UK Symphony Orchestra: A Family Business

Siblings can be a built in best friend, but how about a built in ensemble member? In this Q&A, the Martin Sisters discuss how they grew up playing music together and continued their education at the University of Kentucky where they had the opportunity to play in the UK Symphony Orchestra. Isabelle, Chandler, and Miranda reminisce about their college experience and what it was like to perform together at the Prague Summer Nights Young Artist Music Festival!

Story by Michaela Bowman, Originally published Summer 2019

All three of you are string players, how did you get involved with the instrument? What was it like growing up as musicians? Did you ever want to play a different instrument?

Isabelle: We got involved with music because our mom has always been a supporter of the arts, so we grew up doing lots of arts extracurriculars (we were all dancers for awhile too, and I took a lot of after-school art classes). I started out as a violinist and switched to the cello when I was in middle school. Growing up, I never wanted to focus long enough to practice! When we were really young, our mom would beg us just to practice for fifteen minutes straight, and for a little kid, that was like a lifetime.

Chandler: As Isabelle said, our mom has always had a passion for music. It was actually after she watched the movie Music of the Heart when she was inspired for us to start learning to play the violin. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what a violin was when I started my first lesson at 5 years old! Nonetheless, we all stuck with it and our home was full of music from that moment forward. I think we all wish our mom would have introduced us to piano as well, but we were busy enough with our other activities like ballet and swimming. Being involved in music from a very young age truly impacted who I am today. I am a huge supporter of arts education because I experienced firsthand how music can build confidence, patience, and commitment.

Miranda: I would definitely agree that our early childhood involvement with music has shaped who we are today. I was eight years old when I started playing; Chandler was five, and Isabelle was three. Even if we hadn’t landed in these artistic paths now, though different from each other, it was really starting together at such early ages as a musical family that made it so important to us. Even though we were all involved in a variety of sports and other activities growing up, eventually I made the choice for myself that continuing music was the most important; it was the one that I couldn’t imagine my life without, and Chandler and Isabelle felt the same way. My sisters and I have now been playing for 18 years of our lives. As far as wanting to play other instruments, it’s funny to think about how I was influenced by those around me. In elementary school, there were a lot of flute players, and in middle school I wasn’t feeling challenged in my orchestral group at first, so I thought of playing other instruments in the orchestra. Now, I can’t imagine not being a violinist, it is who I am.

What was it like playing in the UKSO together and spending so much time with your sisters in college? Do you have any favorite memories from your time together?

Isabelle: Like Miranda mentioned, having sister dinners after rehearsal is definitely a favorite memory for me. Chandler is such a good cook that those dinners weren’t just for the three of us. A lot of our friends joined in, and that was really special for me. It often felt like because my friends knew my sisters and hung out with them, they were part of my family, too.

Chandler: The three of us have always been very close, so I was beyond excited when I found out Miranda would be transferring to UK my freshman year. Also, I knew I had at least one built-in friend when leaving for college and that was a huge relief. Miranda and I had so much fun together my freshman year. She still owes me for giving her 50% of my meal swipes! It was exciting when Isabelle decided to attend UK a year later. It felt like our presence as a family at UK was finally complete.We grew up attending performing arts schools and playing in youth orchestras together, so we were pretty used to performing together by the time we entered college. The best part about playing in the UKSO together was all of the amazing memories we got to share. The UKSO truly became our second family, and I still think about how much I loved playing in that orchestra.

Miranda: It was a great experience having all my sisters with me at UK. Because of our age difference, Isabelle and I wouldn’t have ordinarily crossed paths technically, but it made the experience so much better. Isabelle and I even lived together her sophomore year, before I graduated. And in orchestra, Chandler and I were even able to be stand partners on occasion. Chandler is also the chef of the family, and could always be relied on to take care of Isabelle and me for dinner after orchestra rehearsals. My sisters are the most important people in my life, along with our parents, and I can’t imagine not having spent our time together in UKSO.

Did you ever go abroad? If so, please explain your experience.

Isabelle: The summer after my freshman year at UK, we traveled abroad with Maestro Nardolillo to play in the orchestra for Prague Summer Nights. It was the first year of the festival. Participating in PSN with my sisters, playing all of that spectacular music, was so special. It was the first time traveling to Europe for all of us, and it was really wonderful to get to be exposed to some Czech culture together. We learned a lot, I think. And one of my favorite memories happened on the last day of the festival. We were running around trying to get our mom a souvenir before our last performance of Don Giovanni, and she collects houses, so we ran to Old Town Square and got her this beautiful little ceramic house that sits on our dining table at home. Whenever we’re home in Louisville and having dinner, seeing that little house reminds me of that summer and how unforgettable it was.

Chandler: My first time out of the country was as an orchestra member of the Prague Summer Nights Young Artist Music Festival. I couldn’t have been happier that my first international experience was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Throughout the festival, we had the amazing opportunity to perform works by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvořák in renowned music halls. My favorite part of the entire festival was getting to perform in the pit for Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre, the only standing theater where Mozart conducted. It was a spectacular experience full of delicious food, beautiful music and stunning sights.

Miranda: Traveling with my sisters for Prague Summer Nights was an experience I will forever cherish; it’s incredible to think that because we were all involved in music, this wonderful opportunity presented itself. Not only were we immersed in the local culture, we also had the opportunity to travel to Vienna on a day off, we visited Beethoven’s memorial, walked the streets where some of our favorite composers both lived and died, and where they created some of the amazing works of music we treasure today. Had it not been for our involvement in UKSO, this trip would never have occurred, and we wouldn’t have been able to make all of those memories.

Why did you choose UK?

Isabelle: I started out as an architecture major, so it was important for me to be at a school where I could study architecture, but also double-major in music and play in the orchestra. A lot of the universities I applied to wouldn’t allow a student to do both of those majors, because they’re both very demanding, but UK did. And then, of course, I was also excited to go to the same university as my sisters.

Chandler: I knew from my first tour of UK that it was the perfect school for me. Everyone I interacted with was so passionate and welcoming that I felt like I had already become a member of the UK family. I got the chance to sit in on a UKSO rehearsal during one of my visits and I had an absolute blast. The sheer number of musicians on stage was mesmerizing. Like Isabelle, UK was one of the only schools I applied for that allowed me to pursue my pre-med track while studying music. I knew that through this flexibility the school was dedicated to my personal growth and would allow me to follow my passions.

Miranda: As a performance major transfer, UK, to me, was the only place where I could continue those studies while adding an arts administration degree with the degree of flexibility it offers to its students. I would also say knowing that my sister would be attending in the fall had a major impact on my decision. There were vast opportunities to take advantage of at the School of Fine Arts, and I was prepared and excited to experience as much as possible.

Chandler and Miranda, you majored in Arts Administration, while Isabelle, you majored in Art History. Why did you pursue these majors and how were you able to stay connected to your passion for music while you pursue your respective areas of study? How do you think playing a musical instrument will help you in your chosen careers?

Isabelle: I’ve always felt drawn to works of visual art, and I’ve also always really enjoyed writing. Studying art history gives me the opportunity to marry those two interests, as well as equipping me with the skills to understand and interpret art in interdisciplinary ways. Because I remained a music minor, I still played in UKSO and took private lessons, so I still felt very much a part of that world, and that was really important to me because I loved being a member of the orchestra. I really value thinking about the ways the arts intersect and converse with one another, and I think that it’s incredibly enriching to study as many fields of the arts as one can. It makes you a more sensitive person. In Chicago right now I have the opportunity to intern with a nonprofit organization that honors artists of numerous fields–architecture and design, craft, dance, media, music, theatre and performance, traditional arts, visual art, and writing. It’s amazing to be involved with an organization that doesn’t value one arts field over another, but rather acknowledges the unique importance of each of them to our society.

Chandler: I guess you can say I followed in Miranda’s footsteps on this one. I started my freshman year with a Bachelor of Arts in Music with a pre-med track, but started to realize this wasn’t my passion. I heard about the Arts Administration program from Miranda and a few of my friends in the Fine Arts LLP and quickly realized it was the right path for me. I wanted to pursue my passion for the arts without necessarily becoming a professional musician and arts administration was the perfect fit. I chose to pursue a violin performance degree in addition to arts administration at UK to ensure that I could keep making music for as long as possible. I still hold my music background dear to my heart. I use my music background in all of my arts admin endeavors.

Miranda: When I joined Chandler at UK, I had my first advisor meeting with Jane Johnson. I kept talking about my elective options, and was essentially told that I was outlining the arts administration curriculum. Though I wasn’t ready to give up my performance degree, I realized that I was well-suited for a job that wasn’t onstage. I can’t imagine being torn away from the performing arts world and now in my current job, I work towards expanding opportunities for the next generation of orchestral musicians. My background is the reason I am where I am; I find myself constantly referring to myself as an orchestral musician, a participant of youth orchestras, a violinist–these are the reasons why I am in my current career.

What are you doing now?

Isabelle: I’m currently getting my master’s in Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and interning with United States Artists.

Chandler: I am finishing my second year of the dual Arts Administration and MBA program at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, the same program Miranda graduated from. After serving as the Donor Relations Assistant at the Aspen Music Festival and School over the summer, I started a new position as the Development Intern for the CCM Preparatory and Community Engagement department. I will be graduating in the spring and beginning my career in the arts administration field.

Miranda: I am the General Manager at the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras.

Do you still play music together?

Isabelle: We actually haven’t played together in a few years, unfortunately.  

Chandler: I wish we could play music together more. Now that we are all living in different cities, it is challenging to even find time to visit each other! I do hope we can continue to share our passion for music for the rest of our lives, even if we are getting a little rusty at this point.

Miranda: We don’t perform together anymore, but now that I am more settled in my career, I hope to join a community orchestra soon. Working for a performing arts organization makes me miss the days when I could play in an ensemble, especially those with my sisters, like our time at UK.

Do you have any advice for other siblings in the same field?

Isabelle: My advice would be to talk to each other about your work and interests. Even though I spend a lot of time researching and writing, almost all of my internship experience has veered into my sisters’ territory with arts admin, so I’ve frequently gone to them for advice and help. Not only do they try to help and guide me as much as possible, but every time I talk to them, I’m reminded of how brilliant and hardworking they are, which is the coolest thing.

Chandler: Support each other in all of your endeavors. There is no greater support system than your family and they can help through every step of your journey, especially through the difficult decisions and setbacks.

Miranda: Cherish your time spent together. As we are each gaining a foothold in our respective careers, it has taken us physically away from each other, but it is because of our family support that we are confident to pursue our roles within the arts world, no matter where they take us.