SAN DIEGO — Two months after Karen Sanders started violin lessons, she lost her violin. And when her father replaced it with a guitar, she promptly left it out in the rain.
If these were less than auspicious musical beginnings for a 10-year-old who was more interested in swimming than in music, Sanders can now look back on them with amusement.
At age 22, she is the youngest member of the San Diego Symphony, and, as the orchestra's acting principal viola, she leads a section in which the other players have more experience and seniority.
"When I first came in, every one was hesitant," Sanders said. "They thought I was too young, too inexperienced, although that attitude threw me for a loop, because by then I had played under Leonard Bernstein two summers in a row at Tanglewood, had subbed with several orchestras, and had a (year-long) contract with a chamber orchestra in Detroit."
Sanders exudes confidence and self-assurance equal to her musical prowess. Anyone who thinks of violists as retiring, self-effacing musicians who play second fiddle to the second fiddles needs to encounter the ebullient Sanders. When she first took up the viola, shortly after she had begun her serious violin studies, she noted the violist's stereotype and decided that she could make it work to her advantage.
"When I was in the junior high school orchestra, Dennis Foster, our conductor, asked which one of (the) violin players wanted to be a violist, because he was short violists. I looked over at the three stereotypical, dumpy viola players," said Sanders, doing a wilting imitation of a hunched-over violist, "and knew I could become the principal player and get all the solos. I'm definitely an outgoing person--I had been on stage and did 'A Christmas Carol' with the Rep. I looked at that section and knew I would shine."
Sanders has been shining ever since. A graduate of San Diego's O'Farrell School of Creative and Performing Arts, she attended Boston's New England Conservatory for a year, then transferred to the noted Curtiss School of Music in Philadelphia, from which she graduated two years later. In addition to the musical challenges along the way, Sanders and her mother, a single parent, had other hurdles to clear.
"After her divorce, my mom, who had been a housewife, had to go back to school in order to bring up three children. She supported us kids, especially emotionally, but there was never any money for music lessons. So she was always finding scholarships for my sister and me. In my classes at school, some kids got $50 for every 'A' on their report card, but we just got a pat on the back. Nevertheless, I graduated No. 7 in my class at O'Farrell."
Sanders recounted the time she fainted at a violin lesson. "I hadn't eaten for a couple days, and all of a sudden I blacked out. That day, (my violin teacher) Shigeko Sasaki emptied her bank account and got us something to eat. A musician starving for her music--that sounds very romantic, doesn't it?" Sanders asked with a self-conscious laugh. "My mom cried for days after that incident."
Along with several mentors from O'Farrell School, Sasaki is one of Sanders' idols. "To this day, she is an inspiration to me. When I would come to lessons, I could hear her practicing her symphony parts. She gave me the positive attitude I still have about being a (professional) musician." Now Sasaki, a member of the San Diego Symphony violin section, is Sanders' colleague, a situation that pleases the former student.
If Sanders is aware of her background as a minority student, she is not about to trade on it.
"I have a standing invitation with the Boston Symphony to be part of their sub list," she explained. "They have an affirmative action program. Now there are several things I try to avoid, and affirmative action is one. I hate the labeling of being black and being gifted. You know, I've worked hard--I've lost sleep for my music. I'm not going to get a job because I'm black. I know several people who did that, and they're mediocre players."
Sanders has already proved herself musically to the symphony. Before the season, she was given a contract to play the first five weeks as acting principal viola, but after her performance on the job, Executive Director Wesley Brustad extended the contract for the rest of the current season.
Next month, Sanders participates in the auditions for the orchestra's position of permanent first chair viola. Should she not make that hurdle, she has, as usual, several alternative plans, including pursuing graduate studies at Juilliard with her former teacher from Tanglewood, violist Karen Tuttle. Should she decide to put her viola down, the fit 22-year-old is also a certified aerobic instructor and weight lifter.
Those who have snide comments to make about "dumpy violists" should hold their tongue in Sanders' presence, or be able to deal with the consequences.