Growing up in Kinderhook, NY, I started taking private flute lessons in 3rd grade and participated in my school’s band program from 5th through 12th grade. My school district had a wonderful music department but we did not have a strings program. My first experience playing with strings occurred at summer music camp when I was 15 years old. The piece we played was an arrangement of Hornpipe from Handel’s Water Music. Playing with strings for the first time was the most moving and exciting experience of my life up to that point. My mom remembers that I called her (from the pay phone) one night and told her, “Mom, it is SO COOL to play with strings!”
I was determined to play in another orchestra after the camp ended, so I was absolutely thrilled to be accepted into the Empire State Youth Orchestra program where I spent every Tuesday night for the next three years playing orchestral music with other passionate teenagers from around the region. My favorite youth orchestra memory is when we performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 at Tanglewood. I also spent two amazing summers at the New York State Summer School of the Arts: School of Orchestral Studies in Saratoga Springs, NY. My favorite memory from that program was performing Respighi’s Pines of Rome at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). Throughout my high school years, my parents took me to summer concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and occasional concerts by the Albany Symphony Orchestra. I am so thankful to my parents for making it possible for me to have these incredible musical experiences.
After high school, I attended the University of Maryland – College Park to pursue a major in flute performance, with my eyes set on a career as a professional orchestral flutist. Of course, for a young musician who has been given every opportunity to shine, both musically and academically, throughout high school, becoming part of a large university’s music school can be quite eye-opening and humbling! Translation: you are not the best, you have to practice more hours than you ever have before, and you do not receive nearly as much praise as you did in high school!
Well, I worked hard and my playing definitely improved, but I am certain that the next turn of events came at just the right time in my journey. A couple of my best friends decided to form a student-run chamber orchestra because they wanted to play more orchestral music outside of our course requirements. I played principal flute in the ensemble, and I also helped with publicity, renting music, and setting up for rehearsals. Back in our dorm rooms, while my friends would stay up for hours talking about what music they wanted to play, I found myself more interested in pondering things like: How could we fill every seat in the university chapel with people who needed to hear this incredible music? How many programs should we print? Could we ask for donations at the door? I had discovered the field of arts administration, and I was pretty fired up about it!
While finishing my flute performance degree, I also took some business electives and arranged an independent-study internship in the concert management office of the music school. I was hired for summer administrative positions at the Marlboro Music Festival and the Tanglewood Music Center, where I encountered some of the finest young musicians I had ever heard. The festival participants were my own age, absolutely incredible players who were laser-focused, and many of them have since gone on to have major careers in the classical music world. I took pride in doing “behind the scenes” work that allowed the musicians to focus solely on rehearsing and performing. I discovered a role in which I was confident and comfortable, and I got to hear amazing music every single day. After completing an orchestra management seminar offered by the League of American Orchestras, I was accepted into the arts administration graduate program at Florida State University. I completed an internship at the Schwarz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University (Atlanta) and received my master’s degree in arts administration from FSU in 2005.
I moved to Wisconsin in 2005 to join the staff of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) as Operations Coordinator where I handled scheduling and logistics for the various ensembles. Then in 2008, I was thrilled to be invited to join the staff of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, first as a development associate, and later transitioning into my current role as Director of Development. My role is to oversee all of our fundraising and donor relations efforts, including annual and planned giving from individuals, as well as institutional grants and sponsorships. On a more personal note, I live on the east side of Madison with my husband and two children, and I still play my flute for pleasure.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra is fortunate to have an incredibly devoted base of patrons, donors and volunteers, an orchestra who loves to play music, a gifted music director and artistic staff, a talented and hardworking administrative staff, and an incredible concert hall. Every Madison Symphony Orchestra performance is a gift of music to our community. Knowing that I play a role in making them happen is incredibly gratifying! I can’t wait until we can all come together again, turn off our electronic devices, and settle in for the most satisfying two hours we’ve had in a long time.
Thank you for taking the time to read my Symphony story!
—Casey Oelkers, Director of Development