Each fall CazMatters likes to profile a Caz family member. This year we thought of Danielle DiDonato, our Piano Faculty for the past two summers. Danielle has been with Caz for the last 5 summers and has always been a standout camp staff member and musician. Our Registration Manager, Emily Brockman spoke to Danielle about her life, attending San Francisco State University, and all things Caz!
Hi Danielle, How is your fall going so far?
School started at the end of August. I’m majoring in music, so my degree will be a Bachelor’s in music and piano performance. I take all the general education classes that are required for all students as well as the core music classes like music theory, and ear training. Because my degree is in performance I don’t have to take education classes so I’m taking conducting and accompanying, among many others. I’m here with a scholarship so I have a required number of hours that I need to accompany other performance students. Right now I’m the accompanist for the women’s choir; they meet twice a week and that covers the requirement.
How were you introduced to music?
Oh geez, I started playing piano when my older sister started. She started piano lessons when she was 8 and I was three. She would have her lesson and then I would sit down and do what she was doing, I would just copy her by ear. My piano teacher wouldn’t start with me until I could read music so I didn’t start formal lessons until I was 4. My teacher had given me a book so I could learn to read music. I had the same piano teacher for 14 years. She was Russian, came over from Russia probably 30 years ago. She helped me with my college auditions and applications. I still check in with her sometimes.
When did you make the decision to pursue music more seriously and are you interested in making this a career?
I made the decision as a sophomore in High School. It’s not my parents who are particularly musical; it was a cousin on my dad’s side, Andy Parker, an oboe professor at Iowa University. My sister quit the piano in High School but Andy continued to push me to pursue it as a possible career. For a long time I wanted to be a pastry chef, I’m a really good baker, and my sister works as a professional baker right now. But I have always been involved in music, I’ve been in choir my whole life. After making the decision that I wanted to study music, I had to make a second decision between voice and piano. My High School choir director said I would be ‘stupid if I didn’t continue with music’. So I made the decision my sophomore year and it was that summer that I first came to Caz. Coming back from that place (Cazadero) after my first summer there I just couldn’t imagine my life without music. It’s one thing to be in High School playing and singing but it’s entirely different to be in an environment like Caz where everyone is there with a common goal – music.
I see your first summer at Caz was in our High School Session, 2006. Here is what your instructor that summer wrote in your evaluation, “significantly more advanced, excellent training, excellent sight reader, fast learner, exquisite musicality, much musical potential”. That is a “wow” of an evaluation. Tell us a little about your history with Caz.
That first summer at Caz was my first time at a camp ever, I’d never been to camp before. I did the research, and then got accepted to a camp in Washington state, and to Caz. When looking I knew that I wanted a “camp” experience along with the music. Caz creates something you can’t find anywhere else. The first day I stepped into camp was the first day of the rest of my musical life. Caz paved the way for me to become the musician I am now and for that I will always be grateful.
What is it about Caz that has gotten you so committed summer after summer?
I think I was 3 years as a camper. The last year as a camper, Anita needed extra hands in the kitchen for family camp, so I was on K crew for two weeks. I skipped the whole counselor thing. I applied as a counselor but kept getting hired for other positions. I was a supervisor in the kitchen, then a music instructor and piano assistant. The next year I had a family commitment, I was going to help my sister in the family business on the Sacramento Delta, and had decided not to apply to Caz but then Jonathan called me. They called and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it due to the family commitment, but my family urged me to take the job. After talking to Jonathan and Jim, I was so impressed by their confidence in me that I agreed to come for the first two sessions, and then came back as assistant for the later sessions.
What is so special about Caz?
So many different aspects, every time I think about it or try to explain it to people who haven’t been there…. There’s nothing like playing music with people who want to play music. And you’re surrounded by these trees, they absorb the sound, I mean, it’s an incredible feeling, to be playing in the same grove with these trees that have seen so much, been through the millennia. Music comes alive at Caz in a way that it doesn’t anywhere else. The string instruments sound so much more resonant. Even with the piano, you just hear the tone, entirely differently, and I think it’s partly the natural acoustics. You can just hear the sound everywhere. I’ll be on my deck and I’ll just here these sounds that resonate through the entire forest. It’s magic.
How has your experience influenced the course of your career?
Ah, good question. Whether I liked it or not, Caz had plans for me. I came there as a wide eyed sophomore and right away so many people embraced me and worked to help me continue on this path of excellence. You know, for college I thought I wanted to pursue a performance degree, however, part of my college program is to accompany others. That was something I’d done at Caz so thankfully I had some experience already. Caz introduced me to chamber ensembles…working with a group was something I’d never done before. I loved it! I’m working on a solo performance degree now, but for my masters I’m going to pursue collaborative performance. Caz helped introduce me to this collegiality. Even starting with Tong Cheng, the Piano Faculty at that time. It turns out I’m an exceptional sight reader, Tong saw that and threw me in all these ensembles right away so that was my first introduction to that sort of challenge. I was the camper that got thrown into the big groups, that got to be the harp when it was needed for the orchestra piece. I can play and sing at the same time, I never realized how valuable and unique that was until Caz.
How is being an instructor at Caz in the summer influencing your life?
It’s a huge challenge but it’s working really well for me, instruction for piano, not music education specifically, but piano. I knew I could do it, I’ve never doubted myself around this challenge. I was a little scared and wondered if I “deserved it”, because of numbers and age and stuff like that, but I love teaching. And I know I will continue to teach. I’ve been teaching piano since I was about 15, just not so formally. I still have local students here in San Francisco, in the department. I give lessons to colleagues. And it was a huge challenge and an amazing vote of confidence when Jonathan tracked me down to ask me to step in last summer. Everyone was there to help, I couldn’t have asked for a better first music job. So I tell the kids now “I was a camper here not too long ago so don’t think I don’t know what you guys are getting up to as soon as I leave the room” and there’s always that one kid that thinks they can get away with it anyway.
Are there any special challenges/benefits associated with the piano program?
Something about the Caz piano program that makes it special? Well, all the piano kids get the music before hand. Other kids don’t really know what goes on. I was telling Gerry (Gerry Willis, conductor Middle School Session), the second I get the “OK go” from Caz, I start getting emails from the office, and I start to correspond with parents. There is months of preparation that goes into the piano program. Few pianists are good at sight reading, even professional pianists generally get their music before hand, that’s how it is in the piano realm. It’s really hard for me when kids don’t get their auditions in before the session, they are just not going to get the most out of the program and I hate that. Music selection is a big part of the program. I usually send out one difficult and one easy piece. It’s my own innovation to mix it up, try to send a variety. I also send their music through an on line archive that I’m a member of so that they get it as a PDF file. It’s much easier to change the music that way if they are unhappy with it. I also send them all an introductory email about me and Caz and to let them know that if there is anything that they want I will work with then to make it right. That’s something I’m aware of because I’ve been a camper. I take that experience and try to make things easier for the kids and the campers.
Did you feel the piano program was a little isolating?
Tong did a great job incorporating us and I try to emulate that; I try to get them things to do outside the lab. I have tried to do duets with them like Tong did, but it’s hard matching kids up before you get to see them play. I really wish we could make it clearer that their audition is not for admission to the program, it’s so we can evaluate their level of play. I just want to assign appropriate music, we don’t want that perfect performance, we want the learning level. They often play really wonderfully on the audition but I don’t know how long it’s taken them to get to that point. So I had three or four students who played wonderfully but took longer to get there so matching up duets is really hard. I think about it all the time, how to incorporate other music into the program so that they can have an opportunity to play with the other campers. But I need to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise their solo work. I really want to do themed concerts, I’m trying to figure out how to make that possible. The second I leave Caz, my brain starts thinking about next summer…What am I going to do? Who’ll be back? How am I going to push them further? What worked this summer, what didn’t? I think about it constantly!
Any closing thoughts?
Literally, this has been one of the best experiences that I could ever be involved in and it really was one of those things that just fell my way. Everybody at Caz took me under their wing and it’s been wonderful. I feel so much love and encouragement from the Cazadero family and I know that so many other kids feel that love as well. It’s why they keep coming back, summer after summer. Caz has something special and I believe it is the perfect recipe for musical success – the trees, the staff, the family, the friends, the love, the motivation, and above all the music.