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Talking to Beth Breslin-Kiefer, Section Violist for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Apr. 25, 2023 at 1:20PM

How do you get to play at Carnegie Hall? Ironically, you would take the same route as you would to play viola with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO). Practice. No one knows the truth of that more than Beth Breslin-Kiefer, a section violist with MSO. Breslin-Kiefer and I sat down on a rainy January afternoon to discuss her life trajectory as a violist and professional classical musician and how she landed here in Milwaukee. At the heart of it all is a love of music and practice. Lots and lots of practice.

“People don’t realize it’s like a real job,” Breslin-Kiefer said of her life as an orchestral musician. “Or they think that must be so fun to do what you love for a living. Yes, but it’s also what makes it hard, like anything. It’s a job. People who play music aren’t the only people who get paid to do something that they love, hopefully. Or who have bad days at the office.”

Breslin-Kiefer grew up outside Princeton, NJ as an only child to middle-class parents. She started playing violin when she was six years old and switched to viola—bigger than a violin but way smaller than a cello—when she was nine.

“When I was in grade school, they came around and asked if anybody wanted to start learning an instrument,” Breslin-Kiefer recalled. “And I kind of wanted to play the cello, but I was pretty small, and the cello was kind of large, so they thought I’d be better suited for a violin.” 

The private schools that Breslin-Kieffer attended as a kid had students who were more academically motivated than she admits to being. “The older I got,”  Breslin-Kiefer said, “the less I cared, and the less I applied myself [academically]. But I went to a chamber music camp called Greenwood. It’s in Massachusetts. It was really inspiring, and I really liked chamber music. And I really liked stringed orchestra.”

And so, it was all set in motion. A girl who didn’t like math class found out that she could keep 3/4 time in music. (Think Strauss.) 

But from the start, the schedule and lifestyle were rigorous. Her parents drove her from their home near Princeton to New York City—almost a two-hour drive one-way—once on Friday nights and again Saturday mornings for lessons in chamber music, music theory, string orchestra, and private lessons. Breslin-Kiefer admits music came pretty naturally to her.

“I didn’t go to Julliard pre-college, where a lot of people were really serious," Breslin-Kiefer said. “I had a good education but more laid-back. Less pressure. I didn’t know many people who were super musically ambitious, so it was easy for me to feel like I was probably better than I was. But it was also nice because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. It was just a good environment to learn and enjoy.”

After high school, she got her college education at Oberlin College in Ohio, a liberal arts school and conservatory and her master’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music. It was while in Ohio that she started going to hear the Cleveland Orchestra, her first taste of orchestral music performed by professional musicians.

“I was just learning a lot and experiencing more forms of music making. It steered me towards considering orchestra as a career. I didn’t know what that was because I didn’t know any orchestral musicians then. When I went to grad school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I became way more immersed in what life would be like as an orchestral musician because my school was down the street from where the Cleveland Orchestra played,” Breslin-Kiefer said. “I got to go to concerts every week, and I got to observe rehearsals.”

The whole process of becoming a professional orchestral musician is a competitive and stressful path. There may be 50 to 100 musicians who audition for one position. Then the top two or three musicians are asked to audition again for a single position, and a final player is selected; the best of the best. One of the experiences Breslin-Kiefer says probably prepared her the most for life as an orchestral musician was her time at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida, a three-year pre-professional orchestra fellowship that teaches young musicians how to practice, perform, audition, and work in the professional orchestral world.

“It was just a really great experience being immersed in the orchestral life. They’ll have coaches come down who give master classes and lessons. That was invaluable, as was being around an entire orchestra filled with young, driven, ambitious, talented musicians. I grew a lot there. I’m not sure I would be where I am today without that experience,” Breslin-Kiefer said.

After finishing her fellowship, Breslin-Kiefer auditioned for and was hired by the San Antonio Symphony, now the San Antonio Philharmonic after filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2022. The pandemic was not kind to the performing arts.

After playing there for a little over a year, she auditioned for a spot here in Milwaukee. When she auditioned for the MSO, Breslin-Kiefer said that another violist was actually offered the position, but they liked her enough that they found the money to hire her as well. That scenario may be common in corporate America, where money comes easy, but it is not at all common in the funding-starved performing arts.

Breslin-Kiefer says that most people are surprised to hear that playing for a symphony orchestra isn’t the quintessential perfect job, even though she says it’s pretty amazing most of the time. Her performance and MSO rehearsal schedule keep her busy, and when she’s not performing or rehearsing, she is doing what all good musicians must do: practicing.

“Logistically, we have four or five rehearsals for a subscription concert. We have two or three performances that week. And if we’re not doing a subscription performance, we might have a Pops and an education concert in the same week. Usually, it’s eight or nine services playing together. And a service is either a rehearsal or a performance. A lot of people think it’s not that much because you’re together on stage for only 20 or 24 hours a week. But there’s a lot of time at home that you’re dedicating to practicing and just maintaining your skills,” she explained. “Being a professional musician is a lot more of a time commitment than some people think.”

MSO has undergone many changes in the last few years, from figuring out how to keep the music playing through a pandemic to bringing on a dynamic new music director in Ken-David Masur.  “He came at an interesting time because we had the pandemic. His first season started in September of 2019, and the pandemic hit a few months later. So it was a weird time to take over as a music director of an orchestra,” Breslin-Kiefer said. Around this time, the MSO began bringing in new talent and performing lesser-known works, other than the Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart, that paying audiences want to hear. She gives Masur much credit for coordinating this movement to make MSO’s repertoire more diverse and inclusive yet still engaging.

“How do you balance new music or music by under-represented artists? Women. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Balancing that with music that’s familiar and that people want to hear. But especially during the pandemic, and with the Black Lives Matter Movement, and a kind of focus on social justice, that was something that a lot more orchestras started to take a look at. Not the dead, white guy canon that a lot of symphony orchestras are known for,” Breslin-Kiefer said.

“This whole movement,” she continued, “definitely had an impact on the arts as well. Art and music are often reflections of the goings-on in society. People feel strongly about representation. So, it’s not just composers. It’s also taking a look at who have we been seeing on the stage. Who have we been asking to be guest artists? Our guest conductors and substitute musicians. What can we do to help under-represented groups find more opportunities? And not just in a white savior kind of way, but meaningfully. And not in an affirmative action way. More like, okay, what are the barriers that are reasons why people might not have as many opportunities? And is there anything that we can do?”

I asked her about the music she most likes to play and some of the musicians she has met in her career, which include icons like Harry Connick, Jr. and Yo-Yo Ma. As for Yo-Yo Ma, she said, “Well, he is naturally the best human on the planet, and he’s also such a gifted person. But he has to practice like everybody else. He has to put in the work. I think that he’s had to overcome hardships with physical injuries from the amount of playing that he’s done in his lifetime.”

Many people don’t realize the physicality of being a professional musician. Orchestral musicians suffer from tendonitis, back and shoulder pain, carpal tunnel, and other physical ailments acquired from their rigorous performance and practice routines. Many musicians must learn to adjust how they hold their instruments because of pain and strain. Wind and brass players might have to change their embouchure—how they position the instrument against their lips—because of injuries or over-use.

“It is very physical being a musician, and there is a high risk for repetitive injury,” Breslin-Kiefer explained. “I would say especially for string players because if you’re playing professionally, you’re playing every piece during a concert, whereas winds and brass might have one piece off. The melodies might be in the winds and brass, but the strings are always doing something.”

As for the music and composers she enjoys most, she explained there really isn’t anything she dislikes performing, from the old masters such as Mozart, to contemporary classical such as Copeland to the Pops concerts that MSO and other orchestras perform to capture the attention and dollars of new and younger audiences.

“Beethoven was a master of quartet writing, and I love playing his quartets, especially his middle and late quartets. Brahms also had a lot of amazing chamber music. I really like Copeland; I like the open, kind of earthy sound. The folksy. In the past, I’ve enjoyed Shostakovich because his style and composition has a lot of expression and angst.”

As for Wagner, she said, “I like Wagner. He was an asshole, but the music was pretty good. (Laughs) And I mean some music is harder. You know, Strauss was known for writing really difficult, physically involved music. Some people think Mozart is the hardest because it’s so pristine. If anything is slightly not together or impeccable, it’s very obvious.”


I told her that I often put musicians of her stature on a perfection pedestal, believing that they never erroneously hit an E instead of an E-flat. She laughed. “I mean, I’m lucky that I play in a section, so if I make a mistake, it’s usually not heard in the audience. Our principal players, who are all fantastic, probably also make some mistakes. When you’re at this level where everybody is so studied and has so much experience, the mistakes that people make are pretty minor,” she said. “It might not be noticeable to most people unless you’re a professional musician. I’m sure what some people consider to be a mistake is nuanced and not anything incorrect. But you know, we’re all human, and nobody’s perfect in anything.”

As for what the future brings for Breslin-Kiefer, she and her husband, who recently married in 2022, are very settled here in Milwaukee. New family. New house. The perfect cat and dog. She shared, “Yes. I’m very settled here. I love the city. I love the people. My husband and I live here, and we have a fantastic house. And his family lives here. I love the orchestra, so yeah. It’s a great place to feel settled.”

While that is all quite exciting, she couldn’t wait to show me her new, old viola.

“I got it recently. It’s an Italian instrument made by a maker called Rodolfo Fredi. It was made in 1908. I’ve never owned an old instrument before. It’s very pretty in how it sounds and how it looks. All instruments are different. I had been playing a modern instrument that was really great, but sometimes was a little bit too ‘bright.’ This has a more mature and dark sound to it,” she explained.

She picked up the century-old viola, and I was treated to a private mini-concert. She warmed up by playing a series of scales, and then she broke into a classical piece, if I had to guess something Bach, with no score or written music in front of her. She just played it from memory. I’ve heard her play on numerous occasions as part of a full orchestra but never solo. Never just for me and me alone. It was divine.

I’m not sure if Breslin-Kiefer has ever played in Carnegie Hall. That’s one question I didn’t ask her. For now, she seems content to be here in Milwaukee playing beautiful and dynamic music with MSO. And Milwaukee and MSO are definitely better off for having her here.

About the author

Joette Rockow

Joette is a Senior Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee where she teaches advertising, public relations, and common sense. She is a writer, musician, Taoist, animal lover, and enjoys a good hike, a cold beer, and a belly laugh with friends.