Art Work #8: Christy Kim, Classical Flutist

Every time I hang out with Christy Kim, I bombard her with questions about what she does as a classical musician. Her world—intense auditions, constant travel, and high-pressure performances, all of it underscored by this totally lovely, elevating art form—is so fascinating to me. The sad truth of the matter is that a lot of us are a little or a lot removed from classical music, and I guess that explains part of my own fascination. But I think another part of it is that it's an art form that's just so undeniably beautiful. To meet someone dealing with it on a daily basis? That's really cool.

Christy is a classical flute player and a fellow in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. She's played with the Chicago Symphony and the St. Louis Symphony, performed at the Kennedy Center's Conservatory Project, and spent summers at the Aspen Music Festival and Music Academy of the West—among many other performances and residencies. Here, she discusses the highs and lows of a music career, the many paths a classical musician can take, and how she learned discipline (hint: a kinda intense piano teacher). 

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Tell me a little bit about the path that brought you to this point in your life today. When did you first realize you wanted to seriously pursue music? Was there a time when you were like, That’s it, I’m going to be a professional musician? 

I started taking piano lessons at age 5 when I was living in South Korea. I enjoyed playing the piano enough to continue studying it throughout my high school years, but I couldn't really see myself making it a career. My great-aunt was a concert pianist, but my family definitely didn't have plans for me to become a musician. 

My earliest memory in music was around age six. I didn't practice enough and was fumbling around on the keys during a lesson. My teacher got so upset that she threw all my books on the ground and stormed out. I was scared shitless—but I decided to prove that I could do better. My teacher was happier the next week, and took me out to lunch (at a fast food restaurant—such a treat!) as a reward. Kind of intense for a six-year-old, but I think this is where I learned discipline. 

When I was 12, I learned the flute through my elementary school band program. It was such a different experience than practicing alone at the piano. Being in band was an easy way to make friends—although I really enjoyed playing, my motives were mostly social. The first time I wanted to become a professional musician was at age 16 when I discovered Gustav Mahler's music. His symphonies opened up an entirely new world for me. I remember listening to them over and over again (especially Symphony No. 5) , in awe of the landscape of emotions they made me feel. It seemed like each work was a universe within itself, ranging from pain, wrath, and sorrow to intimacy, childlike jubilance, and salvation. I became serious about dedicating my time to be a part of this music, to learn the language and express myself through the works of great composers before me. 

My guess is that most people who aren’t classical musicians (myself included) really don’t know much about how your world works! So can you summarize it for me? Is there a standard career track for classical musicians post-college? Do most of you go to grad school? And the end goal: a seat in an orchestra? 

Most people do go on to graduate school. There are a number of paths a musician can go post-grad school: orchestral, chamber, new music (living composers), Military bands, freelance, education, and any combination of the above. Musicians in their twenties usually freelance and teach while taking auditions. Others continue applying to schools for a specific teacher or to buy time. I've done both!

I would say many people do vie for an orchestral chair. Because conservatories and universities are pumping out way more musicians than there are available jobs, the competition to win an orchestra job is intense. After the resume round for a flute audition, anywhere from 40-100+ people will show up. Some people win an audition right out of undergrad, and some people land their big job in their 40s. 

What is an average day in the life like for you? How do you balance practicing with learning new music, traveling, auditions, etc.? 

It varies day to day, but usually I have rehearsals in the evenings while mornings are free. Weekends are also kind of non-existent because that's when we work. I spend most of my day practicing for auditions, rehearsals, and concerts. This includes physically playing my instrument, then all the other stuff—listening to music, score studying, and meditating/trying not to freak out. Learning new orchestral repertoire is a lengthy process for me and usually takes about 1-2 weeks. I listen to a work multiple times without the music, then listen to it more with a score, then start practicing at a slow tempo until I can play my part any way a conductor might want. I've also found I need some regular exercise and good friends to keep sane! 

Do you feel like you’ve reached a place in your career where you can pause to take a breath, or are you still on that constant hustle?

I'm still hustling! Financially, I'm not where I need to be. Taking auditions nationwide is ridiculously expensive. When I was living in California, East coast auditions cost me almost a grand each. It's a little disheartening to spend hard-earned freelance money on auditions, but it's an investment. Winning an orchestral seat or getting a teaching job are two of the most secure ways to earn a salary, so I think I'll always feel like I'm hustling until that happens. Artistically, I constantly have to remind myself to be patient. Being a musician is a lifelong learning process. Having this mindset has helped me be kinder to myself and keep nourishing my love for music. 

Do you find that your music is an extension of your life or are the two quite separate? What would you do if you weren’t playing music?

Ten years ago, I dove head first into this world. I feel fortunate to have met great friends, mentors, and come across wonderful opportunities for travel. I'm surrounded by talented colleagues and learn a great deal from knowing them and playing with them. Through this lens, music is absolutely an extension of my life—these  experiences have shaped who I've become, and the art humbles and inspires me every day. 

Apart from the above, this is a difficult question, as I'm constantly in flux of how I'm feeling about my career. When the gigs are coming in, I'm receiving positive feedback from conductors, and performing at a high level, I feel like I'm finding my voice in the world and am encouraged to keep pushing through.         

But other days aren't as gratifying. While I love music, I wonder if it's getting in the way of other things I love to do. I like being outdoors, cooking and eating, being social—and continuing to find things that interest me! I often have to remind myself that life is more than perfecting a 30-second excerpt. Sometimes I find myself distraught, have a mini life crisis and wonder what I've gotten myself into. But all of this is forgotten after playing a great piece...I'm still figuring it out! 

Do you have a muse or any sort of spiritual practice? How does that affect your work (or not!)?

The infinite range of emotion evoked from our relationships to self, to one another, to nature, and the human condition in general—both the beautiful and despicable. To explore them in myself and to interpret them through sound. I've also been working on the concept of connecting mind and body and I find yoga and meditating helpful.

How do you pay the bills?

It varies from season to season. This past year, I would say 30% came from my position with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and 70% came from freelance work with professional orchestras. Other years, the percentages have been split between cafe jobs, teaching, and living off savings as a student. 

What’s the hardest thing about the path you’ve chosen? What’s the best thing?

The hardest thing is struggling with my two selves. One tells me that I belong in this career—I love music, I'm doing the work, and damn it, I've got something to say! This self is confident and fearless—it doesn't matter how many years it'll take to get to where I want to be. My other self wallows in self-doubt and stress. This side of me feels burnt out, unsure of what the future holds and if it's worth living at the poverty line. I've gotten pretty good at subduing my self-doubt, but it's definitely something that bubbles to the surface often. 

The best thing is that music has no ceiling. There are and always will be an infinite number of ways you can show expression. 

What do you love most about music? 

In essence, music is a way to connect. It connects people from the past to the present, composer to performer, performer to audience—music breaks down barriers and brings people together. It can also heal, nourish the soul, and inspire! The art form can be both an introspective experience and a collective one that forges bonds within a community.

Thank you, Christy!