decision time, Champion again chose his cello, this time over a career in medicine. “I don’t know that my parents were thrilled,” Champion admitted. “I thought I’ve spent a lot of time behind the cello, why I would I leave that and go into something totally different. Knowing his talent, his honor orchestra director and private teacher applauded his decision.

After a year at the University of New Mexico, where he majored in musical education, he received a full ride to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he was the principal cellist of the school’s orchestra. There he quickly fell into a budding professional musician’s routine: wake up, practice, eat breakfast, practice, go to class, practice, go to lunch, practice … In class, he studied music history, music theory, ear training, “all things to build your musical skills and become a well-rounded musician,” Champion added. “You work hard practicing to learn the skills. You keep adding on. It’s like layers of onions, you put the layers back on, instead of taking them off. There’s always more to learn.”

As part of his learning process, he was fortunate to study with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist and experience first-hand the professional musician’s lifestyle. Part of that lifestyle often includes organizing recital series and other performances outside the symphony’s constraints.

“Because musicians are creative, they want to do something on their own, not always under the direction of the conductor,” Champion explained. “Perhaps they want to perform a Beethoven sonata, a Brahms sonata, a Bach suite, or do chamber music with their colleagues. It keeps your chops up. You’re honing your skills in a different way, and it gets your creative juices flowing because you’re not being told how to play.”

Regular gigs and freelance gigs: “I thought this sounds like a great life. The symphony was the bread and butter, and the other was the gravy, you see.”

After graduation, Champion saw his way to the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra, where he would play for nine years. He also looked up from his musical notes long enough to court the symphony’s education coordinator whose responsibilities included everything from making hotel arrangements, in her position as operations assistant, to ensuring the pianos were there and in tune. Two years later, Kyle and Elizabeth married — a harmonious union of the performer and the arts management graduate from Northern Arizona University.

“We had both sides of the coin covered,” Champion said. That was until the orchestra went out on strike for the entire season over higher pay and benefits that had been weighed down by the savings and loan crisis and the recession in the oil patch states. Clearly knowing the musical score, they moved to Southern California, which wasn’t foreign soil for either Kyle or Elizabeth. In fact, Kyle was born in Pomona, when his father was in the Navy, and his mother Barbara had grown up on the 10-acre Hartshorn Ranch in La Verne, where Fruit and Bowdoin streets are today. Kyle soon enrolled in the Master’s program at the University of Southern California, while teaching and accepting freelance assignments, and Elizabeth was hired as the public relations manager for Cal State Fullerton’s School of the Arts.

The couple moved to La Verne in 1994, with their two sons David and Brian, and they’ve been adding to their musical repertoire ever since. Locally, Kyle has accompanied the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and played in the pit at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He is a member of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, an instructor at Redlands University, and a private teacher to approximately 25 to 30 students of all ages, abilities and interests, from young students waving their first bow across the strings to adults his age, who have the “time, energy and means” to pursue an interest they felt they had put off far too long. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is managing public relations and concert production for Pomona College’s School of Music, and is also a member of the Celebration of the Arts committee in La Verne. The two sides of the musical coin are clearly in balance again.

The thoughts of doctoring are now faint memories for Kyle. Three times he has toured Europe professionally at the same musical outposts made famous by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. Here at home, depending on the season, he could be playing a wedding at the Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel or Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.

“It really varies week to week and month to month, and that’s the joy of what I do,” Champion said. What rarely changes are the standards to which he holds himself. He practices a minimum of four hours a day. His highly trained ear can detect the faintest dissonance. Like a Mstislav Rostopovich or Yo-Yo Ma, he aims for perfection, but knows to err is human.

“There are nights when you walk off that stage and you’re 10 feet tall,” Champion said. “Your adrenaline is pumping, and you’re excited and you’re happy, and can’t go to sleep for hours because you’re thinking about much fun it is. And there are nights when you can’t wait to get off the stage.

“It happens. We’re human beings, too, and even at the skill level we exhibit, we have our good nights and our bad nights.”

A recent good night for the Champions came not in the usual orchestra pit, but at their son David’s December 2008 graduation from the University of San Francisco. This August, David will be a member of the U.S. Army’s military intelligence team, a career reversal from his Bonita Jazz Band and garage band days in La Verne. Meanwhile, Brian, a Bonita sophomore who played both the clarinet and violin, is now mesmerized by soccer, science and math. There’s no shortage of music in the Champion household, even with these recent defections. Elizabeth sings with the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, where they are members.

“And Brian is always singing around the house,” Champion added. “Music is just part of our lives.”

Then there are the students who come daily to his home for lessons, filling the home with even more music. “I always tell my students, when they’re starting out, ‘You show up early. You show up with a good attitude. You show up prepared. You do the best while you’re there … and always be friendly to the people around you.”

No one is a better living example of that creed than Champion who will be graciously giving of his time and art at the Celebration of the Arts on May 2.

For more information about this year’s Celebration of the Arts, visit www.arts-laverne.org or call Patti Ratigan at (909) 593-1364. Otherwise, mark the dates, May 2-3, and the place: The La Verne Church of the Brethren, 2425 E Street in downtown La Verne.

Also, please see accompanying sidebar on “Audition,” which offers, courtesy of Kyle Champion, a fascinating glimpse into the grueling and courageous audition process.

One Response to “Weekend Profile: A Champion Cellist Helps Celebrate the Arts”

  1. Wow!! Who knew you were so well traveled and well rounded? Impressive indeed!! Looking forward to this year’s Celebration of the Arts! Bravo!

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