Faculty Spotlight: Margaret Batjer

Margaret Batjer, violin faculty and director of the conductorless Music Academy Virtuosi Orchestra, has been at Colburn for five years. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

What brought you to Colburn?
Ory Shihor, the previous dean of the Music Academy, came to me five years ago and asked me to spearhead a conductorless ensemble and teach in the Academy. At the time, I had really not taught a lot of young kids, because I was teaching at USC. I did have a few young ones, and teaching them made me realize what gratifying work it is at that age. The growth that they make and the fundamentals that you can instill into them before sending them to college really excited me, so I said yes and came. That’s how it all started.

What did your career path look like?
I had an unusual path. I went to Curtis in Philadelphia when I was 15, and stayed for seven years. My focus coming out of Curtis as a young professional was really in solo and chamber music. I did that for many, many years and had a very active travel life. Eventually I got married and moved to Los Angeles with my husband, and we had a wonderful life filled with great concerts, great colleagues, and incredibly inspiring collaborations. Once I had a child and the traveling became more difficult, I wanted to find something artistically interesting and rewarding to do here in Los Angeles. At about that time, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra had an opening for a concertmaster. I was very much attracted to the idea, even though I had never been in an orchestra and had never thought of myself as being in an orchestra. So at the age of 40, I kind of took a turn in my career. At the same time that I joined the Chamber Orchestra, I was also asked to join the faculty at USC, so then I began my teaching career. It was a really rewarding and exciting time.

How has your work at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) informed your work with the Academy Virtuosi?
Doing conductorless work is part of LACO’s DNA. Stepping into that role at LACO was very organic. I felt very comfortable in that role because of my experience leading an ensemble in chamber music. It was a bit of an adjustment because there were more people, but I found it really exciting and sort of electric to have that many musicians on the stage without a visual conductor giving the beat. Something happens to the music that is very special—not that we don’t need conductors, we do. That alone excited me in terms of the Virtuosi, because to be able to give the kids that experience at that young age is so unusual. I think most high school kids are playing in some form of orchestra, but not a conductorless ensemble. It’s a fantastic experience for them. They learn to listen in very different ways, and they learn to communicate in different ways.

What has it been like working with Music Academy students at that younger age?
It’s been wonderful. I did not expect to enjoy that age group as much as I have. They’re like sponges and so excited to learn. They grow so much every year, from one semester to the next, and even from the beginning of the semester to the concert at the end of November. It’s very rewarding for me to watch how excited they are to do it, and how much fun they have together.

I think the dynamic of the Academy is very unique and special. The kids spend a lot of time together. Many of them live here on campus, so it has the atmosphere of a conservatory or a boarding school experience. They’re not only spending musical time together, but they’re spending personal time together. They become each other’s families. At that age, you need a lot of nurturing and that’s what I’ve enjoyed: trying to nurture them and make them feel artistically confident and safe in their musical exploration going forward.

What has your overall experience at Colburn been like?
I love it. I love my colleagues here; they’re all incredibly dedicated and inspiring teachers. I think the thing that bonds all of us is seeing how much the kids love this program. It excites us and makes us feel like we’re doing really great work, because they really do seem to love it. I feel very fortunate having colleagues of this level.

What advice do you have for your students?
Be true to yourself as a musician and always be curious. I try to instill in my own private students the obligation as musicians to honor the music that we play. I stress that a lot in my own studio, and I stress it a lot in the ensemble. Music should always be fun and it should always be joyful. But it’s also a serious responsibility, in terms of how students grow. If they’re in it just for themselves, they’re never going to be great musicians. You have to be in it for the right reasons. You have to be passionate about the music you play and curious about the composers that wrote that music.

Of course we all need to develop our fundamental skills like playing in tune and having good technique, but almost all of the kids at the Academy have already gotten to that point. They’re ready to go to the next step. The exciting part of being a musician is being able to look at a score and try different things to really understand the music, not just from your own perspective, but from a larger perspective, while always being respectful of what’s in the score. The more chamber music and the more of this ensemble music that we play, the more it helps them develop these skills, not just in their own solo class.

What are some things you enjoy outside of music?
I don’t have time in my life for hobbies, I wish I did. I love sports. My son was a very successful soccer player, so I’ve sat on a lot of soccer fields in my life. But as a professional musician I have three different professional commitments, and two children and a husband. I miss out on so much of my children’s lives because of my professional life that when I’m on downtime I basically love whatever they’re doing.

When you’re so immersed in one thing in your life, people always say, ‘How could you have done this since you were three years old?’ But being a musician wasn’t what I did, it’s who I am. People say, ‘What’s your job?’ I don’t have a job; I have a career and a passion for music. But I think it is important to take a break. Almost every summer, I take a month off, sometimes two. It’s not that I don’t practice, I do practice. I love practicing—that’s my hobby. I don’t get a lot of practice time during the year because I’m so busy, but I love having time to just practice for me. I learn new pieces, and go back and experience pieces that I haven’t played in a long time. That’s really fun for me, and it rejuvenates my excitement. By the end of the season, I’m very tired and kind of burned out, so it’s important having that time to just explore music that I don’t normally get to do during the year.

The weekly Saturday Spotlight series highlights our outstanding faculty and staff from across the school. Read other spotlight interviews.