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studio visits with musicians

by Ellen Cockerham

Kimberly Sparr

Lloyd and Nanette started barking the moment my finger touched the doorbell of the Sparr residence.  “Our house is sort of like an artists' colony/dog house,” explained Kim, who is the Assistant Principal Violist of the Richmond Symphony.  Her husband, D.J., is a composer.  He works on his upcoming opera, The Tao of Muhammad Ali (premiering June of 2013 at the Kennedy Center), in his first floor studio, while Kim practices viola upstairs.  They are both very serious about their work--D.J. doesn't even like to have recorded music playing in the house so that his mind can be a blank stave--yet you would be hard-pressed to find a more down-to-earth pair.

The more Kim told me about her current projects, the more I marveled at her laid-back manner.  She prepares thoroughly for upcoming concerts, but what struck me was that her dedication to the viola seems to be tied to something higher.  She thinks of herself as an ambassador of the viola, and takes that title very seriously; she says she wants to show people that the viola is the best voice, “the cream in the Oreo cookie”.  Kim and D.J. are so excited and unapologetic about their work, it's impossible not to leave feeling inspired and hopeful about classical music. 

How do you think of classical musicians?  Do you think of yourself as an artist?

Absolutely.  I bring life to composition—the notes on the page are just the start.  My craft requires presenting a piece of music clearly.  This is achieved by combining skill with interpretation.  I think that a technical foundation is essential for a successful performance.  My goal is always to perform at the highest level.

I feel like a true artist when my viola is sounding as my “voice” and I am portraying the music as convincingly as possible.  I infuse colors, styles, and sonorities to create phrases and impressions.  This shaping of the music translates to sound that creates mood and character. 

When you are in need of inspiration, what do you read/do/look at/listen to?

I find that I keep my inspiration alive by doing.  I practice a lot, and I've been playing a lot of chamber music recently, which gives me fuel.  I'm always online, looking for new recordings; I listen to a lot of different violists.  That said, I find it very inspiring to be in nature, in quiet.  I like to recharge by walking or running outside.

What does it mean to you to have a physical space to do your work?  How do you make your space work for you?

I have to have everything in order before I can focus.  Having a clean, quiet space is important to me.  I like being on the second floor; when I open the blinds and look outside, it looks like I'm in a tree-house.  I like that aspect of it. 

People might see me slipping into my chair five minutes before the downbeat, but that's because I am crazy about  warming up thoroughly at home.  That space is where I can work my best, uninterrupted.  I will literally warm up at home until the last possible second, throw on my concert clothes, grab a banana and go. 


Would you say that you have a particular “niche” in the music world?  In other words, do you have a passion within your passion?

I really do love symphonic music.  I love being inside that sound.  The fact that so many people are working towards the same thing—a color, a phrase—is really exciting.

Who do you greatly admire in the music world?

I admire James Dunham a lot, not only because he is such versatile musician, but because he has such a nice way with people—he's very personable.  If I had to pick someone that I would want to be like, it would be him.  He has taught at all of these great music schools, he's on the faculty at Aspen, he was in the Cleveland Quartet, and he's a nice guy.

I must also mention my stand partner, Molly Sharp.  When you have to sit by the same person every day at work, it is such a blessing to have someone who is both a great person and a great player.  Molly is so consistent, and she's a remarkable person.  I couldn't ask for anything more in a stand partner.

And, of course, my husband!  D.J. is a huge musical inspiration to me. 


What piece of advice has influenced you greatly?

I heard a quote the other day by Thomas Jefferson.  “He who lights his candle at mine, receives light without darkening me.”  This applies to life, not just music, but it is very appropriate for music. 


Do you have a practice ritual?  Describe your ideal practice session, and then maybe what actually ends up happening.

Ideally, I would practice in two two-hour chunks separated by a run.  The first hour would be spent on fundamentals: scales, arpeggios, etudes.  I do a lot of fundamental work; even if I can't spend a whole hour on it, I still do it every day. 


What are your biggest challenges/obstacles in your work, and how have you dealt with them?

Staying physically healthy is a challenge.  You have to have a healthy body and a healthy mind.  This past summer, when I was playing a lot of chamber and symphonic music at the Colorado Music Festival and the Lake George Music Festival, was the first time I've actually had to deal with a playing injury—I hurt my wrist.  I'm trying to make sure that doesn't happen again.  The hardest thing for me is to pull myself away from my work and find the time to just let go.

Is there anything that you're working on right now that you are excited about?

Yes!  But I can't talk about it yet...stay tuned to!

What do you do for “cross-training”, something that provides a mental/physical balance for your work as a musician?

Pilates, exploring the city, walking the dogs, running, yoga, hiking.

What do you want your work as a musician to do?

I want to make people feel human.  I want to make them feel connections, not necessarily with me, but with each other.  Music can portray emotions and moods.  I've never experienced anything else that can make you cry or laugh, yet is so intangible.  It's just sounds.

What is coming up next for you?

I'm performing Daugherty's Diamond in the Rough, a Mozart Flute Quartet, a movement from the Beethoven septet, and a piece called Steampunk with the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble this coming weekend (Saturday/Sunday, Oct. 20/21).

photo credit: Brandon Simmons

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